We bring together the two most affordable electric cars in Australia to do battle and establish which budget EV is best.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’d know that the world has gone EV-mad with a broad variety of electric cars now on sale that includes everything from family hatchbacks to hypercars with Top Trumps-winning spec sheets. At this point, there’s very nearly as broad a variety in the EV market as there is in the market for conventional combustion-engined cars.

But while EVs were seen as being something out of reach for the ordinary person, and not practical enough, either, due to the limited range from their old-tech batteries, the pair you see here – the Hyundai Ioniq Electric and Nissan Leaf, the two most affordable EVs on sale in Australia right now – are proof that the average Joe or Jane can now actually consider making the switch from petrol pump to wall plug.

The Ioniq – which also comes in conventional and plug-in hybrid flavours – boasts the important title of being the cheapest EV on sale in the country, starting at just $48,490 in base Elite spec as tested here, while the Nissan Leaf is priced at $49,990 for the sole specification on offer for the Aussie market.

While the Leaf remains unchanged since its Australian launch only a little over a year ago, although it did launch internationally in late 2017, the Ioniq, which first debuted back in 2018, was given a proper reworking for the 2020 model year, upping the price by nearly four-grand in exchange for some thoroughly modern new tech, additional driving range, and performance that is more on-par with the Leaf.

And so, with the two as they sit now in the year 2020 being so close on price and spec, and both being electric cars the average person could consider affording, it seemed like an opportune time to bring these two together to find out which of these budget EVs is the better bet.

It’s not just performance and luxurious features that these two will need to have in order to prove dominance, either, as the case of just how usable both are in the real world as fully-electric models with no backup once your digital go-juice runs out plays perhaps an even bigger role in determining a victor. With that in mind, then, let the showdown commence.

Inside & Out

Right off the bat, it must be said that the Leaf is a brilliant-looking little car – not just by EV standards or by Nissan’s own, but simply great in general.

It’s a positively normal-looking hatchback overall, which is a good thing in my eyes as so many electrified vehicles seem to feel the need to make a statement, often serving up weird and funky looks in the name of aerodynamic efficiency.

The Nissan corporate grille looks at its best on the Leaf I feel, even though it doesn’t have or even need a grille due to utilising an air-cooled battery pack, and instead has a unique pattern of blue pyramids inside it. The integration of the door to the charging ports between the top of the grille and front of the bonnet gives it a positively clean look as well.

A lack of aero wheels helps it pass for something more normal as well, and the rear diffuser gives it a nice sporty look at the rear end, even if I’m not so sure about the look of the black bar between the taillights, as I can’t help but wonder if it would look better being body-coloured.

Regardless, pull off the ‘Zero Emission’ badges plastered all over it, and you’d have no idea the thing was electric. Hell, if it didn’t say Leaf on the back, it could pass for a new Pulsar.

The Ioniq, on the other hand, won’t quite pass for an Elantra in the same way, even if the funkiness is dialled back as much as it can be, as it clearly displays a more streamlined and aerodynamic shape, which delivers a few compromises such as the split rear window.

On what is a dedicated electrified platform – series hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants both with a petrol engine are also available – it would have been nice to see a cleaner integration of the charge port, rather than utilising a conventional fuel door, as its perhaps the one thing that looks out of place on what is a very futuristic design.

Compared to pre-facelift models, the front-end design is rather radically altered, with the faux grille now more prominently cut out, and most notably featuring two automatically retractable air inlets for its radiator as, unlike the Leaf, its battery pack is liquid-cooled, with the increased size of it for 2020 models making it require that extra little bit of cooling.

The tiny wheels with their plastic drag-reducing add-ons, too, are a clear giveaway that this is clearly something unconventional, and the ‘electric’ badging on the boot is a bit more to-the-point than the Leaf’s enviro-braggadocio.

Step inside, and both interiors feel consistent with the impression the exterior gives off – so as to say the Leaf feels pretty normal, and the Ioniq explores a whole new world.

In the former, it’s like sitting inside any other Nissan. The nice flat-bottomed steering wheel, for instance, is a familiar sight, the faux leather and suede seat upholstery is pretty normal and offset nicely with some blue stitching, and all the switchgear is very conventional. It even has a regular mechanical speedo dial. Save for the weird shifter blob, which appears to be the sole carry-over from the first-generation Leaf, it really does feel just like any other hatch out there.

