Nissan Leaf review
Nissan’s Leaf is still one of the best electric cars on sale – but it’s not without its drawbacks
With a 124 mile maximum range that suits many real-world usage patterns, a good-sized boot and plenty of room inside, the battery-powered Nissan Leaf is potentially a genuine replacement for petrol- and diesel-powered superminis and family runarounds. At face value the minimal cost of recharging combined with zero emissions mean very low running costs too – you won’t have to pay road tax or congestion charge if you’re heading into London, and BiK rates are low for company car drivers.
But – and it’s a big one – depreciation is a killer, with the Leaf losing as much (or more) of its value in its first year as many mainstream rivals do in three. With stiff price loading at the front end too, be careful you don’t end up paying through the nose for your well-motivated green aspirations.
The Nissan Leaf wasn’t the first all-electric small car, but importantly, it was a big step in changing the image of zero-emission, battery-powered vehicles for the better. Since its introduction in the Japanese market in 2010 more than 180,000 examples have been sold, making it the most popular electric car ever. More than 40,000 have been sold here in Europe, and since 2013 the model has been produced at Nissan’s Sunderland plant in the UK.
The first generation Leaf catered for the majority of short trips with ease, with the second generation introduced to improve on the Leaf’s best qualities and increase the driving range. The latest revision has seen the addition of a 30kWh version, which has a 155-mile range.
Plugging it in is the only way to ‘fuel’ the Nissan Leaf, by recharging its batteries with mains electricity.
Nissan claims that this should only add around £260 to your yearly electricity bill – and charging overnight is often when electricity tariffs are at their cheapest.
The Leaf’s 24kWh battery is a lithium ion unit that weighs 218kg with its control module, although the 30kWh uprated battery pack does weigh slightly more. Either way, it is situated beneath the rear passengers under the cabin floor and provides power to a front-mounted electric motor that drives the front wheels.
When the car launched there was only one model available, but now there are three different trim levels to choose from in the Leaf range. These include the entry-level Visia model, Acenta and the top-spec Tekna variant, with the 30kWh battery available on the two higher trims.
As you’d expect from a forward-thinking electric car, there’s lots of tech on offer in the Leaf. All cars get Bluetooth and USB connectivity, as well as keyless go. Moving up to Visia+ specification adds a reversing camera and sat-nav, alloy wheels and tinted glass, while the Acenta variant benefits from Nissan’s Carwings system, an extra driving mode to increase regenerative braking and cruise control.
Top-of-the-range Tekna versions also get a seven-speaker Bose stereo, a 360-degree around-view camera system, heated front and rear seats, larger 17-inch alloy wheels and LED headlights.
Engines, performance and drive
Apart from the eerily quiet whine from the electric motor, and the seamless surge of acceleration, the Nissan feels just like a normal family hatchback from behind the wheel. Courtesy of its battery-powered motor, the Nissan Leaf will accelerate from 0-62mph in 11.5 seconds and has a maximum speed of 89mph.
It’s enough given how and where most owners will drive their cars, but it’s fair to say that on paper these figures don’t look too impressive. The reality is that the instant torque delivery common to all electric cars sees all 254Nm of the Leaf’s muscle arrive at once. The car feels fairly fast in town as a result, scampering away from traffic lights. There’s enough performance that going for gaps in the cut and thrust of busy city streets isn’t an issue, either.
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However, it won't come as a surprise to discover that the Nissan Leaf isn't a car for enthusiastic drivers, and the handling is pretty inert. However, if you just relax and enjoy the smooth ride and lack of engine noise, it's a good commuter car and a decent runaround for short journeys.
Refinement is good, too. The electric motor is virtually silent and Nissan has worked hard to reduce wind noise. As a result the Leaf slices quietly through the air, even on the motorway.
The extra regenerative B mode for the brakes on the Leaf mean that around town you can select this to pump more energy back into the battery when you’re slowing down, helping to increase the range that little bit more by recouping some energy that’d otherwise be wasted.
There’s only one powertrain fitted in the Leaf. All of them have a synchronous electric motor rated at 90kW which is equivalent to 108bhp. It drives the front wheels via a single speed transmission – so you only ever need to put the car into ‘D’ for Drive, or ‘R’ for Reverse.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
The Nissan Leaf should be very economical to run day-to-day as it doesn't need liquid fuel, and exhaust emissions are zero so you won’t pay any road tax. The Leaf can even be a genuinely zero-emissions car if you charge it from a green power source.
