The new Nissan Leaf is here, and it's ... interesting

2018 Nissan Leaf photo
© Nissan

More affordable and with less range than its competitors. Add some fancy features, and it could hit a sweet spot.

I've noticed something when writing about electric cars: People can get very, very angry if a car maker doesn't make the vehicle they were hoping for. Sure, you might not want to buy it, but that doesn't mean it won't find a market. So I hope we can keep things civil.

But here goes...

The new Nissan Leaf is here. And as anticipated in yesterday's pre-launch post, it comes with some significant improvements over previous model years, and also some likely disappointments for electric car enthusiasts. Here's a top-line rundown of things that caught my eye:

Range: While the launch event heavily touted a 250 mile/400km range, it should be noted that this is based on wildly unrealistic Japanese testing standards. In real world conditions, the consensus (including from Nissan's promotional materials), is that it should get 150 miles (240 km) of cruising range. That's a massive improvement on previous years' ranges (2017 maxes out at 107, and my used 2013 gets 83), but significantly less than either the Tesla Model 3 (220-310 miles) or the Chevy Bolt (238 miles). However, Nissan is promising a more powerful, longer range, higher-priced option with a 60 kWh battery pack for the 2019 model year. This should put it firmly in the 200+ mile range.

Price: While the shorter range of the 2018 will likely be a deal breaker for many, it's worth noting that the base model MSRP comes in at a smidgeon under $30,000 before incentives—more than $5,000 less than the competition. Start adding things like a quick charge port ($1,595) and you quickly go up in price, but even the fully loaded SL model is currently listed at $36,200, which comes in at $28,700 after federal tax incentives. Having driven a 2013 Nissan Leaf as a second car for years, I am fully aware that, for daily use, range anxiety is mostly psychological. With 150 miles of range, most drivers will rarely have to charge anywhere but home. Even occasional shorter 200 to 300 mile road trips would not be too much inconvenience, as long as fast charging facilities are plentiful. Which brings me to...

Charging: Sadly, there was no mention last night of additional investments in a serious network of fast charging stations that could rival Tesla's supercharger and destination charger efforts. Yes, CHAdeMO fast charging stations are available across much of the US (and far, far more common in Japan), and Nissan's press materials suggest that fast charging will get you from "alert" to 80% in about 40 minutes—not bad, given the larger battery—but I only see myself doing this once on a road trip before it got really, really annoying. It's hard to deny the peace of mind that Tesla drivers get from knowing they could, at any point, drive across country and charge as needed. It sure would be nice to see other automakers get truly serious about a charging network based on real world needs.

One final note on charging: The regular onboard charger is still 6kw, meaning Nissan estimates 8 hours on Level 2 charging to go from zero to full—probably not a deal breaker for most of us, as we'll charge overnight, but as faster Level 2 charging stations start to appear out in the wild, it would be nice to stop for lunch and get more than 20 miles of charge.

Other Innovations: All that said, it's easy to get overly focused on range and charging. In a world where most of us charge at home most of the time, and often have a second car (maybe a plug-in hybrid?) for when we don't, I suspect there's a solid market for a shorter range, lower price car that is a pleasure to drive. And here, Nissan appears to be offering some significant improvements.

Most notable is probably the ProPilot single-lane and parking autonomous driver assist, which will keep you in lane and adjust speed according to the car in front of you. It appears to be part of the "technology package" ($2,200), but even the base price S model includes automatic emergency braking. The car also comes with what Nissan is calling e-Pedal, essentially stronger regenerative braking when you lift your foot off the accelerator, which should allow you to drive with only one pedal 90% of the time.

Also newsworthy, although not relevant for the US market, is the fact that Nissan is touting vehicle-to-grid capabilities—meaning owners will be able to store power in their car to use at home in an outage or sell to the grid, where systems are set up to accept it.

And of course, there are all the usual options of remote start, Apple and Android integration, apps and all that jazz that cars seem to offer these days. (Pardon my dismissiveness. Just not really my thing.)

Styling: In terms of looks and style, the Leaf has definitely undergone a significant upgrade to make it both a lot more mainstream and a little more luxurious. Gone are the weird bulbous headlamps (yeah, I'm a little embarrassed about those things on mine), and it has a lower, more muscular look overall. The interior is also looking quite a bit sharper, with a redesigned driver display and console. It doesn't quite reach Tesla levels of beauty and minimalism, but it doesn't look half bad.

Overall, having spoken to many, many people who are intrigued by my Leaf but nervous about its 80ish miles of range, I can see a strong market for a car like this. Nissan's leadership was projecting a doubling or even tripling of sales volume in the Japanese market. Even here in the US, I could see this doing very well.

True, it's not going to be a cross country road tripper, but then few cars actually are used that way with any regularity. As someone who has a plug-in hybrid available when I need it (and who prefers to spend my money on food, not cars), the "200+ miles of range is a necessity" dogma has always left me confused. When the time comes to trade in my 2013 Leaf, I can easily see myself opting for 50-75 fewer miles of range and saving over $5,000, especially if the driving experience and overall quality is as nice as the hype would suggest. Going from 80 miles of range to 150 would already be a step change in terms of convenience and peace of mind—and the fact that it will be disappointing to some is a sign of just how fast we have come.

The new Nissan Leaf is here, and it's ... interesting
More affordable and with less range than its competitors. Add some fancy features, and it could hit a sweet spot.

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