Payne: Nissan turns over a new Leaf
I vaguely remember my high school chemistry and biology labs: dissected frogs, Bunsen burners, glass tubes and petri dishes. It was all good fun with mysterious tools to determine I can’t remember what exactly.
The second-generation 2018 Nissan Leaf is a rolling science experiment.
With 40-kWh of batteries in the floor, CHAdeMO fast-charging capability and semi-autonomous ProPilot-assist, it bristles with the latest tools to try to prove affordable EVs can survive outside the lab in the cold, Darwinian consumer marketplace.
Indeed, the original, 2011 Leaf looked like a strange specimen that started life swimming in a petri dish. It was oddly amphibian with its smooth snout and big hood-mounted eyes. With a blunt hatchback, the five-door tadpole looked like it was yanked from the incubator too soon.
It was a nerdmobile that only a tree hugger could love (the name gives its target audience away), making the goofy Toyota Prius look like Leo DiCaprio by comparison. Leo is one of those celebrities who tells us electric vehicles are the future while tooling around in a six-figure Fisker Karmas.
Celebrities don’t arrive at Oscar parties driving Nissan nerdmobiles. No, the generation-one Leaf was meant for the rest of us: a relatively affordable hatchback that could go nearly 100 miles on a charge. At 300,000 units sold, it was the best-selling EV ever — asterisk, please, since electrics are a measly 1 percent of the U.S. market. Ford sells as many F-150s in four months as the Leaf sold in six years. I never drove it.
But with the excellent Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 EVs now on sale — the first cars under $40,000 with over 200 miles of range — Leaf’s niche is under assault.
Thus, my Leaf 2.0 keeps its granola name but otherwise makes a studied effort to broaden its base with a better price point and good looks.
Gone is the tadpole silhouette. It’s replaced by familiar Nissan DNA including the V-motion grille, floating roof and boomerang taillights. It looks like a proper car, though the overall shape still reminds me of a giant computer mouse.
The interior maintains Leaf’s signature electronic-toggle shifter, but has otherwise been de-geeked. The screen, happily, comes with smartphone-app connectivity because the navigation on my loaded $37,865 tester was in the Stone Age compared to Google Maps.
The front-wheel drive Leaf is no greyhound, but it’s no garden slug either. On Michigan’s race tracks — er, freeways — its electric torque is useful for power-merging, and it cruises easily at 80 mph.
The bigger-battery 60-kWh Chevy Bolt starts at $37,495 and balloons to over $40,000 to get comparable features to the Nissan. The new Leaf’s 150-mile battery range trounces Leaf 1.0, but falls nearly 90 miles short of the Bolt — a shortcoming that is significant in real-world driving.
The lab test says it has a 150-mile range, but in the wild EV range is another matter.
I drove the Leaf like any other car, which took 40 miles off the range for every 25 miles traveled. That means it got only 60 percent of advertised range. This despite its nifty e-Pedal, a regenerative-braking feature that I used for one-pedal driving.
Detroit’s 30-degree March weather (more global warming, please!) surely didn’t help.
The same is true of the 240-mile-range Bolt and Model 3, but their real-world 150-mile range leaves plenty of cushion in a metro area where a round trip from Oakland County-to-Ann Arbor is 80 miles. Such trips in the Leaf mean pesky Dr. Range Anxiety is always in your head whispering, Are you sure you have enough juice to get back home?
Unless you travel fixed routes every day, your life will revolve around the Leaf: Where are the charging stations if you need them? Is there a Starbucks nearby while you charge?
And heaven forbid you forget to plug in when you come home, which I did one Saturday night. Blame it on the Final Four. I was eager to get inside for the game and didn’t plug in for the night. Four-miles-per-hour charging capacity on a 110-volt wall plug is measly, but it would have returned a useful 40 miles.
Instead, I woke up Sunday morning with half a battery and no 240-volt chargers nearby. Worse, Metro Detroit is still a supercharger desert, with Ferndale and Ann Arbor the only oases in sight. So on Sunday night, Mrs. Payne and I traveled to Ferndale to top up at Dunkin’ Donuts with 44 miles (26 miles in real-world driving) left on the battery.
I imagine there are plenty of Ferns in Leafdale — er, Leafs in Ferndale — but, thankfully, there was no wait for the lone charger. In 45 minutes (the maximum time allowed) the Nissan was 80 percent full — and so were Mrs. Payne and I after a sumptuous meal at nearby Pop’s Italian restaurant.
Time for lab experiment No. 2 on the ride home: ProPilot drive-assist.
If the future is self-driving EVs, then I was determined to try Leaf’s sci-fi feature. My apologies to my wife whose blonde hair is now white. Not that the ProPilot doesn’t work. It just drives like a robot.
I activated ProPilot on the steering wheel on I-696 and the system calibrated itself, centering the car in its lane (just like Nissan’s “Star Wars” ad). The universal symbol for self-driving, a green steering-wheel icon, showed the system was activated.
Though such Tesla-like autonomous systems require a hand on the wheel, the computer effectively ghost-drives, keeping it centered even through fast I-696 curves. For Mrs. Payne in the right seat, however, staying lane-centered next to looming 18-wheelers got a bit claustrophobic (a human driver intuitively moves left for cushion) — while I nervously kept an eye on the green wheel icon which cuts out as soon as the camera can’t read white lines.
Worse, however, was coming off the freeway onto Telegraph Road. Even as I backed adaptive cruise-control down to 50 miles per hour, the Nissan’s tendency was to rush up on stopped traffic, then slam on the brakes to slow down. At which point, my wife’s fingernails were embedded two inches into the dash.
So Nissan (and other automakers) has work to do. A pricier, 200-plus-mile-range Leaf will soon debut. Yet even with the federal $7,500 tax subsidy, its price will dwarf a similarly sized, 400-mile-range Nissan Versa.
Like my high school science labs, I’m still not sure what question the Leaf is meant to answer. But it’s no longer painful to look at, comfortably seats four and makes for a fun experiment.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Nissan Leaf
Front-motor, front-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback
$30,875 base ($37,865 SL as tested before $7,500 federal EV tax subsidy)
40-kWh lithium-ion battery pack mated to 110-kW AC electric motor
147 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque
0-60 mph, 7.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 92 mph
3,508 pounds as tested
EPA fuel economy MPGe: 124 city/101 highway/112 combined
Highs: Welcome face-lift; ePedal
Lows: Lack of charging infrastructure; 60 percent of advertised range in winter driving
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★