Review: Nissan Leaf

Design, interior and infotainment

Electricity-powered cars predated gasoline cars by about 50 years and even outsold gasoline cars toward the tail end of the 19th century. It’s hard to imagine that electric vehicles were once a common sight (by 19th century standards) in today’s gasoline-dominated market. While we’re at an epoch of automotive innovation, performance and efficiency, oil is a finite resource that will eventually run out.

There are two paths to alternative fuels, and the automotive industry is split between hydrogen and electric vehicles (EV). Nissan is placing its bet on electrification and unleashed the leading environmentally-friendly, affordable family car (Leaf) to the world in 2010.

The Leaf received incremental updates with new features, a change of production to Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn. manufacturing plant, and revised battery chemistry throughout the last five years, but the battery capacity and infotainment system remained the same, until now. New for the 2016 model year Leaf SV and SL trims is a 30 kWh battery, up from the 24 kWh on the base S trim and previous years, bringing the total range rating up to 107-miles, from 84, of gasoline-free driving.

Nissan sent techradar a 2016 Leaf SV with premium package with an MSRP of $36,620 (£25,640 for the similarly equipped Acenta trim, Australia only has one trim for AU$40,000) for a week of gasoline-free driving.

Before I go on about the car, it should be known that I bought my wife a 2015 Leaf SL with premium package a year ago. We’ve been happy with the car and quite familiar with the public EV infrastructure in Washington State. However, EV ownership is a difference experience that required changing driving habits and greater planning, which I will no doubt elaborate on.

Styling isn’t a strong point for the Leaf. The front end reminds me of a Pokemon, Bulbasaur specifically, with giant headlights and a smirky grin. Halogen headlights with reflector housings are standard on the Leaf SV, but stepping up to the SL trim gets you more energy-efficient, LED low-beams, if you want to consume less energy at night. My experience with the halogens in the SV and LED in my personal SL yield minimal lighting gains. Both headlights rely on reflector housings and are a far cry from matching the light output of projector-based halogen, high-intensity discharge (HID) or more powerful LEDs.

Nissan Leaf

Moving around back reveals giant LED tail lights that remind me of old Volvo station wagons. The sloped rear hatch theoretically helps aerodynamics, but you do lose out on cargo capacity compared to the more rectangular station wagon look, which I prefer.

The design cue I dislike the most on the Leaf is the chrome door handles. I despise chrome trim on all modern cars, especially on door handles, because it’s a fingerprint magnet. Installing something prone to showing fingerprints on the most frequently touched area of a car is a pet peeve of mine. However, the door handles is the only area with a design change with the refresh – the door lock and unlock button is now black instead of chrome like previous model years.

Interior

Step inside and you’ll find a spartan interior that belongs in a budget-priced subcompact more so than a car that costs north of $30,000. The dashboard is devoid of soft-touch materials and covered in cheap, hard plastic. Fortunately, the door panel and center armrests are covered with soft cloth to help comfort when cruising along.

Nissan Leaf

Look forward and you’ll see a two-tier digital cluster that separates the speedometer from the vehicle information. While the cluster is digital, per se, it reminds me of the ’80s digital gauge clusters instead of the modern LCD displays found in current cars.

It looks plain but very functional with a digital speedometer, clock and outside air temperature. The high placement of the speedometer keeps it within your peripheral vision while focusing on the road, which is helpful, because the distance you can travel with an EV highly varies on the speed. The left side of the digital cluster is an eco-meter that “builds trees” to show how efficient your driving is. My driving isn’t very efficient, so not many trees appear during my driving.

The traditional gauge cluster directly in front of the steering wheel features a vehicle information display, battery temperature, battery capacity, range estimate and how much power is consumed relative to the accelerate pedal use, all useful information to have when driving an EV. The information display serves as a digital trip meter, but also shows the battery percentage, charging time and access to vehicle settings.

Nissan Leaf

I leave the display on the battery percentage display most of the time, so I have a more accurate idea of how much battery is left, because the estimated range displayed is extremely optimistic and should be taken lightly.

One thing you’ll have to get used to in the Nissan Leaf is the shifter – it’s completely different from the PRNDL layout of traditional automatic transmissions. Instead, it’s a spherical shifter with a dedicated park button. Operating the shifter is easy and didn’t take very long for me to get used. Nissan provides a graphic that shows how to operate it directly below.

