As I tucked behind the wheel of a 2020 Nissan LEAF, a $52,898 electric vehicle (EV), I mumbled two questions to myself:
- Why did Nissan bother to leap ahead of the EV competition 10 years ago, only to stay in a holding pattern for the rest of the decade and allow Tesla to zoom past and become a $430 billion car company (Nissan is worth about $14.5 billion US)?
- And why, even as Nissan has sold 500,000 or so LEAFs worldwide, is the LEAF more popular as a used EV than a new one?
In fact, I think the answer to question #2 is found in question #1. And the answer to question #1 is that Nissan simply did not want to spend the money — $1 billion? — to reinvent the LEAF platform.
With this is mind, I stabbed the white starter button and silently watched my LEAF come to life. All sorts of lights burst through the gloom of my underground parking spot. Then I paused and thought about car buyers in general – they are pretty smart — and EV buyers in particular.
If you’re in the EV crowd, you are a committed early adopter and among the most astute of automotive consumers. The EV cognoscenti know very well that Nissan has not fundamentally reinvented the LEAF since 2010, though there have been steady and noteworthy upgrades year after year – particularly with the 2018 model, with more stuff added for 2020.
The point is, if you just want a useful and affordable battery-powered hatchback runabout, you will be perfectly well-served by any of the nearly-new, sub-$20,000 LEAFs I quickly found on Autotrader.ca.
True, the 2017 LEAF SV has a range of about 170 km from its 30-kilowatt hour battery, which is less than half that of the 363 advertised range of my LEAF S Plus tester with its 62-kWh battery.
And true, a 2017 LEAF SV does not have all the fancy features of a new, $50,000-plus LEAF: from BOSE premium sound system to voice recognition, the Nissan Safety Shield 360m ProPILOT Assist, ePedal, Intelligent Around View Monitor and so on.
To be honest, the 2017 LEAF is a bit homely, too. Nissan made all sorts of important upgrades to the 2018 LEAF, giving it a new look and a better battery (40 kWh, with range up to 240 km).
Yet if all you want is an affordable, zero-tailpipe-emissions EV that’s still pretty new and perfectly suitable for day-to-day city/suburban commuting, a 2017 LEAF is a solid if unremarkable option. Canadians on a budget, such as Darren my neighbor, who ferries two kids around to various sports leagues and dance classes, care most about cutting fuel costs to nearly zero.
Indeed, Darren and his wife also have a cheap minivan for family road trips, which most days sits idle in the driveway. But that LEAF? It does 100 km a day.
“I used to spend $600 a month on gas with that van over there,” says Darren, grinning. “I think I might spend $40 a month on charges, less if I use the free public chargers. That’s big.”
Darren and those like him, are perfectly happy to get juiced at night, every night, and pocket $500 or $600 in fuel savings. And Darren, like other used LEAF owners, just can’t afford to spend $50,000 on a new LEAF, even one as nice as the 2020 LEAF S Plus.
Truth is, LEAF owners, especially the used-LEAF variety, are not quite like the Tesla crowd who put great stock in having a technological tour de force (one with too many cheap materials and dodgy reliability) from a startup whose founder thumbs his nose at legacy car companies like Nissan. Darren and his ilk are certainly early adopters, but highly-practical penny pinchers, too.
Which brings me to the 2020 LEAF S Plus. This is a lovely car. The materials are first-rate and all the pieces fit together beautifully. In terms of features, you could not ask for more and the cabin design, while not ground-breaking, is quite handsome and well-conceived: big controls for the HVAC, helpful analog radio tuning and volume dials, an easily-used infotainment screen and lots of storage cubbies.
The 160 KW AC synchronous motor delivers the torquey acceleration of a sports car (214 horsepower/250 lb-ft torque), though battery range plunges if you drive aggressively and put to use the air conditioning or the heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel and play with other power-draining bits.
Alas, the LEAF does not drive like a sports car. It’s softly sprung for comfort, with lots of squat and dive in hard acceleration and braking, and very light steering. Yes, the ride is a bit floaty but also very quiet, as you’d expect with an EV.
Charging up using a Level 3 outlet, going from 10 per cent to 85, takes about an hour. You’ll need several more if you use a Level 2 (240v) outlet. Yes, the LEAF has dual charge ports: Level 2 and that Level 3 DC fast-charge port.
You can extend the range between charges by mastering Nissan’s ePedal. With this, you get one-pedal driving by using the electric motor’s regeneration function to slow the vehicle down – reducing brake pad wear and recharging the battery with the added bonus of a smoother ride. I, in fact, prefer the ePedal feel to the sponginess of the normal brake feel.
And it’s a functional hatchback with decent room for people and lots of space for cargo. The seats provide adequate support, headroom and front legroom are excellent and a flat-bottomed steering wheel is a nice touch for bigger drivers. Rear seat legroom is a bit tight.
All told, this newest LEAF is a fine EV, and testament to the smart, forward-thinking engineering Nissan did a decade ago. I would absolutely put it on any EV test drive list.
Most certainly take its measure against a raft of other $40,000-$50,000-ish fully battery-electric rides, such as: Volkswagen e-Golf, Mini Cooper SE and Mini Cooper Countryman SE, Hyundai Ioniq electric, Kia Soul and Niro electrics, BMW i3, Chevrolet Bolt, Hyundai Kona electric, and, of course, Tesla’s Model 3.
And if money’s tight, there’s always the used LEAF marketplace.