A full battery charge should cost as little as £2, but Nissan claims that the annual cost of keeping it charged for average usage patterns will be £257 (depending on your tariff and at what times you plug it in).
The reason it’s so cheap over the year, of course, is that most drivers will not completely discharge the car each day and so will only have to top it up. The claimed maximum range on a full charge is 124 miles (155 for the 30kWh model), but even if you have the lights, heating and the wipers on you should still have a comfortable cushion for daily commutes of as much as 30 miles each way.
If you’re ‘caught short’, you can plug into one of the increasing numbers of public charge points and gain an 80 percent charge in just 30 minutes.
The lithium battery pack is included in the price of your Leaf. It is guaranteed for eight years, although Nissan reckons it should have a useful life of ten years. Replacing it out of warranty will cost £5,000, but you’ll get £1,000 back if you trade in the old one.
If the thought of buying the battery unnerves you, Nissan will sell you a Leaf without one. You can then lease a battery from £70 per month for a fixed mileage (excess charges apply).
Overall, Nissan has also claimed the Leaf’s operating cost is less than 2p a mile, compared to the 10p a mile of an equivalent petrol car. Of course the Leaf is considerably more expensive to buy new than a conventional petrol or diesel car, which would make running cost calculations all but irrelevant if it wasn’t for the government grant that’s still being offered to the UK’s electric car buyers.
That potentially puts a Leaf on your drive for as little as £2,000 more than the (list) price of a Ford Focus. The Nissan’s fuel cost saving could easily win that sort of price difference back over three years of motoring. Sadly though, when you factor in the Leaf’s dreadful depreciation, the cost-saving rationale flies straight back out of the window.
From April 2015 company car drivers have had to pay tax on zero emissions electric cars like the Leaf. They used to be levy-free, but now any 0g/km CO2 car attracts a five per cent Benefit in Kind rate.
Plenty of standard kit makes the Leaf seem pretty good value for an electric car, but compare it to any of its conventionally powered rivals and it does start to look expensive.
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The insurance industry has put the Leaf into a fairly high range for insurance – its group 23 or 24 depending on model, which is higher than the 15/16 ratings for Renault’s Zoe and the BMW i3’s group 21 rating.
One word: ouch! Second hand values of Nissan Leafs are dreadful - and are likely to be even worse if you don’t even own the battery.
Market experts have recently suggested that a new Leaf will lose up to two thirds of its value in year one, which is a terrifying thought given the high prices Nissan charges for the privilege of owning the model in the first place.
The problem of appalling electric vehicle residuals isn’t unique to Nissan’s Leaf though. The same experts say early electric cars like the Renault Fluence and Citroen C-Zero fared even worse.
Interior, design and technology
When it made its debut in 2010, the boldly designed Leaf looked like it had been beamed onto the road from the future. However, it’s now become a familiar sight on UK roads, and when parked alongside the quirky BMW i3 the Nissan looks a little more down-to-earth. It broke the mould, but others have now caught up.
Still, the fared-in nose, sculpted headlamps and distinctive blue badging help the Leaf stand out from traditional family hatchbacks.
Like the exterior, the Nissan’s cabin is starting to look and feel slightly dated. For instance, the blocky LCD display for the speedo and battery charge indicator look a little old hat, as do the graphics for the centrally-mounted infotainment touchscreen – although it’s packed with useful information.
There are some neat details inside, including the distinctive domed gearlever and the metallic blue trim that is used to pick out the badges and climate controls. It can’t match the rival BMW i3 for premium appeal or quality, but the Nissan’s cabin is solidly built and feels robust.
While the layout feels a little drab and uninspiring after a stint in the futuristic i3, the use of gloss black trim for the centre console and dashboard helps give the Leaf’s interior a much-needed lift.
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Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
Leaf Visia models feature the standard 4-speaker system with DAB, with Bluetooth phone integration and a USB port. Acenta gives you all that plus touchscreen navigation and telematics.
You can download an app to your smartphone and control certain functions of the car, including checking its battery charge level, start or stop charging when plugged in, and schedule when the heater or air conditioning comes on to warm the car up in winter and cool it down in summer before you start your journey.