Nissan Leaf

There are reverse, neutral and drive functions. To put the car into gear, you move the shifter to the left and up or down. When the car is in drive, you can move the shifter left and down again for more aggressive regenerative braking, which I’ll talk about in the next page. Putting the car in park simply requires stopping the car and pressing the P button in the center of the shifter.

Lastly, I want to mention the seats. The Leaf doesn’t have sport seats with amazing side bolster support, which I prefer in every car, but the seats are very comfortable. There isn’t a lumbar adjustment, but the the lower back arch and firmness contours well to my 5’7″ and 195-pound frame. They have the right amount of firmness and plushness for comfortably long drives without inducing aches, pains or fatigue.

The seats are heated and get toasty, too. Nissan even heats the steering wheel, which gets uncomfortably hot quickly. The Leaf’s heated seats and steering wheel help warm up your body faster while consuming less energy than the car’s already-efficient heat-pump-based climate system, which theoretically aids driving range.

Infotainment system

New for 2016 is the NissanConnect infotainment system that brings the Leaf up to date with the rest of Nissan’s model lineup. Nissan kept the 7-inch screen size and buttons exactly the same as the previous model years. In fact, there are no visual interior differences between 2015 and 2016 models, when the car is off at least.

The double-din-sized infotainment system features a screen that opens and tilts to reveal a CD player and SD card slot for the navigation maps. A USB port in front of the cup holders is available for flash drives and iOS device connectivity. SiriusXM, HD Radio and NissanConnect EV telematics rounds out the complete package.

Nissan Leaf

Audio functions are straight-forward with no surprises. Music stored on flash drives can be navigated by track data or folders. The one music navigating function of all Nissan and Infiniti infotainment systems is still there – when you select a music folder, it immediately begins playing it instead of just opening the folder to let you pick a song first. SiriusXM and HD Radio functions are basic and work without time-shifting capabilities.

I tested the USB port power output capabilities using a Drok USB power meter with my Nexus 6 and iPhone 6S. Power output was 0.8-amps with the iPhone 6S and 0.5-amps with the Nexus 6. While the NissanConnect system can charge iPhone’s at a decent rate, you’re better off using a 12-volt USB charger or USB power bank for Android devices.

Nissan’s updated user interface is more visually pleasing with better graphics that are highly customizable, but it’s a clunky mess. There’s simply too much customization available. The home screen lets you choose and pick what functions and widgets are displayed on three separate screens.

I prefer the simpler, split home screen in the Kia Optima, Hyundai Tucson and Toyota’s since they display radio information, a small navigation map and a couple functional buttons, whereas the NissanConnect UI has a 4 x 2 grid layout. While the NissanConnect 4 x 2 grid is customizable, each information display occupies a 2 x 2 space and each button takes up one spot, so you can either have two information displays or four buttons with one information display.

Nissan Leaf

Sure, three home screens are available, but I don’t like fiddling around with the infotainment system for information that I should be able to see at a single glance. Nissan deserves credit for keeping static menu functions at the bottom of the screen for audio, phone, information, map, navigation and settings functions, but everything is replicated by physical buttons on each side of the display.

As much of a fan I am of physical buttons, I’d rather see a larger 4:3 ratio screen with knobs for volume and folder navigation than having the same buttons on and off screen.

Visual nuances aside, NissanConnect includes smartphone app connectivity, but the function is extremely limited. By extremely limited, I mean it only supports Google Online Search with the NissanConnect app installed on your smartphone. There’s no Pandora or other Internet radio support, unfortunately.

Bluetooth is available for hands-free voice, music streaming and text messaging. I paired my Nexus 6 and iPhone 6S without any issues. Text messaging support is quite worthless – it can read you text messages and present you with quick replies, but you’re better off using Google Now or Siri for those purposes. Siri Eyes Free isn’t supported, annoyingly.

Nissan Leaf

Nissan incorporates EV-friendly features with the navigation software to show nearby charging stations and an estimated radius of where you can travel with the available charge. They’re nice gestures, but the charging station database is severely outdated and doesn’t even list some of the dealerships that have Level 3 CHAdeMo quick-charge stations.