The Ioniq, meanwhile, looks and feels clearly futuristic, with touch-sensitive controls for things like the AC, big screens in the gauge cluster and atop the centre stack, and any semblance of a conventional shifter done away with in favour of push-buttons for selecting each gear, and a massive cubby in front of the centre console that wouldn’t be possible to have in a conventional ICE-powered car does show Hyundai has thought about how to make this truly feel like an EV.

Patterned grey upholstery and textured grey plastics throughout give it a bit of an eco-chic feel, too, and a potentially cheap feel as well in the case of the latter. The cloth seats I do love, but step up to the Premium model and you’ll get leather instead.

While I personally like the futuristic look of the Ioniq both inside and out, it undeniably makes a statement, and while some eco warriors will love that about it, for the average person it may be a turn-off. The Leaf, on the other hand, does a far more convincing job of looking and feeling like a normal car that just happens to be electric. The fact it’s the better looking of the two overall, though, is what really secures its victory in round one.

Winner: Nissan Leaf

Technology & Features

While the Ioniq’s more futuristic approach to the whole concept may make it feel somewhat alienating to the EV sceptics, the advanced technology it brings to the table is certainly fitting.

One of the first cars to launch the new infotainment system set to be utilised in a range of Hyundai and Kia models, the new 10.25-inch unit is slick and well presented, with a clear and responsive screen and of course all the features people demand these days – satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and DAB+ digital radio.

That’s not to say that the Leaf’s infotainment system isn’t also a good one, as indeed it is. A similarly new system that I first sampled in the updated Navara, it features all the same capabilities as the Ioniq’s unit and is equally resolute, but it doesn’t look quite as slick and is housed on a smaller although perfectly acceptable 8.0-inch screen.

Also worth mentioning is that while both feature digital displays in their instrument clusters, the Leaf’s feels compromised with an old-school mechanical speedo still in there while the Ioniq’s is clearer and entirely digital.

Like many EVs, both only feature single-zone climate control – the Ioniq’s controlled by a touch-sensitive panel, the Leaf’s used via a more conventional set of buttons and dials – but the Ioniq has a party trick up its sleeve in that it has an energy-saving ‘driver only’ mode useful for gaining an extra couple of kays when its only yourself in the car.

However, the Leaf does counter back by offering heated front and rear seats and a heated steering wheel as standard. Step up to the Ioniq Premium though and you’ll gain heated and ventilated front seats with power adjustment and memory for the driver, a heated steering wheel, a sunroof, and wireless phone charging – albeit for an additional $4000 that then makes it the more expensive of the two.

One big advantage the Leaf does hold over the Ioniq is, like in many other Nissan models as well, a standard 360-degree camera along with front-parking sensors which are both particularly useful features in a city-focused car like this. As far as active safety tech is concerned though, both are on pretty level pegging with the likes of autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, and so on.

However, truly asserting the Ioniq as being the one with the more advanced technology here is the fact that while both feature adaptive cruise control, the Ioniq also features Level 2 autonomous driving tech in the form of its ‘Lane Keeping Assist – Line’ system that keeps it centred in the lane even when your hands are briefly removed from the wheel. It’s one of the smoother and more progressive systems of its type I’ve tried, too, I must say.

And so, while the Leaf may offer more gadgetry in base form, its the quality and sophistication of the Ioniq’s tech, and the forward-thinking nature of it, too, that claws it back to even in the second round.

Winner: Hyundai Ioniq

Performance & Handling

Mechanically, both the Ioniq and the Leaf feature a similar make-up – an electric motor up front driving the front wheels through a single-speed reduction gear, with power derived from a lithium-ion battery pack – although the numbers, on paper at least, all stack up in the Leaf’s favour.

With its electric motor producing 110kW and 320Nm, a more aggressive 8.1938 gear ratio, and a larger 40kWh air-cooled battery, it’s easily the quicker of the two cars on test, given its 0-100km/h time of 7.9 seconds.

That’s not to say that the Ioniq is lacking all that much – a new electric motor for the facelifted model upped power by 12kW to a total of 100kW while maintaining the same 295Nm torque peak. Its geared far less aggressively though with its 7.412 reduction ratio to improve electro-efficiency, and has a battery pack that is smaller at 38.3kWh but water-cooled to improve longevity.

Given there’s no official triple-digit sprint time claimed by Hyundai – realistically, it’s around the unexciting nine-second mark – that tells you a lot about the Ioniq’s aim, as it clearly isn’t performance. Sure, it’s got plenty of punchiness off the line given the instantaneous torque delivery, and decently snappy response when you punch it at speed, but it’s not going to blow anyone away.

