- What’s Good: Spacey cabin, very low cost per kilometre, no oil changes or rusty mufflers
- What’s Bad: Odd brake-pedal feel, mostly a city runabout, driving range degrades over time
The outsized decal on the rear window of a harmless-looking 1972 Datsun 1200 coupe offers the drag-strip crowds some advice: “Suck amps!”
Here’s why. Cobbled together by Oregon tinkerer John Wayland, the former 69-horsepower econobox received a massive heart transplant in the form of a 538-hp dual-armature electric motor drawing on a 22.7 kWh battery pack of lithium manganese cobalt polymer cells totaling 355 volts.
All those electrons can wrinkle a pair of Mickey Thompsons at launch as the wee Datsun puts down 1250 foot-pounds of torque instantly to burn up a quarter-mile strip in 10.4 seconds at 117 mph (188 km/h). Watch the run here.
By setting the record as the world’s quickest electric vehicle – Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster did the quarter-mile in a ho-hum 12.6 seconds – “Plasma Boy” Wayland had demonstrated that all-electric drivetrains can embarrass combustion-engine sleds handily.
It may have been Wayland’s little monster that inspired Nissan’s engineers to put together an electric vehicle of their own. The Leaf can’t snap necks, but it can suck amps with the best of them.
Scaled slightly larger than a Versa hatchback, the all-new 2011 Leaf gained a unique platform that hid its 24-kWh lithium-ion battery pack under the seats and a 107-hp electric motor under the hood driving the front wheels. With the weighty battery array tucked low in the exceptionally rigid chassis, drivers enjoy very stable handling.
The Leaf’s tall roof rewards occupants with generous headroom and an airy cabin. Drivers noticed that the steering wheel adjusts, but the column doesn’t telescope. The front seats provide ample space for big people and the rear bench, being well off the floor, is comfortable. Three can sit there in a pinch. The cargo area is on the small side for a hatchback, and when the rear seatbacks are folded down the resulting load floor is hardly flat.
The dashboard has a futuristic look to it with a split-level instrument cluster and a centre stack with a standard touchscreen that performs a number of special functions, including coaching the driver to preserve battery power. The stubby gear selector doesn’t actually select any gears – there’s no transmission in a Leaf – but it does provide reverse and two modes of drive: normal and Eco, which dulls acceleration to save electrons and extend the car’s driving range.
First-time electric vehicle buyers will have to learn to manage their range anxiety. Unlike gas-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, a Leaf has no alternative fuel source and can only run as long as its battery can preserve its electrons. The original 24 kWh battery provided a range of 120 km when new (one magazine reported about 90 km in real-world driving), while the newer 30 kWh pack offered 172 km between charges. When conditions are ideal.
“When the air conditioner and/or heater is turned on the battery level drops, but I already accounted for it in my driving distance. It’s also true when the wind is strong on the highway it drains more power,” notes Fidelis Tagsa, who owns a 2014 Leaf. The range in winter can drop precipitously, thanks to the cabin heater’s big draw on the battery in frigid weather.
Charging a Leaf has its challenges, too. The optional fast-charging port allows Level 3 (440v) charging that takes an empty battery to 80 per cent full in 30 minutes. Finding three orange cables under the hood verifies the feature; otherwise there’s just one cable. Generally, the base S model won’t have the fast charger port, while most other Leaf models after 2011 often do. Owners can also use a 220v connection (like a laundry dryer) or a simple 110v outlet – which will require up to 18 hours to charge the battery.
The first-generation Leaf saw numerous technological improvements during its seven-year production run. Starting in 2013, SV and SL models used a heat pump, which consumes a lot less electricity than the standard resistive heater (like your toaster’s coils) to keep the interior warm in sub-zero weather. All 2013 models featured a new 6.6-kW onboard charger that can replenish the battery in four hours using a 220v outlet.
