Is the best-selling EV still in the game with Model 3 and Bolt EV?
“You know what I’d do if I were you guys?” The jet lag from the 11-hour flight to Japan had me talking in a stream of consciousness. “I’d build a NISMO version of the Leaf. Make it all crazylike, you know what I mean?” The young Nissan engineer sitting across from me stared back blankly. I tried a different angle. “The Leaf’s image needs a big shakeup. I mean, Elon Musk has had the press in the palm of his hand with his Insane- and Ludicrous-mode stuff, right? How about you do something like that!” Without a muscle twitch of expression, he replied, “Thank you for your suggestion, Mr. Reynolds. I’ll pass your views along to our team.” Then he gave me a polite, Japanese nod of the head.
Well, that went badly. Was it too obvious that I think the Nissan Leaf is a car in need of a pulse?
If done right, though, this redesigned 2018 version of the car has the makings of a NISMO EV heart-pounder. About 30 minutes earlier, maybe 50 of us were seated around the Leaf for its styling explainer at the Nissan Technical Center. But the whole time, I’d been staring at its profile, thinking that it reminds me of another car. Light bulb: the Faraday Future 91 I rode in a few months ago. I Googled its profile. The 91 is longer, but yes, there are some very similar ideas here.
And what’s important about that statement is this: Whether that Faraday sinks or (miraculously) swims, it’s a seriously cutting-edge design. And here I am, comparing it to the descendant of one of this century’s most notorious oddballs.
If Leaf 1 (my name for it) looked like a four-wheel amphibian, this Leaf 2 before us has not only flash-evolved into a svelte automotive shape, but it’s also learned to speak in the visual language of the rest of Nissan’s edgy designs. I must say, I’m not a fan of every word in its vocabulary—particularly Nissan’s Vmotion grilles. But for Leaf duty the rabbit-grin frames an interesting 3-Dish blue finish, which does pull you closer in to study it. And did you know that Leaf 1’s surprised-eyes headlights had an aerodynamic purpose? They did—to twirl air sideways and around the side mirrors. Now the twirling’s done by more elegant ribs on the hood, a trick Nissan’s aerodynamicists later demonstrated in a full-size wind tunnel where we watched smoke from the tip of a handheld wand magically bend sideways off the cowl. EVs are quiet, amplifying your awareness of side-mirror wind hiss; the ribs specifically hush that. There are additional noise defeaters, too, including greater rigidity of the inverter, a noise-blocking top for the integrated charger and DC-to-DC power inverter, and even a quieter motor.
I looked back at the profile. There’s a lot going on here. But I’d characterize it as complex rather than busy. Although the Bolt shares many of these same EV-identifying cues, it’s a jigsaw jumble of pieces—some of them are a bit too forced into place. The Nissan’s elements are all aware of each other. Fit together like the neat rectangles in a Piet Mondrian painting. (Ironically, the Model 3 entirely dispenses with all these noisy little EV cues, being finished with starkly pure surfacing. To equate it to another painter, I’d pick my favorite one, Mark Rothko.)
While we’re staring at the new Leaf’s profile, let’s use it to do a little automotive detective work. Imagine overlaying the current Leaf’s profile on it. See the match? The front and rear wheels exactly align—a giveaway that Leaf 2’s platform is fundamentally carryover bones not only in wheelbase but also in front track (its rear one is 0.8 inch wider), its essential suspension components, and the positioning of all the basic building blocks needed to assemble a modern EV. Consequently, its interior specs are a close match, too (it’s luggage space is more useful from ironing out small intrusions); externally, it’s 1.4 inches longer, 0.8 inch wider, and 0.4 inch taller.
But don’t dis Leaf 2 as just some sort of overblown reskin. Nissan’s techs took the time to sprawl it out on their engineering operating table for a marathon multiple-organ transplant; the motor is all-new, spinning out a chunky 147 hp instead of 107 and 236 lb-ft of torque, up from 187 lb-ft. The electric power steering is more refined. Nissan is anxious to note that although companies are ballyhooing the births of their first EVs, Yokohama was there/did that back in 2010 and now has 270,000 customers, 2.1 billion miles (3.4 billion km) of user experience, and programs such as 6,000 Leaf-to-home installations in Japan, where bidirectional charging/discharging coupled with solar roofs is slashing power bills. This ain’t Nissan’s first rodeo. It’s their second. And the show could be on the brink of going big time—the cost of battery storage has dropped from $300 USD/kW-hr in 2015 to a projected $150 USD by 2020/23 and below $100 USD by 2025/26, according to a Morgan-Stanley analysis. (Nissan’s says they’re beating this.) And by the mid-2020s, battery-electric cars will be cheaper than internal combustion ones (in part due to the ramping complexity of internal combustion engines).
