Nissan Leaf review
Nissan’s Leaf is still one of the best electric cars on sale – but it’s not without its drawbacks
The Nissan Leaf wasn’t the first all-electric small car, but importantly, it was a big step in changing the image of zero emissions, battery-powered vehicles for the better. The first generation Leaf meant that unless you were doing big miles, the car catered for the majority of short trips with ease. This second generation model further improved the original Leaf’s qualities – the main one being an increased driving range.
There’s a good-sized boot and plenty of room inside, so with its practical cabin the Leaf is potentially a genuine replacement for petrol- and diesel-powered superminis and family runarounds. On top of this, zero emissions mean very low running costs – 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.
Plugging it into the mains is how you ‘fuel’ the Nissan Leaf, by recharging the batteries with electricity. Nissan claims that this should only add around £260 to your yearly electricity bill – charging overnight is popular, too, as this is often when electricity tariffs are at their cheapest.
When the car launched there was only one model available, but now there are four different trim levels to choose from in the Leaf range. These include the entry-level Visia model, Visia+, Acenta and the top-spec Tekna variant.
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. Walking up to Visia+ 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.
Our choice: Leaf Acenta
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.
The Carwings system is a clever innovation from Nissan that allows you to 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.
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.
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 108bhp battery-powered motor, the Nissan Leaf will accelerate from 0-62mph in 11.5 seconds and has a maximum speed of 89mph (87mph on the smaller wheels).
It’s enough given how and where most owners will drive their cars, however, it’s easy to see how on paper these figures don’t look too impressive. But 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 instant performance that going for gaps in the cut and thrust of busy city streets isn’t an issue, either.
However, it won't come as a surprise to discover that the Nissan Leaf isn't a serious driver's car and the handling is pretty inert. However, if you just relax and enjoy the smooth ride and lack of engine noise, it's a great 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.
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.
The batteries in the Nissan Leaf are the biggest 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 them free of charge.
The Nissan Leaf features a standard three-year/60,000-mile warranty, but for the battery and electric motor this cover lasts a further two years.
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.
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 in comfort, and the 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 driving position is comfortable with an adjustable seat and steering wheel, meaning it should suit most people.
There is one major drawback to the Leaf’s practicality, however. Although it’s been improved with a mid-life facelift, the car’s range is the most concerning part of ownership. Once the 124-mile maximum range of battery charge is gone it takes eight hours to get to full capacity again from a normal power outlet.
At least, there are more and more fast-charge points appearing in the UK, 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.
To get the most out of the batteries you'll need to change your driving style a bit – it takes great care to wring the most out of the Leaf's range and even then you’ll be lucky to achieve the maximum distance, especially if you’re using items like the heated seats and air conditioning. Thankfully the read-outs on the dash can help coach you on how to be more energy efficient behind the wheel.
The Nissan Leaf should be very economical to run 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 charge should cost as little as £2, and from April 2015 company car drivers have had to pay tax on zero emissions electric cars like the Leaf. They used to be be levy-free, but now any 0g/km CO2 car attracts a five per cent Benefit in Kind rate.
Nissan claims that only £257 will be added to your electricity bill at the end of the year (depending on your tariff and at what times you charge your car) from keeping it charged for average usage patterns.
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.