The 2014 models had their range extended to 135 km on a full charge, thanks to a software change to allow the battery to be charged more fully. The 2016 SV and SL models benefited from a larger capacity 30 kWh battery pack with a range of 172 km.
Standard safety features found in all Nissan Leafs include antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. In U.S. government crash testing, the 2016 model received four out of five stars for overall, frontal and side-impact protection.
First Drive: 2018 Nissan Leaf
DRIVING THE LEAF
While shopping for a used Leaf might seem intimidating with all the battery and charging specs to keep in mind, driving it is a surprisingly ordinary experience.
“The car itself is completely vanilla, but I love how smooth and quiet it is. At stoplights I think my other (gas) car has something wrong with all the vibration,” writes the early adopter of a 2011 Leaf. “The acceleration is linear and totally smooth.”
Nissan’s all-electric car won’t snap your head back under acceleration, yet the leisurely 0-97 km/h time of 10 seconds doesn’t seem correct, either. That’s because the motor’s maximum torque of 207 lb-ft, available instantly at just above 0 rpm, peters out as the speed climbs. In traffic, though, the Leaf feels rabbit-quick.
“Does not drive at all like an economy car. Corners well and accelerates strongly with instant torque. No sounds, you just see the numbers clicking away as speed increases,” reads one owner’s online remark.
Its soft suspension ensures body roll, and the car’s low-rolling-resistance tires give up at 0.79 g and howl in hard cornering. The electric steering is overly light with little feedback. The brake pedal can feel odd, but it’s effective, despite the presence of regenerative braking that kicks in to produce electricity for the hungry battery.
The car’s eerie quiet impresses with only a slight high-pitched whine audible under heavy acceleration. However, the lack of drivetrain noise makes wind and tire roar more noticeable at highway speeds. The Leaf delivers economy in spades: its MPGe equivalent is 2.4 litres per 100 km, or expressed another way, it costs 2.2 cents per kilometre to operate, about 20 per cent less than a Toyota Prius and half the cost of driving an ordinary Corolla.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
Part of the appeal of driving an all-electric car is the freedom from mundane maintenance routines. There is no oil or fluids to change, and there’s no transmission, radiator, emission controls or exhaust system to fret over. And because regenerative braking effectively slows the car, the disc brakes may not need attention until long after the 120,000-km mark.
Still, there are other brake issues. Drivers report it’s sometimes difficult to modulate the brakes smoothly since the amount of braking action is not linear with pedal pressure. The brakes may start out grabby during a trip and then get better. Or get much worse.
“While attempting to park, the brake pedal was depressed and travelled to the floorboard. The brakes failed to respond after the ABS warning lights illuminated,” reads a post by a 2015 Leaf owner. The sudden onset of higher brake-pedal effort has resulted in some low-speed collisions, owners report. Nissan has a service campaign (P5327) that affects 2013-2015 Leaf models manufactured from November 19, 2012 through July 31, 2015. Now upgraded to a recall, it involves reprogramming the electrically-driven intelligent brake control unit.
Another area of concern Leaf owners have flagged is tire wear: “Our front tires are completely bald at 24,000 km. Worst part of experience was Nissan’s lack of recognition that this is not normal,” reads an online gripe. The low-resistance tires may make for an efficient drive, but they can wear quickly, aided by the fact that the battery pack makes the Leaf unusually heavy for a compact car.
The 2012-2014 models may have a faulty airbag sensor in the front passenger seat, an item that’s covered by a recall. Other reported mechanical lapses include malfunctioning power windows and short-lived 12-volt batteries – which the Leaf uses to operate accessories such as the wipers.
The single biggest impediment to buying a used Leaf is the questionable lifespan of an aging traction battery. Nissan warranties the battery pack for eight years or 160,000 km. Beyond that, aftermarket suppliers offer reasonably-priced components and repairs. Budget around $800-$1,200 to replace weak cells and restore the battery to good condition. If you’re curious to try electric motoring, consider buying a 2013 or newer Leaf with some of the improved equipment under the hood.