Nissan should have anticipated the Bolt and base Model 3’s 238- and 225-mile (383- and 362-km) ranges, right? Cue the drumroll. How big is the new Leaf’s battery pack (still underfloor and cooled with recirculated air, by the way)?
Forty kW-hrs for 150 miles (240 km) of range (S and SV trims). Eyes narrowed. Chins rubbed. True, that doubles the original Leaf’s 73-mile (117-km) capability (from 24 kW-hrs) and is a 40 percent jump from its current 107 miles (172 km) (from 30 kW-hrs).
In a world without the Chevrolet Bolt, 150 miles (240 km) would be a bold type headline. Now it’s a number in a math problem: How much less is it than 238? There’s going to be a lot of data thrown at you arguing that 150 miles (240 km) more than matches most people’s real-world lifestyles most of the time. Let me ask you: How many gasoline-powered, five-passenger sedans could be sold with a 150-mile (240-km) range?
Maybe anticipating criticism, the Leaf will offer an even-better-chemistry 60-kW-hr pack next year (SL trim), likely extending its leash to about 225 miles (362 km) (a two-tier strategy akin to the Model 3’s estimated 50 and 75 kW-hrs). Thus, the Bolt’s singular battery size will be bookended by its competitors, with the Nissan’s upgraded pack matching it and the Tesla’s smaller pack offering Bolt-competitive range due to better sedan aerodynamics. (One of the reasons, by the way, why I think Tesla controversially went with a mass-produced sedan first: A crossover’s worse aero would require a bigger, more expensive battery—something that’ll be more affordable by the time the Model Y makes its debut.) If carrying over the Leaf 1’s platform has painted Nissan into a corner, it’s these subsequently locked in battery dimensions that require expensive chemistry to keep it apace with the Bolt and base Model 3. (A plus for us is that it offers an insight into the march of ever-rising energy density; those additional 16 kW-hrs crammed in there mean 67 percent greater energy density in seven years, or 9.5 percent per year.) Another questionable call: clinging to the CHAdeMO standard for fast charging. Maybe it’s stubbornness, maybe Nissan’s got a giant investment in this thing, but CHAdeMO is a dead plug walking in the U.S., and Nissan would do the EV cause a big, fat favor by finally adopting SAE (or everybody going to Tesla’s standard).
Time to drive. During their presentations, Nissan repeatedly emphasized twin messages: One, the Leaf is about making driving less stressful, and two, it’s about making driving fun. Not knowing what stress-free, fun driving exactly means, we headed out onto the test track to find out.
The new Leaf’s most potent driving relaxers?
ProPilot Assist is sort of a Tesla Autopilot light (at a fraction of the price). Relying on just a single forward-facing radar and a monocular video camera, ProPilot Assist provides single-lane, feet-off-the-pedals driving (what’s called adaptive cruise control). Alone, this is nothing unusual. Its dexterity in responding to slinkying traffic (including right down to 0 mph) is, though. Yet what elevates it to the same conversation as AutoPilot is how accurately it also threads down the center of the road. Like with other Level 2 semiautonomous systems, you need to keep your hands on the wheel, but here, there’s no need to give it periodic tugs. The electric power steering’s frequent and small corrections automatically sense their presence. I later tried the system in Detroit, driving for several miles on an expressway with my hands relaxed on the rim. No scoldings to put my hands back ever appeared (which, if persistently ignored, would ultimately result in the car stopping in its lane). Available later this year, ProPilot Assist is ordinary sensors doing an extraordinary job due to great software. Within two years, the system is expected to be even greater (perhaps with added sensors) by expanding to automated lane changing, and by 2020 it should have the skill to negotiate city scenarios, too. Next year it will joined by ProPilot Park, which highly automates parking, including selecting an empty spot not already bordered by a parked car (reading lane stripping). Remember this system as the tipping point when semiautonomous driving finally met the masses. (It’s had a 60 percent take rate in markets where it’s already available on other Nissan models.)