The ‘bells and whistles’ spec of the top level Tekna includes park assist and a reversing a camera.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
There is one obvious drawback to the Leaf’s practicality, but Leaf drivers – and other EV ‘early adopters – will necessarily have factored the range limitations into their calculations before driving out of the showroom.
Having done so, to get the most out of the batteries they'll need to change driving habits a bit – it takes great care to wring the most out of the Leaf's range and they’ll be lucky to achieve the maximum distance of 124 miles (155 in the 30kWh model), especially if using items like the heated seats and air conditioning. Thankfully the read-outs on the dash can help coach drivers on how to be more energy efficient behind the wheel.
Range has been improved with the Leaf’s mid-life facelift too, but range anxiety will always have the potential to impinge on flexibility, even if only in unforeseen circumstances. It’s also worth noting that EV ‘early adopters may well be more predisposed towards mass transit systems for trips out of town - so range anxiety is less of an issue than it would be for the average car nut who’d rather sit in a traffic jam on the M1 than share a train carriage!
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Once the Leaf’s battery charge is gone it takes eight hours to get to full capacity again from a normal power outlet, which is fine too if you can charge the car at home or in the garage overnight.
There are more and more fast-charge points appearing in the UK too, which can give you an 80 per cent charge in just 30 minutes – but you’ll need to opt for the onboard 6.6kW fast charger to take advantage of this. If you do, it also means you’ll be able to fully charge the car from flat in as little as four hours at home.
Size comparisons are not necessarily the most relevant when it comes to the Leaf. Most buyers will choose it for its green credentials rather than its load space compared to a VW Golf or Toyota Prius.
At 4,445mm overall, the Leaf is noticeably longer than the 4,255mm Golf and a little shorter than the 4,460 Prius. It’s taller than both, but narrower than the boxy Golf and wider than the aero-honed Prius.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Early versions of the Nissan Leaf trailed more traditional family hatchbacks in the practicality stakes, due to the battery pack hindering interior space.
However, Nissan has solved this issue and the Leaf is now as practical as any Volkswagen Golf or Ford Focus hatch. Three adults can sit in the back, and the driving position has an adjustable seat and a tilt (but no slide) steering wheel, meaning it should suit most people. Isofix mounting points are also standard across the range.
The Leaf’s spacious 370-litre boot means it can carry plenty of luggage too – although this drops to 355 litres if you go for cars fitted with the Bose stereo.
The load lip can be awkward too, especially as the boot floor is quite low. The seats don’t fold flat either, thanks to the large battery compartment beneath them.
There is no safe towing capacity quoted by the manufacturer.
Reliability and Safety
The Leaf has been a fixture on UK roads for around five years, so any teething troubles should have been ironed out. And while an electric car appears hi-tech on the surface, mechanically it’s far simpler than a traditional internal combustion powered machine – as there are fewer moving parts there’s less potential for things to go wrong.
In fact the Leaf Mk1 made it into our 2015 Driver Power Survey at a highly respectable 8th overall, indicating an extremely high level of satisfaction amongst owners. It was also rated 8th for reliability, but only managed a 72nd place for build quality – the survey covers 200 cars.
The batteries in the Nissan Leaf are the biggest longer term concern as their efficiency can drop over an extended period. When you’re purchasing the car, you can either choose to buy the battery pack out-right, or lease it. If you lease the battery, and the performance drops below 75 per cent, Nissan will replace the unit free of charge.
When it comes to safety, the Leaf is just as good as a conventional car and was handed a five-star Euro NCAP rating. It comes with six airbags and stability control as standard, while an audible warning system warns pedestrians you’re coming to try and stop people crossing the road in front of the near-silent Nissan.
All Nissans – including the Leaf - come with a three-year/60,000 mile warranty, which is pretty un-noteworthy. For an extra charge you can extend the cover on the whole car to five years.
If you bought your Leaf and its battery (as opposed to leasing the battery), you get the added peace of mind of five year cover on the power pack. The same condition parameters apply in the case of leased batteries, so if the unit degrades to the extent that only nine of the twelve charge status lights illuminate on the dashboard after a full charge you’ll get a new battery courtesy on Nissan.
The Leaf’s service intervals are on a par with a modern Nissan diesel – namely every 18,000 miles or on the anniversaries of when you bought it, depending on which arrive first.