Test Drives

2019 Nissan Leaf review: Turning over a new Leaf



When it comes to building electric cars, the new Leaf shows that Nissan is on top of current affairs

SINGAPORE

With the Nissan Leaf, the past, present and future have all collided in one car. Major manufacturers are still working on their first electric vehicles (EVs), but the battery-powered hatch from Nissan is already in its second generation. That’s a heck of a head start, like running a race one lap ahead of everyone else.

So it has something of a past behind it even if the first Leaf didn’t land here, except for a few trial units that Nissan distributor Tan Chong owned.

As for the present, the Leaf is essentially as current as can be, and as you’d expect it brings clear technical progress over the previous model; it can travel further and go faster, which is the kind of tech advancement you want to see in an EV.

The extra range and power are due to a new inverter (that’s the bit that converts direct current from the battery into the alternating current the motor needs) that can send 110 kilowatts to the motor, and a battery with 40 kilowatt-hours of capacity (up from 30kWh) thanks to new chemistry, rather than extra size.

It looks the part of something mildly futuristic, too, with its two-tone paint and the visible flip-up hatch on the nose, under which the charging ports live — one for fast DC charging that can top it up in an hour, and the other for charging with the included wallbox, which slows things down to around six hours but is better for battery health.

The rear end, with its distinctive and sculptural rear lights, is probably where the Leaf looks most dramatically different from the rest of the Nissan range.

But the real reason the Leaf represents the future is that sooner or later, everyone will be driving an EV.

Whether you like it or not, that includes you. But you know what? Judging from the Nissan, you’ll enjoy the experience.

Powering up the Nissan is like booting up a computer, only faster — you press a button, wait for things to light up, and it’s ready to go.

The controls are by and large what you’ll find in a regular car, and that absence of gimmickry is part of the Leaf’s appeal. Drive it normally, and it’s an impressively soothing experience. It’s as quiet on the move as a Rolls-Royce (if not, more so), and the ultra light steering is something a child could operate.

The ride is a little on the firm side, but it’s never irritatingly harsh or busy.

If anything, in terms of outright refinement the Leaf is very much from the top drawer, and the silent acceleration is accompanied by a smoothness that no combustion-engined car can match.

But there’s a wicked streak to it, too. Put your foot down hard, and the Leaf jumps forward immediately, responding to your actions almost before you’ve had time to process things yourself.

It doesn’t deliver acceleration so much as unleash it, in a steady stream of rising momentum that’s as satisfying as it is eye-opening.

There’s 320Nm of torque from zero rpm, and no gearbox between the motor and front wheels, so any prod on the accelerator pedal elicits an instantaneous response.

Yet, the Nissan tends to encourage more angelic than demonic behaviour, especially since the instruments always show you the battery’s state of charge, as if to make you ever mindful of energy conservation.

Besides, there’s an “e-Pedal” driving mode that turns things into a game. It basically amps up the regenerative braking and works with the friction brakes to turn the Leaf into a car that you can drive with one pedal — ease off the accelerator correctly, and you’ll roll to a nice halt for that red light.

Driving the car that way isn’t just novel, but it encourages you to drive with much more anticipation and smoothness, which is energy efficient (and something we wish all cab drivers would learn how to do).

The e-Pedal idea isn’t new (both BMW and Jaguar have similar one-pedal modes for their EVs) but it’s an engaging way to keep you mindful of your driving style.

In fact, getting the most out the Leaf feels like a worthwhile activity, analogous to trying to wring the best laptime from your Ferrari, only much more legal on the street.

Conserving momentum means trying to get around corners a bit faster, too, and there the Leaf also does well. Since the battery lives under the floor, the car has a low centre of gravity that helps it feel immensely stable, and even though there’s practically no steering feel you soon feel confident enough to lunge into bends a bit hotter than usual, just so you can slingshot through without losing speed.

That makes for a slightly strange approach to things — gentle down the straights and forceful around corners — but driven in the right spirit, the Leaf is anything but boring.

But it’s not novelty that made the first one a success. The Leaf meets the everyday needs of the everyday driver pretty well, thanks in some part to the fact that it’s bigger than it looks in pictures.

At 2,690mm, the wheelbase is longer than that of Nissan’s own Qashqai (which has 2,646mm between axles), and at 4,480mm (versus 4,370mm) it’s a lengthier car overall. That translates to a roomy cabin, especially in the back where there’s a goodly amount of legroom.

Mind you, the floor is high because of the batteries, so that eats into space for passengers’ feet somewhat, but overall the Leaf is bigger inside than it looks outside.

The boot holds 435 litres, which is 5 litres more than a Qashqai’s, and you can carry more still stuff by folding the rear seats. Overall, it’s as versatile and roomy as a compact Sport Utility Vehicle.

Yet, therein lies a conundrum, because it’s priced more like a medium one, such as a Toyota Harrier or Mazda CX-5. Those cars offer better interiors with more space and more features, not to mention the ability to take your family to Genting Highlands without stopping. And so do many others.

In contrast, the Leaf is out of juice by 260km — on paper it’ll do more, but in our hands it flashed up a low-batt warning by 250km.

That said, there’s enough range to cover more than five days’ motoring by the average Singapore driver, so if you have regular access to charging, the Leaf would make practical sense.

Pragmatism is not the reason you’d pay a premium for one, however. Earlier Leafs (or should that be Leaves?) were beloved by their owners for their smooth EV propulsion and for the way they unshackled people from petrol stations.

We know this because Nissan has sold more than 400,000 Leafs since 2010, making it the best-selling EV in history. It was reliable from the start, too. After selling 35,000 Leafs in Europe over five years, Nissan said only three of those cars came back with a battery problem.

Given that Leaf owners have covered more than 10 billion km collectively since 2010, if you’re curious about EVs the Nissan offers one thing its competitors can’t: a long track record.

Nissan Leaf

Electric Motor 150hp, 320Nm
Battery Lithium ion, 40kWh
Charge Time / Type 5-7 hours / Wallbox
Electric Range More than 300km (NEDC)
Top Speed 144km/h
0-100km/h 7.9 seconds
Efficiency 17.1 kWh/100km
VES Band / CO2 A1 / 69g/km
Agent Tan Chong Motor Sales
Price  S$164,800 with COE
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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.