Despite all the buzz and activity in the hybrid and EV landscape, where everything from hypercars to the humdrum are being fitted with battery packs, the introduction of the Nissan Leaf a decade ago still stands as one of the pivotal points in electric motoring.
Introduced in the 2011 model year, the Leaf was the first affordable, mass-market, fully electric car to hit showrooms. Mrs. Workingwoman could finally afford an electric car, and Mrs. SmellsLikeSandalwood needn’t feel guilty about the CO2 emissions she was responsible for on her daily commute.
It was certainly an exciting time.
Now a decade later, the Leaf is, well, no longer that exciting. There are a handful of other affordable, small EVs on the market, some of which are better looking, better to drive or have a longer driving range, but those looking in the segment shouldn’t bypass its creator.
The Leaf comes with either a 40 kWh powertrain (147 horsepower, 236 lb.-ft. torque) with a range of up to an estimated 149 miles or the 62 kWh unit (214 horsepower, 250 lb.-ft. torque) offering up to 226 miles in Plus models.
The 6.6 kWh onboard charger can be juiced up either at 110- or 220-volts, with the latter taking about 7.5 hours for a full charge. Models with the longer-range powertrain also get a quick charge port at standard which offers up to an 80 percent battery capacity in 40 minutes at fast-charging stations.
Those looking to save at the dealership as well as the pumps will be drawn in the standard Leaf’s starting price of $32,525, which bests competitors like the Chevy Bolt, Kia Niro EV, Telsa Model 3 Standard Range Plus and Hyundai’s Ioniq and Kona Electric.
But the cost savings does come with a downside.
While the standard Leaf costs less than its competitors listed above, all offer more range, between 170 and 259 miles. The Bolt, Kona Electric, Niro EV, and Model 3 get more range as standard than the Leaf Plus models, which start at just under $40,000 and peak around $45,000.
Still, the Leaf does come out as an affordable option. The Nissan is eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit whereas while the Bolt and Model 3 no longer qualify for any tax relief.
New models also present better value with Nissan now offering its Safety Shield 360 as standard in all 2020 editions. Active driver aids include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, rear automatic braking, blind-spot monitoring and other features.
An 8-inch touchscreen as standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity is also newly standard for 2020.
Beyond the walls of the dealer’s office, the Leaf has a respectable driving personality.
My tester was fitted with the more powerful 62 kWh powertrain, and while the Leaf isn’t blistering, it does provide instant and satisfactory acceleration. For those who are a bit too gung-ho with the right pedal, the Leaf has buttons built into the center consol to turn on its two energy-saving modes. Eco mode allows for smoother acceleration input and ups the amount of regenerative braking. E-Pedal goes all-out on regenerative braking, slowing the car more with the less pressure applied to the accelerator, which allows for one-pedal driving.
For the daily trek, the Leaf has a composed, comfortable ride that smooths out most uneven surfaces and does not transfer many jolts to the plushy seats. Its cabin is also a nice escape from aural onslaughts. Outside noise is well muted and not once in my week with the Leaf did I even hear any whining of the electric motor. Even turn signal bongs are quiet.
Hip and shoulder room are a bit on the tight side, but leg and headroom are generous. The cargo area does not have an abundance of length, but with the electric powertrain the space is deep, easily swallowing the bulky stroller I stored away. The Leaf offers a good 30-cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats folded, though they do not fold flat.
The interior of all but the top-tier SL Plus models is a symphony of black, with the priciest trim sporting light gray leather seats and dash inlay. A 7-inch display in the gauge cluster in standard.
Nissan’s infotainment system, Nissan Connect, looks outdated, but it is fairly easy to use. Most controls, either analog or digital, are intuitively placed.
Upgrades on SV models, both Plus and standard, include 17-inch alloy wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, navigation and Intelligent Cruise Control. SL trim adds Nissan’s semi-autonomous ProPILOT system, heated front seats, an all-around view monitor and other features.
Overall, the Leaf is a small EV that provides more-than-basic features at an affordable price. It is comfortable for the commute and practical enough to move people and things without too much compromise. That said, the Leaf is no longer in a league of its own, and most of its competitors offer more range, and in most cases, a more engaging drive.
But perhaps it’s not fair to say the Leaf is no longer exciting. After all, it is undoubtedly the catalyst for Nissan’s new electric models like the recently unveiled midsized Ariya crossover, which will offer nearly 400 horsepower with optional all-wheel drive with a range of about 300 miles on a charge.
Ten years may have changed how the Leaf is precepted, but it is intriguing to think about what influence it will have on EVs 10 years down the road.