It speaks volumes for how far electric vehicles have come in such a short amount of time that the Nissan Leaf you see here is the only second-generation fully-electric car on sale anywhere in the world right now.
Although the Leaf may have been the best-selling EV in history until just recently, having only been usurped by the Tesla Model 3 earlier this year, this current model, which first launched in its home market of Japan back in late 2017, needed to remind people that Nissan was the company that led the push for electric vehicles designed for the masses, even if the upstart Tesla has stolen its thunder somewhat with a lineup that lacks a truly affordable option.
Despite first launching the best part of three years ago, however, it was only last year the second-gen Leaf first hit Aussie shores, and it’s only just now I’m finally getting my go behind the wheel of one, and with such a long wait to have a steer, naturally, I’m hoping it was worth it.
Right off the bat though, as far as the Leaf’s looks are concerned, it made as much of an impression on me in the metal as it did in the Japanese press pics from the tail-end of 2017 because it has to rank for me as one of the best-looking cars bearing a Nissan badge right now.
Despite being an all-electric model, it looks positively normal and like any other hatch really – if the Pulsar still existed, you could imagine it taking exactly this shape – with the relatively normal wheel design and seamless integration of the faux-grille in the front bumper doing wonders to help it fly under the radar. It doesn’t even opt to shout about being an electric car when it comes to the badging, either, simply and subtly proclaiming itself as being a ‘Zero Emission’ vehicle instead.
The positive first impressions continue on the inside, too, where, again, it’s all quite normal and straightforward with a simple and attractive sheen over the top. All the switchgear is straightforward and exactly where you’d expect it to be – aside from the indicator being on the left rather than right like with all other Oz-delivered Japanese cars, along with the funny little blue blob of a shifter – which only does even more to fool you into forgetting it’s an EV.
For Australia, only a sole specification is on offer which certainly boasts a good amount of kit with features like leather-trimmed heated seats all around with suedecloth inserts and blue contrast stitching, a heated flat-bottomed steering wheel, a clear and straightforward 8.0-inch infotainment system with integrated sat nav and smartphone mirroring, a Bose ‘Energy Efficient Series’ audio system, semi-digital instrument cluster, a 360-degree camera, and all the latest active safety tech short of any form of semi-autonomous driving system.
There are, however, a few odd spec omissions that should be noted. Niceties like power adjustment for even just the driver’s seat or the option of a sunroof, for instance, are not available. Dual-zone climate control isn’t available either, although many other EVs for whatever reason similarly seem to lack it.
However nothing on the inside is more of a let-down than the foot-operated parking brake. While I’m not surprised to see one of these unergonomic left-knee-killers in a Nissan, having encountered them in other models such as the Pathfinder before, in a whiz-bang futuristic all-electric car, not least one that costs fifty-large, why not put in an electric parking brake – which would allow for other benefits like a hill hold function and ‘auto hold’ function allowing you to take your foot off the brake pedal in traffic – like everyone else?
The foot-brake isn’t the only ergonomic challenge you’ll find either, as the interior, it must be said, does feel a bit tight in some places. The transmission tunnel is quite wide and high up front, and still quite high in the rear as well, and couple that with only an average amount of rear legroom and fitting in three six-foot-plus adults like I had to one day becomes a real challenge.
Also worth mentioning is that the boot itself isn’t the largest and the opening isn’t the widest, and the subwoofer being located back there only makes it even more compromised. There are some handy little nets on the sides for storing the charging cables though, at least.
It’s certainly not all bad inside though, as the seating is comfortable and supportive enough all around and the quality of the materials throughout left me impressed, especially in comparison to some other models in the Nissan stables.
Under the bonnet of this second-gen Leaf, you’ll find it packs an evolution of the permanent magnet synchronous electric motor with 110kW and 320Nm (up from 80kW and 280Nm in the original model) which drives the front wheels through a single-speed reduction gear with an aggressive 8.1938 ratio. The electricity that powers it is stored in a 40kWh lithium-ion battery pack which, unlike in many other EVs now, is air-cooled rather than water-cooled.
Good for the 0-100km/h sprint in a warm-hatch-like 7.9 seconds, it feels super punchy off the line as you’d expect with its instantaneous peak torque from 0-3283rpm, but it definitely starts to taper off once you’re in triple-digit territory like with most lower-powered EVs. Given the short gearing, though, if you stab the throttle at any speed it certainly delivers a strong punch in return.
Not only does it feel responsive through the driveline, though, as its chassis feels nice and malleable, too. With independent MacPherson strut suspension up front and a torsion beam in the rear, it’s far from revolutionary, but it keeps it nice and flat through the bends, while its quick and responsive steering helps with easily taming what little understeer there is.