You’re better off using the Nissan EZ-Charge app for smartphones or PlugShare to find an up to date charging station list with user reviews and check ins. The navigation maps are your standard fare flat maps, with different available route calculations that can optimize the trip for maximum battery range (slow surface streets mostly).

While mapping a route for maximum battery range is convenient, I’m not the type of person to use the navigation functions for places I frequently visit, so I’m not really open to taking alternative routes or driving mostly on the streets when the freeway is available, just to save some battery life.

Nissan Leaf

Previous Leaf owners will find the Zero Emission functions identical to the older infotainment system. Nissan essentially transplanted the same functions and interface to the new infotainment system. The Zero Emission functions provides greater energy consumption information for the electric motor, climate control and other items. It even estimates how much range you can gain by turning off climate control.

I find the information convenient to have on hot days where blasting the A/C can make the difference of making it to the next charging station or being towed there, on longer drives.

NissanConnect EV, Audio and Around View Monitor

NissanConnect EV replaces CarWings on previous model years as the telematics service in the Leaf. CarWings relied on AT&T’s 2G network, which shuts down in December 2016. NissanConnect EV upgrades the telematics module to AT&T’s 3G network, which doesn’t have a shut off date yet, but not quite as sexy or fast as their LTE network.

Nissan Leaf

However, the functions that require cellular connectivity aren’t high bandwidth tasks. NissanConnect EV enables the driver to remotely access functions of the car, such as check on the battery levels, manually start or stop a charge, set a timer for charging (to only charge at off-peak hours for cheaper rates) or climate control (to get the car warmed up on cold mornings), and driving history (distance and energy consumption only, not location). The functions are accessible via web browser or a smartphone companion application.

New to NissanConnect on 2016 Leaf’s is the ability to locate your car, in case you forget where you parked it. I’ve personally never forgot where I parked my car that requires using such a feature, but some of my fellow editors mentioned it’s happened to them.

The functions all work as intended, but it’s slow as molasses – yes, I went there. Nissan’s move to AT&T’s 3G network did not help speed things up at all. It takes 25 seconds to login to the NissanConnect EV application and just as long to trigger any of the remote functions, while I was connected to my home Wi-Fi network with a 100/15Mbps Internet connection. Maybe I’m impatient and spoiled, but it shouldn’t take that long to log in or use any of the functions.

Bose premium audio

Nissan loves Bose-branded premium audio, and offers the option on most of its new vehicles, including the Leaf. The Bose premium sound system is part of a $1,570 premium package (not available in UK or AU) that also adds the Around View Monitor 360-degree camera system.

The Leaf’s Bose system features seven speakers, each with individual amplification from an energy-efficient amplifier, in a four channel configuration. The front speakers consist of 1-inch tweeters in each A-pillar and 6.5-inch speakers in the front doors. The rear doors have smaller 5.25-inch speakers while a 4.5-inch woofer is located in the trunk, in an acoustic waveguide bassbox. The door speakers all use neodymium magnets to keep the weight down.

Nissan Leaf

As with most Bose sound systems engineered for space savings, the old saying “no highs, no lows, must be Bose,” definitely applies to the Leaf, and every other Bose-equipped vehicle I’ve listened to. The tweeters produce average sound quality with a slight hint of clarity but no detail – you won’t hear crisp sound of cymbals or other high notes.

The entire mid and low range is laughably pathetic, because the system tries to trick your brain into thinking the frequencies are being produced, but it sounds dull and sloppy. It sounds like going up to a large, marching band bass drum and giving it a light tap instead of smashing the drum with a mallet – there’s no depth, smoothness or warmth to the sound.

Around View Monitor

Bose premium sound aside, the premium package includes one of the best tech features available today, and that’s the 360-degree camera system. Nissan calls it Around View Monitor (AVM). The system stitches together four cameras to produce a top-down view of the car, side-by-side with a second view, and feeds it to the infotainment screen.

Camera’s are placed on the front, back and side mirrors. You can trigger the cameras at low-speeds or while parked. When the car is put in reverse, the rear view is the default view. The system switches to the front view if you put the car in drive after reversing first too. There’s an option to pull up each individual side cameras as well.

