Since its introduction in 2010, the battery-powered, 107-mile-range, $30,000 Nissan Leaf has been the best-selling electric vehicle in the United States. But that leadership is under challenge with new, more attractive, affordably priced entries from Chevrolet and Tesla promising longer range for under $40,000.
On Thursday night, Nissan debuted Leaf 2.0. And while it won’t join the 200-like-range-for-under-$40,000 club pioneered by the Chevy Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3, it will increase its range while remaining the EV segment’s price leader.
At just $29,990 – $690 below the 2017 Leaf – the all-new, 2018 Leaf promises a 40-percent bump in range to 150 miles and more mainstream design. Produced in three plants around the globe – including Smyrna, Tennessee, for the U.S. market – the Leaf was jointly developed by a global engineering team, including significant input on autonomous and regenerative systems developed by Nissan’s Farmington Hills Tech Center.
“It’s about the right value,” said Overseas Chief Vehicle Engineer Chris Reed, who led North American Leaf development out of Farmington Hills. “The Leaf was hitting about 90 percent of (customer) usage scenarios, so we made it 40 percent better. We all are dealing with the cost of batteries. We are working on a bigger battery for the customer that wants that range. But for our main customer who wants to be under $30,000, with 40 percent more range, more features, and a mainstream car – the Leaf is the right value relationship.”
While EV sales remain under 1percent of the U.S. market, the Leaf aims to capitalize on increasing government mandates for zero-emission cars. The U.S.’s largest EV market, California, is mandating that 15 percent of vehicle sales by EV by 2025 while countries like England and French will ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2040.
"When we launched Leaf in 2010, it instantly became the most affordable, mass market EV in the world. We are not walking away from that proposition," said Jose Muñoz, Nissan North America’s Chief Performance Officer, in Las Vegas where the Leaf’s introduction was simulcast with Tokyo.
Derided for its nerdy styling, the original, egg-shaped Leaf made a green statement with a smooth, grille-less fascia and smooth sides. The 2018 model conforms to the rest of Nissan’s design portfolio with a familiar “V-motion” grille — anchored by its signature, chrome, “bull nose-ring” — as well as boomerang rear taillights and more sculpted rocker panels. The rear c-pillar even gets the racy, “floating roof” treatment pioneered by the stylish Nissan Murano.
Leaf 2.0 will initially come equipped with a 40 kWh battery with the upped 150-mile range that will eclipse other low-priced EV options like the Volkswagen e-Golf, the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, the Honda Clarity Electric, and the Ford Focus Electric. With a longer-range, 60 kWh battery similar to that found in the Chevy Bolt — which should push the range past 200 miles.
Plug the Leaf into a 240-volt, Level 2 wall charger and it will fully recharge in about eight hours. The new Nissan is also Level 3 (so-called “DC fast charger”) capable, which can recover 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. But Level 3 chargers are rare in Metro Detroit with locations in Ferndale, Dearborn, Ann Arbor and a few other locations.
The Leaf also introduces new, innovative technologies that the Bolt and Tesla have made synonymous with EVs like single-pedal driving — Nissan calls it the e-Pedal — and autonomous driving capability. In DRIVE mode the e-Pedal is activated by a switch on the dash that allows for single pedal driving — that is, when lifting your right foot off the accelerator, the car will start braking. Like the Bolt EV’s LOW mode, the Leaf can come all the way to stop if the e-Pedal is not applied for acceleration.
The e-Pedal idea was a product of Reed’s Farmington Hills engineering team.
“If we didn’t start that conversation here that wouldn’t have happened. We’re always listening to customer feedback through customers clinics and frontline feedback,” said Reed. “They understood regeneration and they asked if it couldn’t do more. So that is where idea started and so the people running the clinics brought it back to the engineers.”
He says the team saw the e-Pedal’s greatest benefit on hills for parallel parking and stop-start situations such as on the steep hills in San Francisco.
“Nissan a global operation ... and all these little details differ from region to region. We did a lot of work on the hills of San Francisco,” Reed continued. “What is unique is the seamless connection between the regenerative brake side and the actual friction brakes. We call it stop-and-hold. You take foot off the pedal as it eases to a stop and it holds.”
Chevy’s Bolt has outsold the Leaf in the U.S. this year while Tesla’s Model 3 — due this fall — has created a global sensation with more than 500,000 pre-orders. But Nissan executives touted the Japanese brand’s reputation for reliability with a shot across the bow of Tesla, which has experienced quality issues and some highly publicized crashes.
“We have advantages that Tesla does not,” said Daniele Schillaci, Nissan executive vice president of global sales. “It’s easy to introduce technology that grabs headlines, but it’s harder to engineer it safely to makes people’s lives better.”
Engineer Reed says Nissan has never had a safety issue with the Leaf in its eight years on the market.
“We gouged the battery with a nail then started it right away. We shot it with a bullet. Crazy things can happen on the road. We focus all our engineering experience on everything we do,” he said.
Henry Payne is the Detroit News auto critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.