REVIEW: 2018 Nissan Leaf SL Electric Vehicle – Fun, Spacious, and Can Be a Great Value

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The 2018 Nissan Leaf is a huge improvement over the prior generation. This new EV is fun to drive, comfortable and has a range of about 150 miles. Prices when comparably equipped are roughly 50% less than a Tesla Model 3, so the two are not competitors, but the new Chevy Bolt and Toyota Prius Prime can’t be ignored when discussing the Leaf.

What is it? 

The 2018 Nissan Nissan Leaf is a 5-passenger, compact hatchback that has an all-electric, front-wheel drive design. The Leaf is one of the two “affordable” battery electric vehicles (BEVs) on sale in most U.S. markets. There are other BEVs sold here and there in tiny numbers, but none except the Bolt have the complete package that Nissan’s Leaf offers buyers.

Pricing and trims

The 2018 Nissan Leaf comes in three trims and Nissan limits the packages and options to keep ordering and shopping easy. The base S trim starts at $31,000, the SV starts at a little over $33,000, and the SL starts at about $37,000. Our SL with the Technology Package and Premium Paint rang in at $38,260. As with all electric vehicles, there is more to the pricing story than if one were shopping for a conventionally-powered vehicle.

Nissan’s Leaf, like all BEVs, is eligible for the federal $7,500 tax deduction. Check with your tax preparer to see if you will qualify for this deduction. It is not guaranteed. If you earn too much and pay the alternative minimum tax you may not qualify. Also, if you don’t earn enough to take advantage of the full deduction it is not provided as a “rebate.” Some states offer EV incentives. Here in Massachusetts, residents are provided a $2,500 rebate. The combination of federal and local incentives is important to EV shoppers, so educate yourself. EV-focused states like Massachusetts and California have excellent websites dedicated to helping EV shoppers get all they are entitled to.

 – Looking for a new or used green vehicle? Start your search at BestRide.com.

Unlike a typical vehicle, leases are a very important consideration for all EV shoppers. Leases offer many advantages. Leases are subsidized by the automakers, but the federal tax rebates are not provided to the buyer. Leases offer an important benefit for these fast-evolving vehicles. If the range suddenly increases by, say 40%, as it did on this new generation Leaf, the older models will suffer a huge drop in value. EVs have much lower resale values than do mainstream vehicles, so a lease offers a known, and somewhat fixed, cost of ownership. In our home state, dealers post up their best deals and many have significant inventory they advertise. This makes cross-shopping EVs possible and relatively easy.

Like Chevrolet’s, Nissan’s dealers discount the Leaf. This is important to understand because Tesla does not discount its vehicles. Presently, the lowest cost Model 3 sold was priced at $45,000. The myth of a “$35,000 Tesla Model 3” may someday come true, but we are skeptical. The versions Edmunds and Consumer Reports bought cost nearly sixty-grand.  By comparison to a discounted Leaf or Bolt the Tesla Model 3 is at least 50% higher in cost to a consumer when comparably equipped. If that isn’t clear enough consider this; The top trim Leaf SL will cost a buyer who can take advantage of federal and state incentives will cost half of what the current top trim Tesla Model 3 costs.  About $26K versus about $49K. These cars are really not in the same category.

The top-trim Nissan Leaf SL is presently being sold for about $36,000 before federal and local deductions and rebates in Massachusetts. After those incentives, if one can take full advantage of them, a top-trim Leaf would cost a consumer about $26,000.  We can’t emphasize how important this is. At $26K, this Leaf is a screaming deal. At $38,260, it is a poor value by comparison to vehicles like a RAV4 Hybrid, Prius hybrid, or other green vehicle choices.

Our SL trim with the Technology Package came with premium features like in-dash navigation, leather seats with microfiber suede trim, a heated steering wheel, state-of-the-art driver aids, Homelink, an auto-dimming mirror, and a full safety suite of technologies. Some of these features are not even available on the much higher price Tesla Model 3.

Safety

The new 2018 Leaf has not yet been tested by IIHS or NHTSA. However, we would be shocked if it does not earn top marks. Our SL trim had optional active driver aids like automatic emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alerts, haptic lane departure warning, automatic high beams, blind spot warning, outstanding LED headlights (though not the kind that turn in corners), and an outstanding backup camera system.