The Leaf, on the other hand, is positively peppy – combine the aggressive gearing and extra power, and it’s got both enough warm hatch-level excitement to suffice and that extra bit of satisfying grunt when you stab the throttle at higher speeds. It’s no Tesla, but it’s more than enough power to make the drive to work that bit more fun.

Where the Leaf really impressed most was when it came to how well it handled itself when you threw it at some corners. The battleground for testing out the two little EVs’ handling chops was Lobethal Road in the Adelaide Hills – a punishing road comprised of tight turns and a poorly-maintained surface riddled with potholes and bumps from tree roots.

Despite both cars sitting on similar suspension setups – both feature MacPherson strut independent suspension up front, and a torsion beam in the rear – the Leaf’s suspension is firmer and managed to help keep it feeling surprisingly planted on a road such as this.

Flatter through the corners and more malleable when it comes to tidying your line, despite the odd hint of understeer and some torque steer if you attack the throttle too harshly on the exit it’s remarkably well sorted and allows you to push it far harder than you’d ever expect it to.

If there’s a drawback though, it’s that the brakes feel far too vague before biting too suddenly, although at least you can utilise the e-Pedal function to your advantage which dials up the regenerative braking enough to allow you to never really need to go near the brake pedal unless you’re really hustling it. It would be nice to have some more control over its regenerative braking though, such as the Ioniq’s more advanced system utilising paddles on the back of the wheel to adjust between three different levels, along with an auto mode that slows you down when it detects slower moving traffic in front even with the radar cruise off.

While when driven in isolation, the Ioniq feels perfectly adept on a road like this, attempting to drive it in the same manner as the Leaf on the same stretch of road revealed that it simply doesn’t allow you to push it nearly as hard as the Leaf. Given its longer wheelbase it understeers far harder than the Leaf, and can tend towards a hint of lift-off oversteer when if you don’t get your footwork right when attempting to drive it with the same vigour.

I will say that the Ioniq’s steering is wonderfully progressive like in most Hyundai models now, although there is some rack rattle detectable when you hit mid-corner bumps given how little weight is over the front end, and the body roll while slightly more pronounced than in the Leaf is well managed. unfortunately, the oh-so comfy cloth seats aren’t terribly supportive when driving it hard though, with the Nissan’s feeling to hold you in better.

The Ioniq, then, clearly owes itself to a more relaxed driving style – the Leaf, however, manages to impress when pushed harder than the vast majority of owners would ever try to drive it, and that higher capability threshold gives it the win as the far better driver’s car of the two.

Winner: Nissan Leaf

Comfort & Practicality

The Ioniq’s softer suspension owing it to a more relaxed driving style than the Leaf is something that lends itself well to this round, as its superb ride quality easily asserts it as the more comfortable of the two from a driving standpoint. That’s not to say that the Leaf is uncomfortable, as it most definitely isn’t, but it does transfer more of the road imperfections to the cabin, while the Ioniq irons out all but the very worst of the bumps with aplomb.

The comfort factor carries through to the inside as well, with the Ioniq’s interior space feeling incredibly well-utilised. There’s plenty of room to stretch out both up front and in the back, although headroom is limited just a touch due to its sloping fastback roofline, and there are plenty of useful storage spaces including some like the big cubby in front of the centre console that wouldn’t be possible in a regular ICE-powered car.

Unfortunately, the Leaf isn’t the most spacious thing on the inside, it must be said, feeling a bit tight even in the front row with just two in the car, let alone with three tall blokes like it needed to ferry on the day of this face-off. It doesn’t offer all that much interior storage either, with what cubbies and slots there are tending to be on the smaller side.

On the topic of space for putting things, the Ioniq’s 462 litre boot trumps the Leaf’s still decent 405 litres, too, and what’s more the Leaf’s boot is home to a floor-mounted subwoofer that does get in the way rather.

But there’s one other element of practicality that needs to be considered, however, when it comes to electric cars – range. While the Leaf features the larger battery of the two, its aggressive gearing that’s great for performance means that it also uses far more electricity when cruising at higher speeds given there’s no second gear for it to switch to like you’d get in something more advanced like a Porsche Taycan – something that was rather worrying after a back-to-back drive with the two out to the Barossa after which it was left with a mere 15 percent in its battery after leaving empty.

As a result, its tested energy consumption figure of 16.7kWh/100km meant I was only getting around 239km from its 40kWh battery against an NEDC claim of 270km. That’s only a shade more than the pre-facelift Ioniq with its smaller battery could achieve.