Nissan Leaf

I can’t say it enough, I love 360-degree camera systems. They make parking so much easier, especially in tights spots or the dreaded parallel park. I wish more companies would offer it in their entire vehicle ranges, but so far, Nissan is the only non-luxury brand to have it as an option on anything from the Versa (or Note for our friends across the Atlantic) to the Armada.

As much as I dislike the Bose sound system in the premium package, it’s a bundle deal to get the excellent AVM, unfortunately. The AVM is also the reason I opted for the premium package for my wife’s 2015 Leaf too.

Performance and living with it

The Leaf’s powertrain is purely electric. The only fluid to change in the car is brake fluid, but even that can go for at least 60,000 miles. There’s also wiper fluid to top off, if you need to wash your windshield and rear windows. This helps cut down on maintenance costs – there are no $60 engine oil changes, transmission fluid changes, timing belts or chains, water pumps or much maintenance at all.

There are standard disc brakes, but the car relies on regenerative braking, which uses the motor to slow the car down while charging the battery pack in the process and reduces wear on the brake pads. These are some of the reasons why my wife wanted a Leaf. (I’m great at maintaining my own car but I slack when it comes to my wife’s unexciting cars.)

Nissan Leaf

The motor may sound weak, with a measly 107 horsepower (hp), but don’t let the numbers deceive you, as its only part of the equation to power. Torque is what makes the Leaf feel peppy around town, and the car makes 187 pound-feet (lb-ft). Unlike an internal combustion engine that gradually makes more torque, and in result horsepower, as the engine increases the revolutions per minute (RPM), all 187 lb-ft and 107 hp is available instantly at the press of the accelerator pedal.

When you need to accelerate or pass someone on the freeway, all that power is available right away without the transmission downshifting for the optimal power band. It’s always available, which is why electric motors are awesome. It doesn’t pack the light-speed capabilities of a Tesla Model S, but it’s definitely a better experience than an underpowered, economical hatchback.

But, if you have a lead foot like myself, it drains the battery pack faster. New to the 2016 Leaf is the larger 30 kWh battery pack, up from the 24 kWh from earlier models (base S trim still has the 24 kWh unit), that’s rated for 107 miles of range, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The 24 kWh battery was rated for 84 miles.

The range rating is for the EPA’s testing cycle and varies greatly depending on temperature, climate control use, speed and altitudes traveled, since energy consumption increases greatly if you’re constantly going up hills or steep inclines, but regenerative braking charges the pack if you’re going back down the same incline.

To test out range, I grabbed my 4-year-old daughter and drove from Graham, Wash. to Kenmore to visit a local camera shop, got lunch and stopped at the Bellevue Nissan dealership to charge. It was an average day in Washington State, which included rain and 40-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. I went easy on the accelerator pedal and drove on the freeway at a steady 60 mph and managed to drive 75 miles with 22% battery left when I reached the CHAdeMO quick-charger.

If you buy a Leaf in the US, Nissan gives you an EZ-Charge card that provides free public charging at select locations. An EZ-Charge card was not included with the Leaf Nissan sent to techradar, but I grabbed my wife’s card to use. The dealership chargers were part of the Aerovironment network, which the EZ-Charge card provides free charging for the first 30-minutes, which is plenty.

Nissan Leaf

I plugged the car in, went into the dealership’s warm waiting room and waited 30-minutes for the car to charge. The dealership had a TV to watch, comfortable couches to lounge in with free coffee, apples and vending machines if you wanted snacks or a soda. I sat there playing on my phone while sipping espresso until it was done.

In the 30 minutes of charging, the car gained 70% of capacity, which was plenty to get me home. I went on my way, stopped for some bubble tea and made it home with around 40% of charge left. My entire round trip was about 120 miles, which is a bit further than I usually drive, but I only had to wait 30-minutes to use a quick charger. The Leaf’s 30 kWh battery has plenty of range for your typical commute or trips around town.

I’m actually quite jealous of the new battery and wish I waited a year, as the additional capacity easily solves some range anxiety. While our 2015 Leaf with the 24 kWh battery is fine for our trips to Seattle, albeit we have to charge to make it home, trips to Oregon are out of the question. The additional range would at least get us to Oregon, which is 120 miles away, with a single stop at a quick charger, instead of stopping every 40 miles (the CHAdeMo chargers are every 40-miles or so) so we don’t get stranded.