Performance, Ride, and Handling

Our biggest surprise when we tested the new 2018 Leaf SL was what a great car it is to drive. The Leaf is snappy off the line, accelerates briskly, and has plenty of torque and power for passing in all situations. Merging onto the highway is easy, with plenty of mid-range power and overtaking on the highway is also a breeze. Comparing EVs to liquid-fueled vehicles is not really fair since the sensation is different. Try an EV like the Leaf or Bolt back to back with a comparably-priced compact car with a gasoline engine and you will immediately feel what we mean. We drove the Bolt in October and the feeling was the same, so the Leaf has now caught its main rival in terms of driving enjoyment.

 

Handling is also a plus for the Leaf SL. Steering is quick and relatively sharp, and in corners the Leaf does not lean much. The Leaf is a joy to drive around town, or on twisty back roads. We found ourselves driving aggressively and had to be careful to keep things legal. It’s that good.

Braking in the new Leaf is also good. In standard mode, the Leaf has no regenerative goofiness. If feels like a normal car its size and price. However, there is an optional one-pedal mode Nissan calls e-Pedal. Enable this and one can drive in most circumstances without ever using the brake. We enjoy one-pedal driving in EVs and enabled it around town. However, on the highway and in spirited driving (yes, we mean it) we preferred the standard mode that allows for some cruising, rather than having the car decelerate sharply when we would lift off the power pedal.

Over broken up late winter roads, the Leaf was composed and the ride was comfortable. The Leaf uses “normal” sized tires (215/50-17), unlike the goofy and custom bicycle-shaped tires the BMW i3 has. This would make getting snow tires affordable and we think it helps the handling and ride comfort.

Seating

Our top-trim SL had a power adjustable driver’s seat. We felt that it could have benefitted by a bit more bottom seat angle and perhaps be a bit lower to the floor. The Leaf’s outward vision is only average. The roof comes pretty far forward and the driver is up high, limiting visibility and a sense of openness. The seat was comfortable for both a 6-foot male and a petite female who we asked to sit in the car. The leather on the seats felt of decent quality and we loved the microfiber suede trim. The seats are heated in the front, but even on the high setting didn’t add much warmth. We also need to note that the center console and armrest are very small. We could not use the armrest for its named purpose. Notice how it is cut away in the image above.

The rear seats are spacious and there is plenty of legroom even with the front seats all the way back. This is a very roomy compact car. Overall passenger volume is 92.4 cubic feet. By comparison, the Bolt has 95 cubic feet available and the Hyundai Elantra GT 96.5 cubic feet. Subjectively, the Leaf feels just as large as either.

Cargo

The Leaf has a very large cargo area. The trunk is deep and tall. However, there is a large Bose amplifier in the trunk that robs usable space. So too does the bulky charge cord case when needed. There is no spare tire under the floor. The plan for flats with the Leaf SL is a self-repair kit or a tow.

Nissan rates its Leaf’s cargo area as 23.6 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 30 with them down. The Bolt’s cargo capacity is much smaller by comparison with Chevy rating the vehicle at just 16.9 cu ft with the rear seats up. The Hyundai Elantra GT has a 24.9 cubic foot trunk volume.

Infotainment, Controls, Audio

The 2018 Leaf SL has outstanding infotainment. We found the vehicle setting menus to be fantastic in both usability and content. For example, it is pretty simple to look up the tire pressure for each corner of the car. Setting the door lock and lighting preferences is also simple. The charge and range info is also quite good, but not obnoxious. Here, the Leaf beats the Bolt hands down. we liked the Bolt’s modern system, but it was over the top. The Leaf’s screen is large and the touch menus are easy to use. We loved how the Nav would display the next turn on the gauge screen. There is no head-up display in the Leaf, the one thing we felt was missing from this $38K car’s infotainment system.

The Bose Premium audio fell flat to our ears. Despite our best efforts with the fade and balance menus, all of the audio seemed to emanate from one speaker at the center base of the windshield. There is no surround sound effect at all. Sound is almost mono. Given the added cost and the huge amp in the trunk, we expected much more.

Apple Car Play and Android Auto are included in the upper SV and SL trims only. That misses one of the key points of these smartphone integration systems, which are best when found in vehicles that don’t have in-dash nav or satellite radio.