In saying that, though, there is still some torque steer detectible as you try to put the power on when exiting bends, although the perhaps over-eager traction control system does sort that out quickly. The ride itself, particularly with a torsion beam in the back, can feel just a tad busy on the poorly-maintained Adelaide Hills roads I had to pit it against every day as well, although it’s certainly not what you’d call uncomfortable and rides nicely enough most of the time.
I will say as well that the brake pedal feel isn’t the best, either – it doesn’t have enough travel meaning it’s not terribly easy to smoothly modulate your braking pressure – although there is one way of getting around it and that’s by using the e-Pedal function, which dials the regenerative braking all the way up to the max, recouping as much energy as possible that would be lost during braking normally while also allowing for one-pedal driving.
In traffic, I’ll admit I found it a tad too strong, but for sportier driving it bodes well as you can simply modulate the throttle to better control your speed, while also allowing you to brake later into corners.
All-around though, it’s an incredibly competent drive – surprisingly responsive and confident through the corners on backroads, and well-suited to city environments as well. However, there’s one big catch – its range.
On the stricter and more realistic WLTP test cycle, Nissan claims the Leaf will cover around 270km on a single charge when its 40kWh battery is full of electro-juice, with an energy consumption claim of 14.0kWh/100km.
In reality, however, the numbers are stark in contrast. At no point did I ever see as much as 270km indicated on the car’s computer after fully charging it – 258km was the most I ever saw, although of course running the air conditioner does affect that number – but the rate of energy consumption itself was the most disappointing. With it using more like 16.7kWh/100km during my time with it, that meant I was only getting around 239km of range on a charge, which is a most sizeable drop.
What plays the biggest role in affecting the Leaf’s range is its aggressive gearing – stick to the city and I don’t doubt you’ll see a better efficiency figure and range closer to the claimed numbers, but for those living outside of the city like myself with a high-speed freeway commute to go to the city, and fast, winding country roads in all other directions, the electric motor is working overtime in these triple-digit speeds, meaning it chews through the electricity.
The other big issue the Leaf faces, which is one all electric cars are up against, is Australia’s poor EV infrastructure. Charging stations, and in particular fast charge stations, are few and far between, particularly outside Melbourne and Sydney, so while the Leaf may have a 50kW CHAdeMO DC fast charge port, it’s not like you’ll be able to put it to much use. If you have a home charging station or are using the emergency charger like I had to, it’ll charge far more slowly through its 6.6kW Type 2 AC charger, taking around 7.5 hours with a home charge station and “within 24 hours” using a three-pin power point.
While in some EVs with more range, particularly those with in excess of 400km per charge, the lack of charging infrastructure won’t be the biggest concern if you have your own at home, the Leaf’s limited range presents a real issue when it comes to its viability in Australia. It might be enough for European roads with shorter average distances to cover and a more widespread charging network, but here where the distances between major cities and regional hubs are vast, it’s not ideal.
It’s a shame Australia’s charging infrastructure is anywhere near where it needs to be, and a shame that the Leaf’s range isn’t the most impressive, as it means this car doesn’t make as good a case for itself as it could, and the fact it starts at $49,990 before on-road costs means that while it’s cheap by EV standards, it’s expensive for a car you’ve got to deal with compromises living with in Australia.
Objectively-speaking, the Leaf is good-looking, well-equipped, and pretty great to drive, so there’s an awful lot to like about it, and so for those in parts of the world where charging infrastructure makes it plausible to live with, or if you’re just sticking to the big city, it’s a car that ticks a lot of boxes.
Truly, it’s one of the most impressive factory-fresh cars bearing a Nissan badge that I’ve driven in a while, and it leaves me looking forward to the other all-new models the company is in the process of bringing out like the all-new Juke I’m pencilled in to drive in the coming few months, and the all-electric Ariya launching in Japan next year.
Good car or not though, Australia’s EV-friendliness needs to increase before it’ll be truly viable for many to live with here. As a future-tech flag-bearer, however, this next evolution of the original every-person’s EV is a car Nissan should be truly proud to have its name on the front of.
2020 Nissan Leaf List Price: $49,990 | As Tested: $50,585
Pros: Looks and feels positively normal both inside and out, dynamically very competent, quite highly-equipped to help justify the price
Cons: Range claims nowhere near reality, foot-operated parking brake, no reach adjustment on steering wheel
In a nutshell: The second-gen Leaf is an objectively great car let down by its limited range and Australia’s lack of charging infrastructure. However, although it’s clearly a better fit for markets like in Europe where charging stations are aplenty, it is still one of the most promising Nissan models I’ve tested in recent years, and leaves me excited to see what other similarly high-quality products the company can deliver as it freshens-up its ageing lineup.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Nissan Australia for a week, and was delivered to us with a full charge.