Nissan Leaf review (2016): The UK’s most popular electric car, driven
When it comes to electric cars, Tesla might be the first brand you think of, but it’s the Nissan Leaf that’s the most popular. Last year, the Nissan Leaf outsold all other electric cars at a ratio of 2:1, and it’s been the best-selling in the UK for the past four. Forget the Tesla Model 3, it’s Nissan Leaf that’s basically become the Model T Ford of electric cars. But what’s so good about the Nissan Leaf, and why is it taking the UK – and everywhere else – by storm?
I’ve driven the world’s best-selling electric cars for two weeks, and my opinion of it might surprise you. I expected the Nissan Leaf to be a soulless car, that felt like an unfinished product – but possibly the start of something big. What I encountered, however, was a unique car with its own personality, and one that, with a little forward planning, slotted into my travelling habits perfectly.
The car I drove was only a 24kWh, and there are now 30kWh models available, but pretty much everything in my review is relevant, regardless of the model you buy. The only difference is the range.
Nissan Leaf review: Design
When you first clap eyes on the Nissan Leaf, you could be forgiven for being a little underwhelmed. The Nissan Leaf looks like one of the cars you start with in
When you first clap eyes on the Nissan Leaf, you could be forgiven for being a little underwhelmed. The Nissan Leaf looks like one of the cars you start with inGran Turismo, and its bulging headlights make it look like the chubbier, more sophisticated cousin of the Nissan Micra. At the rear, things get better; Nissan has stacked two futuristic-looking, vertical lights at the rear of the Leaf, and they give it some much-needed futuristic appeal.
Interior-wise, the Leaf feels a lot like a Micra. The car we’re driving costs £25,490 (after the government incentive), so it isn’t cheap, but this doesn’t come across when you’re sitting in the interior. Although the seats are leather, the dashboard and seats feel like they’ve come from a cheaper car that’s been jazzed up. Otherwise, it’s neat, tidy and functional; if it weren’t for the space-age dials and Driving Mode selector, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a standard Nissan.
Nissan Leaf review: Interior
Despite its looks, the Nissan Leaf’s interior isn’t a bad place to be, and it bundles in a tonne of features. I’ll get to the EV-specific stuff later, but the infotainment system in the Leaf is impressive. As you’d expect, Nissan has opted for a 7in touchscreen display, flanked by a series of shortcut buttons. Although Nissan’s Carwings UI needs some work, I found the system intuitive and responsive, two things lacking on the Jaguar XE I tested recently.
The screen was bright when it needed to be, and it was easy to see the feeds from the car’s front, rear and side cameras, whether I was parking in the day or night. The Leaf isn’t yet available with autonomous parking, but it does overlay guidelines on the camera feed, so it’s easy to park without grinding the alloy wheels or bumping the car behind.
Pairing the Nissan with my iPhone via Bluetooth was easy, and from there I was able to play, pause and skip tracks simply by using the Nissan’s touchscreen, or via buttons on the wheel. Buttons are by no means the defining point of a car, but those on the Leaf’s steering wheel are a disappointment: they feel cheap and lightweight. But back to the features. The model I had featured an optional, seven-speaker Bose audio system with a subwoofer, and even comes with a CD player. Music sounded great in the Leaf, and remained clear at high volume levels.
Nissan Leaf review: Drive
When it comes to driving the Nissan Leaf, my views changed on a daily basis. When I took the car out for my first journey, operating the Leaf felt odd and alien.
But while the Nissan’s dials might look a typical case of style over substance, after a while I found they were clear, informative and easy to read. On the right-hand side, the Leaf displays your range, while on the left you’ll see just the battery temperature, which is more important than you’d think for an EV.
A useful power meter floats over the top of two dials, making it easy to see how much power you’re using, or saving. Anything right of the solid dot indicates how much power you’re asking for, while anything left of it shows how much power you’re saving via the energy-recovery system. In a smaller canopy above the main dial, Nissan has also included an eco-counter, which uses telemetry to measure how eco-friendly your driving is. The result? The more you drive, the more tree icons build up onscreen.
Nissan Leaf review: Living with an EV
In practice, these dials went from perceived gimmicks to essential tools, and they significantly changed the way I drove. I’ll admit, trees and efficiency didn’t matter that much to me when I first jumped in the Leaf, but after the second or third journey, they had become an integral part of my driving.
Red light in the distance? Coast all the way and put some life back in the battery. Stuck in traffic? Wait for the car in front to get a good distance away, instead of inefficiently starting and stopping repeatedly. It completely changed the way I drove.
The Nissan Leaf has three gears: Reverse, Drive, and B Mode, with the latter being a more aggressive regeneration mode. When driving in B Mode you’ll feel the car noticeably slow down when you take your foot off the accelerator, and you’ll see the car harvest far more energy than usual. Once you’ve finished your journey, you can check your driving stats on Nissan’s ConnectEV app.