Living Electric

We are not going to cover every aspect of living with an electric vehicle, but we will offer some observations. First, 150 miles is an interesting range. It is great for around town use and even allows for a good 150-minute highway round-trip. This is the first EV we have fully tested that could do that. The BMW i3, Kia Soul EV, and others we have tested could not make a 2-hour highway trip, though the Hyundai Ioniq Electric could. However, by comparison to the similarly-sized and priced Chevy Bolt’s 238-mile range 150 is almost ridiculously low. Has Nissan brought a knife to a gunfight here? Also, the top-selling affordable EV in America, the Prius Prime PHEV, has a low 25-mile EV range but can go a stunning 640 miles before stopping for energy.

Then there is the fuzzy math. Miles of range displayed on the Leaf’s information screen are simply estimates. In my first trip, which was all in-town suburban driving, I used 49 miles of range to cover 29 actual miles. On my second trip, the Leaf used 48 miles of range to cover 42 actual miles of distance. With that kind of variation, how confident would you be to use up all of the range? So, your “150 miles” of range needs to have some sort of safety factor to keep you from being stranded. Why the Leaf does not calculate the miles of range more conservatively is a real head-scratcher.

We charged our Leaf with 120-volt (15 amp breaker) power from a normal plug in our garage. About four or five miles of range per hour on the charger are added back. Every Leaf owner is going to want to add a 30-amp, 240-volt, dedicated charging line to the garage or wherever they charge. That boosts charging rates to about 20 miles of charge per hour on the charger. Most will also want a fixed charger, rather than use the car’s portable one. That means budgeting for this. In my state, a building permit and town inspection are required to have an electrician add a line like this. Though some handy EV owners do it themselves, this is maybe the dumbest do-it-yourself project one could tackle. My fellow writers and neighbors who have added these lines following the proper codes report the minimum cost to be near $1,000, and one of my colleagues whose home did not have enough amperage and whose panel was already maxed out paid $4,000. With a Prius Prime, none of that is necessary. The shorter EV range is easy to top off with a normal plug already found in the garage. If you don’t get enough time to top-off, the Prime is a 50 MPG car using gasoline.

At 3.7 miles per kWh of energy, and with my electricity cost being 23-cents per kWh, my cost for energy per mile during testing was 6 cents. About the same as any 40 MPG vehicle, like a Honda Civic, when gas costs $2.50 per gallon. A Prius Hybrid, Hyundai Ioniq hybrid, Kia Niro, Camry Hybrid, and a long list of other gas-powered green cars would offer a cost per mile of about 5 cents.  So, don’t assume that an EV will drop your fuel costs compared to a car its size powered by gas. It depends on what you pay for energy where you live.

Nissan does include free charging at a network of stations in some specific cities. Boston and Providence are included. However, despite our being in a target market for EVs, we never once parked anyplace during our test week where a public charger was located. That included the gym, our health care complex, the three supermarkets we shop at, all five of the coffee shops we go to, our pharmacy, and even the Town Hall. During a previous EV test, we did find a single charger at one new upscale date-night spot, but it was occupied by a Prius Prime all evening. The cost of energy was also extremely high at that paid charger as our image above shows.

 – Buying an EV? Here’s How Your Electric Bill Will Change

It would also be a bad assumption to guess that the Nissan Leaf will have a lower cost of maintenance because it’s an EV. Every Toyota green car comes with two-years of included maintenance. BMWs come with even more. The Leaf does not, and when we have calculated the costs in the past, the Leaf’s costs were much higher than the “zero maintenance costs” bandied about on the EV internet forums, and even in some advertisements.

Overall

The 2018 Nissan Leaf SL is enjoyable to drive in all situations, has abundant usable space, but a range that is questionable by comparison to its main rival. Inside, the Leaf SL is a comfortable car, and Nissan has made some wise design decisions. In every measurable way, the new Leaf is dramatically better than the outgoing generation. The real question is, does the 2018 Leaf work for your lifestyle. And if so, is it the best green car choice for you. We think for many, the answers will be “Yes” and “Yes.”

Fans of the Leaf will love the new generation. Every green car advocate should be happy the new Leaf is here to add to the short list of choices and to drive the development of EVs forward. Shoppers now have a second serious alternative to consider when looking for an affordable compact electric car.

 

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John Goreham

John Goreham