2016 Nissan Leaf brief impressions

23 April 2016

I've been recommending the Nissan Leaf for many years as a practical, efficient EV to anyone who would listen. In many ways it's superior to something like a Tesla Model S since the Leaf can meet the daily driving needs of a majority of commuters and shoppers while using fewer resources, less energy and fewer dollars to get the job done. But I hadn't actually had a chance to drive one until today. I'm glad we did.

We stopped by Nissan Sunnyvale and Product Specialist Cory Furse very kindly let us take one for a test drive even though we made it clear that we weren't currently in the market for a car. We simply wanted to get to know the Leaf a little better, while continuing to recommend it to friends. I believe the model we drove was an SV with the new larger battery pack and 107 mile range, but the S model with the smaller pack and 84 mile range would probably have done just fine and drive similarly. The model also had a Bose sound system and CHAdeMO quick charge port, the latter about a $2k option. Total price was a bit over $30k before tax credits and state EV rebates. Cory mentioned that Nissan Sunnyvale is one of the largest sellers of Leafs in the state, if I remember correctly.

We did a few mile loop of city streets and highway, and the Leaf did just about everything right for me. TBH I was not expecting that, since so many cars are disappointments in various ways. Steering feel was very good, responsive and slightly firm; a bit more more European in character than Japanese. Steering communicated pretty clearly what was happening at the tire and road interface, though not as directly as a more sporty-intended car. Suspension tuning was responsive and slightly firm. The brakes were a bit overboosted, which is unfortunately somewhat common on Japanese cars. Brake feel was a little strange, perhaps due to initial regenerative braking then transitioning into overboosted friction brakes. Overall brake feel was firm, but slightly vague. I have similar impressions of braking in early generations of Prius.

Leaf was very quiet and very smooth, as is common to EVs. It occasionally felt a little heavy, which is also common to EVs since the battery packs are relatively massive. Sightlines, seats, interior space, controls, were very good. Cory was over 6 feet tall, and he had lots of legroom and at least a couple inches of extra headroom in the back seat. Comfort in the front seats for our brief drive was very good.

Acceleration was pretty brisk at low speeds but a bit lacking at highway speeds. This is understandable since synchronous AC motors have 100% torque at low to medium speeds but torque tapers down as the RPMs rise above mid-range. The same thing happens in Telsas or really any EV using an AC induction motor. It's just part of how they work. The 100% torque at low RPM is a lot of fun and highly useful, however, in city driving. The Leaf motor is rated at 80 kW, but our 50 kW RAV4 EV feels like it has a bit more highway acceleration. That could be a misperception due to the RAV4's softer suspension pitching up more during acceleration though. Also note that Leaf has several energy modes and power tuning parameters that we did not check or adjust, and we didn't know exactly what modes it was in when we were driving it. Hopefully they were all defaults, but we didn't confirm that. It's quite possible that we were in energy saving modes that reduce power to increase range. If so, that would be a good tradeoff for oveerall energy efficiency.

We really did not drive the Leaf hard at all aside from some full power acceleration, so we don't have a great understanding of how its chassis really responds, but everything in somewhat normal driving felt really good. It was highly competently tuned for road use, and I say that not just because my cousin Chris tuned the driving characteristics of the Nissan Versa, which the Leaf is based on, while he was at Nissan. Also don't know if he worked on Leaf, but there may be some "family resemblance" in the tuning of both cars. Or not. (In contrast I test drove a Tesla P85 at about 60% of its cornering capacity on a highway cloverleaf and got a very good sense of its suspension tuning, which was excellent in a hard, steady-state turn. To be fair, Telsas are more intended as performance cars, while the Leaf is much more of a commuter car.)

Two things that Nissan got glaringly correct in the Leaf are putting regenerative braking on the brake pedal where it belongs, and letting the Leaf coast when off throttle. Both are critical to maximize energy efficiency, since regen always should be avoided whenever slowing down isn't actually needed, such as when coming to a stop, intersection, off-ramp or slower traffic. The reason why is that regen always incurs losses that coasting doesn't. Coasting is always more efficient than regen if slowing isn't needed. (Regen can not be 100% efficient, or we would have perpetual motion machines that never needed charging.) Regen is better than friction braking, and ideally both should be smoothly and imperceptibly blended together on the brake pedal so that maximum regen happens early in the brake pedal application before friction brakes smoothly blend in. Leaf mostly meets this. There is also a major ergonomic error in putting regen on the throttle as Tesla, BMW and some others ignorantly do, in that lifting abruptly off the throttle (and into heavy braking) can upset the chassis in emergency situations and lead to trailing throttle oversteer which can potentially lead to loss of control. These are pet peeves of mine as an car enthusiast, experienced EV driver and occasional racer. It's a sign of sophistication, appropriate application of human factors engineering, and understanding of energy efficiency that Nissan got these right.

Based on our brief drive, I would definitely recommend a Leaf to anyone who drives fewer than 100 miles a day. In principle longer trips are possible for Leafs that have the fast charging option. But even without fast charging, Leaf is highly-useful for the commuting, shopping, and dining out that most of us do on a daily basis. We plug in at home and charge overnight. In the morning the "tank" is full. I think this point is really misunderstood by many people who don't drive EVs yet. Many families get an EV as their second car and find that their gas car gets almost no use since the EV meets so many of their actual daily driving needs. This has been a very common experience among EV owners.

In principle medium-long road trips using CHAdeMO fast chargers are possible with Leaf, and that will certainly be improved with a future 200+ mile range battery pack, keeping a future Leaf in competition with Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3. The CHAdeMO fast charger network is not as well built-out as Tesla's Superchargers, and there is a fee to use it, but it is one of the three major fast charging networks currently deployed worldwide, in addition to the newer Combined Charging System (CCS) network, which is mostly a European and American effort.

It's definitely worth mentioning that used Leafs sell for well under $10k and this represents an extreme bargain in clean and economical transportation, especially considering that it costs "less than a dollar a gallon" in equivalent energy costs to drive. Gasoline in California is about 3 dollars a gallon now, so electric is about 1/3 the cost to drive. Also, there is near zero maintenance on EVs other than rotating tires and changing brake fluid. A used Leaf is an incredible bargain and I can't recommend it highly enough if you drive fewer than 70 miles a day. (Most Americans drive fewer than 40 miles a day according to scientific surveys.)

Given how nicely the Leaf drives, either new or used is a great option. It remains a top recommendation. Hopefully other car makers build compelling competition. All EVs will continue to improve, with greater range and lower prices. Even today EVs easily meet the typical needs of most drivers, even if they don't understand it yet.

Postscript: Volkswagen E-Golf is definitely a worthy competitor. If you like sporty cars, be sure to check it out too.