But if I’m making the Nissan Leaf feel like a penny-saving exercise, I’m doing it an injustice. It might be electric, and it might be efficient – but the Nissan Leaf is actually fun to drive. It feels surprising planted around corners, but the best thing about the Leaf is its stunning 0-30mph time.
Thanks to its endless torque (207 pound-feet), the Nissan Leaf reaches the speed limit fast, so it’s perfect for holding your own around the city streets. One of my favourite moments in the Leaf came after beating a boy racer’s Corsa off the lights, switching into B Mode and then sticking to the 40mph speed limit on one of Kent’s most infamous “drag strips”. He wasn’t amused.
Nissan Leaf review: Range
If you’ve got to this point, chances are you’re already interested in buying an electric car – and it’s probably the dreaded range issue that’s holding you back. So what’s the range like on the Nissan Leaf? I found it perfectly acceptable, and to be clear I was using the 24kWh model. Surprisingly, I found the 24kWh Leaf’s claimed 84 miles just about enough, but for around an extra £1,600, the 30kWh Leaf adds another 25% and gives you 107 miles per charge. And that looks even more tempting.
I’ll repeat that for you: the Nissan Leaf 24kWh was fine for almost all journeys. I used the car for errands into town and occasional trips from Bromley to London during the week, and I used it more intensively at the weekend. In the two weeks I had the car, I only once had a warning about the battery level, and that was as I pulled up towards a charger.
Range anxiety was a huge issue for me at the beginning of my time with the Leaf, and in an attempt not to leave myself stranded, I’d watch the range like a hawk, even wearing extra layers rather than use the heater. But, by the end, I was an EV convert. With forward planning and knowledge of where the chargers were, I was able to drive around with my music up, the heaters on and the heated steering wheel engaged without a care in the world.
I charged the Leaf at a Nissan dealership, two shopping centres and a gym, and I never had any charge issues. I only charged it once at home using the Leaf’s supplied three-pin plug charging kit – and if I’d had a rapid charger installed at home (around £300), the experience would have been even easier.
When the car did need a charge, it was easy to find one. Although Nissan’s app had a location finder, I used the Zap-Map app to look for charging spots as it was far easier to use.
Charging was pretty easy too. Just open the Leaf’s charging panel at the front beneath the small, square grille, attach the cable, then tap your electric top-up card on the charger to connect it. A green light illuminates on the charger to let you know it’s topping up your car, and blue lights on the top of the Leaf’s dash indicate the charge status. I didn’t come across a rapid charger while I was testing the car, but it took around three hours to get the car to 80% charge on a normal one.
You can also track your charging remotely with the ConnectEV app. Although it might seem like another electric car gimmick, I found this feature of the Leaf’s counterpart app really useful. There were several times I decided to go to an extra shop or extend a workout, just because I fancied letting the Leaf charge a few more percentage points.
The app also allows you to “precondition” your car, which basically means you can adjust your climate control while the car is on charge. This feature is great, because it means you don’t have to sit in an overly hot or cold car, and it also means that when you do get on the road, you save battery life for the stuff matters – like actual driving.
Nissan Leaf review: Price and running costs
The electric revolution isn’t just going to be about range, it’s going to be about price too – and the Nissan Leaf is pretty reasonable. The Leaf comes in three trim levels – not including the different battery sizes – and as the price goes up, so does the number of features. The Visia is the cheapest Nissan Leaf you can buy, and at £21,530 (including the grant), it’s pretty cheap, too. After that, the 24kWh mid-range Acenta starts at £23,630 but adds the energy-harvesting B Mode, along with alloy wheels, cruise-control and a speed limiter. The car I drove was the top-of-the-range 24kWh Tekna, which adds a seven-speaker Bose audio system and all the parking mod-cons, such as proximity sensors and a rear-view camera.
When you get a Leaf you can either buy it outright with the battery, or you can purchase it without the battery and lease one for a set amount per month, so your purchasing options are pretty flexible.
My charging costs were taken care of, but Auto Express says a “full tank” will cost you around £2, and Nissan claims that charging it using your home electricity supply will only add around £260 to your annual electricity bill. That’s very reasonable indeed.
Nissan Leaf review: Verdict
By the time I had to give back the Leaf, I’d grown attached to it in a way I didn’t expect. Things like the Nissan Leaf’s odd startup noise became a fun, recognisable part of the experience, and I enjoyed driving it around town.
In fact, driving the Leaf felt similar to driving a classic car or a loveable banger. Sure, it uses state-of-the-art tech, but the Nissan Leaf’s regenerative capabilities and battery-powered drivetrain means it has quirks, and these will make you think more about your driving.
After two weeks with the Leaf, it’s easy to see why it’s the UK’s best-selling electric car. Nissan has ensured it works from a financial perspective, and it has enough range to be practical, but it’s somehow endowed with personality as well. With a longer-range – and only slightly more expensive – 30kWh model now available, the Nissan Leaf could be the car that spoils the Tesla Model 3’s party.
Want another view of the Nissan Leaf? Read another review from our sister site Auto Express here