In terms of handling, the Leaf feels very nose heavy when diving into turns aggressively, but it’s not something a typical Leaf owner should worry about. When driving around the city, the suspension dampens bumps in the roads with comfort. Steering responds to input with precision suitable for a daily driver, but don’t expect sports car road feel and precision. Overall, it does the job it was built for, and if you’re not a performance-oriented driver, like myself, you’ll be satisfied.

Living with the car

Living with an EV is a different experience, as you can’t stop at a gas station to fill up. The car has to charge at home or in public. I personally charge my Leaf at home with a Bosch 30-amp Level 2 (240V) charger, while some people are perfectly happy with the included Level 1 (120V) charger.

Charging times are significantly longer with Level 1, which can take over a day to charge a completely depleted battery, whereas a Level 2 takes around 6 hours. If you constantly deplete the battery for your drive, I highly suggest a Level 2 charger, but if you’re only running around town, the included Level 1 may be enough.

As for family-friendliness of the car, we partnered up with Diono, a car seat manufacturer, to test-fit three car seats in the back of the Leaf. Diono’s USA headquarters is in Puyallup, Wash., where I conduct vehicle testing and a convenient place to stop by and test-fit car seats. With the help of Diono, I attempted to install three Radian RXT convertible car seats in the back of the Leaf.

Nissan Leaf

The Leaf features two lower LATCH anchors for the outboard seats, which is typical for most cars. Three top LATCH anchors are available on the back of the seats. I chose to install the car seats with the 3-point seat belt as the lower LATCH anchors have weight limits of up to 65 pounds. The Leaf passed the test and was able to fit two forward and one rear-facing, or three forward-facing car seats without any trouble.

Nissan made the seats plush, which made it very easy to install the seat and get it very tight, using the seat belt. Despite the small size, the Leaf is the smallest car that can fit three car seats in forward and rear-facing configurations.

Junk in the trunk

The Leaf’s hatchback design gives it 23.6 cubic feet (cu-ft) of trunk space, which is a little more than the Honda HR-V we tested. Nissan equips the car with passive keyless entry, so the hatch can be opened if the key fob is in your pocket. I’ll give Nissan credit for the buttons available on the hatch, two buttons are available: one rectangular button that releases the trunk hatch and one smaller circular that locks or unlocks the car. The subtle nicety is helpful if you get out of the car, take something out of the trunk and lock the car without having to walk around to the front door or taking the keyfob out of your pocket.

I keep a Sumo Gigantor and Omni from Sumo Lounge around for trunk space testing. The Gigantor is a little too big to carry in and out of my house, so I stick to using the Omni for most cars. It’s a fun way I devised to show how big a trunk is.

Nissan Leaf

I dragged the Sumo Omni outside on a rainy day, which is typical for most of the year in Washington State, and shoved the bean bag into the back of the Leaf. I got the bean bag a third of the way in with the back seats up, and it should fit fine with the seats down. The sloped rear hatch of the Leaf, intended for aerodynamics, may prevent large and tall objects from fitting in the cargo area, if you must have rear passengers.

The load height is quite high and not completely flat to the trunk opening, so it’s not ideal for loading or unloading heavier objects. Overall, the trunk space is adequate for a kid’s stroller, but the car isn’t ideal for transporting heavy and large-sized items.

Verdict

Nissan’s Leaf is a car designed for those that want to break-free of oil dependence, or are simply tired of paying for gas at the pump, but at a price. The as-tested MSRP of $36,620 (£25,640 for the similarly equipped Acenta trim, Australia only has one trim for AU$40,000) is quite steep, especially if you can’t maximize the $7,500 federal government tax credit.

If you do qualify for the tax credit, there’s also a $3,500 rebate if the car is financed through Nissan Motor Acceptance Corporation (NMAC), which knocks $11,000 off the MSRP to bring it down to a reasonable $25,620. There’s also the lease option that takes the rebates into account too.

Nissan Leaf

However, unless you really want an EV, similarly-priced internal combustion engine cars at the same MSRP, or even the price after rebate, have much higher quality interior materials, driver assists and better infotainment systems.