In the more relaxed new Ioniq with its enlarged 38.3kWh battery – which is faster to charge, being smaller – an energy consumption rate of 13.2kWh/100km saw it able to cover more like 290km on a charge against its claim of 311km. Add that on top of the rest of its attributes in this regard, and the Ioniq is the far more usable car day-to-day.

Winner: Hyundai Ioniq

Dollars & Sense

Obviously, with fuel costs not needing to be a consideration as neither requires any to run and the cost of electricity to charge them will be nearly exactly the same given the mere 1.7kWh battery size difference and external factors such as location-dependent electricity costs (typically around 20-30 cents per kWh) or having a home solar system (which I personally think you should have if you’re charging an EV at your house to keep its greenness in tact), we’ll have to look to other areas to figure out which is the more budget-friendly of the two.

Servicing is one thing you mightn’t think your electric car requires, but, indeed, both of these two. While the Nissan has the longer service intervals at 12 months/20,000km, compared to the Hyundai’s 12 month/15,000km period, its servicing costs are significantly steeper – its six capped price visits are each between $237 and $343, plus the cost of a brake fluid change every two years, while the Hyundai’s first five trips to the dealer are merely $160 a pop.

One thing they can’t be split on, though, is their warranty coverage, with a general warranty of five years with no mileage cap, while the battery packs in both are warrantied for eight years/160,000km.

It should also be noted that the Hyundai is the cheaper car here – not just in list form, but as tested, too. Any colour other than plain white is the only thing you’ll have to pay more for with either, and while on the Ioniq metallic paint charges just $495 extra, it’s $595 on the Leaf unless you’re after the two-tone white and black finish which is an extra $990.

Yes, the Ioniq isn’t as lavishly equipped in Elite form as the single-spec Leaf is, but with cheaper servicing and a $1500+ price difference in its favour, it’s impossible not to give it to the all-around cheaper car here.

Winner: Hyundai Ioniq

The verdict…

Let me preface this conclusion by saying that there’s no real loser here. Both the Ioniq and the Leaf are cars with a lot of strengths that show just how good even the two most pedestrian electric cars on sale in Australia can be, and that makes it hard to choose a winner, although it’s a job that must be done.

When it comes to the Leaf, it must be said that it left me more impressed than just about any other factory-fresh Nissan I’ve driven in some time and it’s a car that makes me excited to try out some of the company’s future products like the surprisingly great-looking second-generation Juke I’m poised to sample in a couple months’ time.

Personally, I think the Leaf looks great, the interior is fairly well presented, the tech is a big step up compared to what’s seen in Nissan’s more ageing models, and best of all is it’s a fantastic car to drive. Punchy, agile, and surprisingly balanced, its ride may err on the side of firmness but when you send it up a backroad you soon forget that it was ever something you questioned.

However, the Leaf is let down big time by one thing – range. Not only is its claim a decent chunk lower than the Ioniq’s, but its real-world range of more like 230km during my testing puts it at a significant disadvantage. Were Australia to have as widespread a charging network as other parts of the world, or were the 62kWh Leaf e+ to be offered here, it wouldn’t be such a big problem, but as it stands, it is one, and it’s a case of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory.

Factor in a slight price premium and less roomy interior, too, and that’s why it’s the Ioniq takes the cake this time around. Cheaper, more spacious and comfortable, serving up even more sophisticated and advanced tech, and offering far more range based off both the claims and real-world testing – which revealed returns remarkably close to Hyundai’s claims – and it’s simply the better budget EV.

Granted, it’s not as sharp to drive hard, and nor is it as good-looking or normal-looking, but when it comes to day-to-day usability – the thing an entry-level EV buyer is likely to be prioritising – the Ioniq takes a clear victory.

With it announced just yesterday, at the time of publication, that the Ioniq name is to be spun-off into its own EV-focused sub-brand under Hyundai, it’s unclear where a cheap, entry-level electric model like this will fit in going forward as the current Ioniq is not set to be re-housed under its namesake brand, so it’ll be interesting to see what’s in store from Hyundai in this space going forward.

As for the Leaf, the recently-revealed and undeniably impressive Ariya electric SUV is a strong indicator that not only will you still be seeing a Nissan badge on the front of the company’s electric offerings going forward, and that if the next Leaf is as good as the Ariya looks like it’ll be, it could be in even closer contention to win this showdown next time around.

Right now, though, when it comes to these current entry-level EV offerings, the Leaf may have its merits, but it’s the Hyundai that claims victory today.

Overall winner: Hyundai Ioniq Electric