The Leaf’s other driving simplification is its one-pedal EV-driving feature—what they call e-Pedal. Tesla has long offered a similar heavy-regen effect when you release the accelerator. But completing a stop requires a brake pedal dab at the bitter end. In its transmission’s Low mode, the Bolt will come to a one-pedal stop without touching the friction brakes, but the deceleration rate isn’t always enough. E-Pedal leapfrogs both with a deceleration rate of 0.2 g’s (covering 90 percent of real-driver stopping, Nissan says) and comes to a complete stop (including automatic friction braking, if necessary). If that stop is on a hill, the Leaf’s motor will just hold it motionless (after pausing, you can lift your feet from both pedals; no need to hold the brake). The new Leaf could quickly become the most popular car in San Francisco.
E-Pedal and the availability of ProPilot Assist spotlight the intention to make the Leaf the tech standard-barer for the Nissan Intelligent Mobility Initiative, Yokohama’s campaign to destress driving.
The notable destresser, though, is the car’s lowered MSRP of $29,990 USD ($30,875 USD including destination)—a $690 USD drop. Standard with that is a noticeable upgrade in interior materials, and when you option a nav system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included, too. After incentives, this is a heck of a deal.
But what about that driving fun factor? I can answer about 65 percent of that question. Without a doubt, its extra power and torque renders the new Leaf satisfyingly quicker and more responsive. Test-track recordings are yet to come, but given the Bolt’s and Model 3’s better power (and power-to-weight ratios) it’ll probably lag in a three-EV drag race. Interior noise is phenomenally hush—a nice complement to its supple yet controlled ride quality (absent of the bounding I’ve sometimes noticed in the Bolt). Indeed, it’s downright limousinelike compared to the Model 3’s German sport sedan tautness. However, the Tesla’s payoff is razorlike steering response, which is tough to compare to the Leaf’s because the suspensions of these Japanese prototypes were not yet tuned for Nissan’s intentions for the American market.
Intentions? Sportier ones. Which circles me back to that styling walkaround earlier in the day.
As it concluded, the chief designer had an impish look on his face. The one you have when there’s something you want to semaphore with minimal words. As he neared his seat, it finally came out: “Oh,” he paused, “and eventually, um, the letter N will be associated with the Leaf, too.” He had said too much, so out it came. “Not now, but eventually … there will be a NISMO version.”
OMG! A NISMO Leaf. The last time I predicted something this correctly was in 1987 when I knew I’d regret selling my Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite. But here’s the deal, Nissan: Don’t screw it up. It’s your chance to permanently flip the Leaf’s librarian identity right on its peroxided head. With wings and flairs, there’s room between the rear wheels for a second motor, too. (I looked.)
Ludicrous Leaf sounds like a villain in a Batman movie.
|Chevrolet Bolt EV||Nissan Leaf||Tesla Model 3|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-motor, FWD, 4-door hatchback||Front-motor, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback||Rear-motor, RWD, 4-door, sedan|
|MOTOR||permanent magnet, 200-hp/266-ft-lb rear (MT est)||AC induction, 147-hp/236-ft-lb||permanent magnet, 258-hp/317-ft-lb (MT est)|
|TRANSMISSION||1-sp Auto||1-sp Auto||1-sp Auto|
|BATTERY||60 kWhr, Li-ion||40 kWhr, Li-ion||50/75 kWhr, Li-ion (MT est)|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3580 lb||3433-3508 lb (mfr)||3,550-3,800 lb (mfr)|
|WHEELBASE||102.4 in||106.3 in||113.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||164.0 x 69.5 x 62.8 in||176.4 x 70.5 x 61.4 in||184.8 x 72.8 x 56.8 in|
|TRACK, F/R||59.0/59.1 in||60.6/61.2 in||62.2/62.2 in|
|CARGO ROOM, BEHIND 2ND ROW||16.9 cu ft||23.6 cu ft||15.0 cu ft|
|0-60 MPH||6.3 sec||8.0 sec (MT est)||5.6 sec (mfr est)|
|LEVEL 2 CHARGE TIME||9 hrs||16 hrs, 3.6 kW/8 hrs, 6.6 kW||na|
|FAST CHARGE TYPE||SAE COMBO, 50-kW||CHAdeMO, 50-kW||Tesla, 145-kW|
|RANGE||238 miles||150 miles||220/310 miles|
|*Before potential federal and state incentives|