We liked

The new 30 kWh battery is a major improvement that makes the Leaf more attractive to rural residents like myself. While the previous 24 kWh battery was adequate for a 40-50-mile round trip commute without charging, there wasn’t much excess capacity for multiple detours. Having an additional 23 miles of additional rated range can be that extra distance needed to push those hesitant of EV’s towards broader acceptance.

CHAdeMO quick charging technology, or any quick charging technology, is a must have nowadays for EVs. Being able to stop for 30-minutes and gain 70% battery capacity makes EVs easier to live with and take on trips with less inconvenience, just make sure your state has a good EV quick charging infrastructure.

Nissan’s Around View Monitor is excellent, but I’ve yet to use a 360-degree camera that I didn’t like. It’s a simple feature that may seem archaic to self-parking systems in cars such as the VW Passat, but I prefer to park the car myself than rely on computers to steer me into place.

We disliked

NissanConnect provides a fresh face to the previous Leaf’s ancient infotainment system, which was still stuck in 2010, but it’s a far cry from anything I’d consider good. Just give us Android Auto or Apple CarPlay and engineer a charging station locator app that is actually up to date and compatible with the two. While I enjoy customizing the home screen on my smartphone, stop trying to transplant the same feature to the car. I want a UI that’s designed for quick glances with minimal touch screen input while driving.

I’m not a fan of Bose premium sound or anything Bose, with the exception of the QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones. The sound quality may please those that have never experienced good audio quality,, but it’s not something that makes music enjoyable to my ears. Having to pay for the Bose option to get the excellent Around View Monitor is a travesty, too.

Fit and finish of the Nissan Leaf was quite bad. The gaps between the tail lights and rear fascia (bumper) were inconsistent with a tight fit on one side and a large gap on the other side. I also had to snap the interior panels in the cargo area back into place because they weren’t installed securely. There’s still the issue with paint matching between the metal body panels and the plastic front and rear fascias: in certain sunlight, the colors don’t match.

This isn’t a worn-down press car problem either, as I was the first one to receive this 2016 Leaf in the Seattle area. These are problems I’ve noticed with previous Leafs too, including a 2015 Leaf SL press car in which I had to reinstall the switch panel for the rear seat heater switch. My own Leaf has a rear fascia that wasn’t aligned properly either.

Final verdict

The new battery pack in the 2016 Leaf may entice more buyers to embrace the electric car, but the car lacks in infotainment and driver assist technology. If you’re currently leasing a Leaf that’s nearing the return date and looking to pick up another one, the 2016’s battery pack alone is worth trading up.

If you bought your Leaf, like I did, the hit you’d take from the terrible trade-in value isn’t worth it to get 23-miles of range. Yes, I looked into this possibility. Nissan doesn’t offer an upgrade to the 30 kWh battery for existing owners either, unfortunately.

Nissan Leaf

Now for everyone else, should you buy a Leaf or EV? It’s a tough question – if it makes financial sense for you, once you take maintenance and fuel costs into consideration, go for it. If you care about the environment and live in an area where electricity comes primarily from eco sources such as: hydrogen, solar or wind, it’s a solid, eco-conscious choice.

I made the decision to buy my wife a 2015 Leaf because we had a 2011 VW Routan (a rebadged Dodge Caravan) that required $90 synthetic oil changes, got 17 mpg for most of her driving and ate through brake rotors and rear pads every 15,000 miles. I wanted something with virtually zero maintenance. Have there been times I regretted my purchase?

Sure, when my wife complains her car won’t charge in time for her next trip, I wish the car had more range, which the 30 kWh battery easily solves. But my wife loves her car, despite my subtle nudges to push her back into a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, such as the Chevy Volt.

I also kept my gasoline-powered 2014 Mazda5 Sport with a 6-speed manual transmission for longer trips, which my wife isn’t too proficient at driving yet, for my driving. I’ll admit the Leaf could never be a primary car for me, but I enjoy driving on windy roads and driving manual transmission, which the Leaf does not deliver.

However, if I ever had to commute to an office or spent a lot of time in traffic, the Leaf would be a fine commuting car. Just don’t expect any driver assists or much technology outside of the powertrain.

If you must have an EV now, the 2016 Leaf offers fairly good range, but the competition heats up in 2017 with the upcoming Chevy Bolt, Tesla Model 3 and even the next-generation Leaf.

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