The longer-range Leaf is a 2020 Car of the Year contender
- Laudable cargo capacity
- Cushy ride
- Nationwide availability
- Middling range
- Indefensibly lofty price
- Trails Model 3 everywhere
Let’s get an uncomfortable fact out of the way: For $1,245 USD more than the price of an entry-level standard-range (220 miles (354 km)) Tesla Model 3, the base 2019 Nissan Leaf S Plus (226 miles (364 km)) looks and feels like an econobox, whereas the Tesla looks and feels like a premium sport sedan.
That impression intensifies when comparing our mid-spec $42,580 USD Leaf SV Plus (215 miles (346 km)) against our $43,100 USD Model 3 Standard Range Plus (240 miles (386 km)). Those Teslas also squeeze more miles out of each kW-hr—the EPA rates the Standard and Standard Plus 3s at 131 and 133 mpg-e versus the Leaf S’ 108 and the SL/SV’s 104 mpg-e. And finally, the Leaf limits its high-power public charging options by sticking with a CHAdeMO plug—it’s a Betamax solution in a VHS world.
For those who waded through all the mathematics and jargon above, we can clearly tell you virtually nobody on our staff can imagine counseling friends or family to pay more for a Leaf over a Model 3. Unless, perhaps, the buyer lives outside one of the roughly 25 states (and 25 countries) where Tesla has dealerships. That comparative lack of Tesla retail availability explains why, historically, the Nissan Leaf is the world’s top-selling electric car.
It’s precisely that long track record and huge Nissan head start that makes the current Leaf Plus’ disappointing driving dynamics, range, and packaging so hard to excuse.
Let’s start with the packaging. Both Nissan and Tesla put the battery under the floor, and in both cases, when the cars first came out, we complained about how the low rear hip-point and high floor forced our knees into the air and ruined thigh support. With one mid-cycle refresh, Tesla has largely fixed that. After a redesign and a freshening, Nissan hasn’t.
The Leaf’s front seats still feel like padded barstools that one sits on, not in, teetering through corners. Furthermore, MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina had trouble sliding his legs under the steering wheel (even with it adjusted as high as it goes) and found the front armrest too small and far away. And while we’re teeing off on the interior, it struggles mightily to justify a $40,000 USD price tag.
We suppose Nissan earns some electrical-engineering kudos for managing a 25 percent increase in the battery’s energy density so that the 62-kW-hr pack pretty much fits in the same space as the standard Leaf’s 40-kW-hr version. But range anxiety is a numbers game, and it’s no longer sufficient just to offer battery range in the low-low 200s. Nissan should have sharpened its pencils and leapfrogged the range of the Chevy Bolt EV (238 miles (383 km)), Kia Niro EV (239 miles (385 km)), and the base Teslas.
Curious about Nissan’s upcoming electric-car efforts? Get a sneak peek at the future-car tech here.
The Leaf also disappointed us in terms of driving dynamics compared to the Tesla (and even the Kia). We appreciate that blending regenerative and friction braking is a tricky art, but Nissan has had nine years of practice, yet as executive editor Mark Rechtin noted, “The transition from the e-pedal to normal friction braking is not smooth at all. Nearly snapped my neck in a panic stop.”
Out on the road, associate online editor Stefan Ogbac described the handling as “sloppy” and the steering as “dead.” On a winding road, the contrast between this car and the base Tesla couldn’t be more stark, with the Leaf understeering and squealing its tires everywhere while the Tesla quietly hustles like a pole-dancing Cardi B.
In the end, Rechtin summed the Leaf up thusly: “This is a purpose-built electric car, built to optimize range, but it absolutely falls miles short of the Tesla—literally and figuratively.”
|2019 Nissan Leaf Plus SV||2019 Nissan Leaf Plus SL|
|Base Price/As Tested||$39,405/$42,580||$43,445/$44,315|
|Power (SAE net)||214 hp||214 hp|
|Torque (SAE net)||250 lb-ft @ 800 rpm||250 lb-ft @ 800 rpm|
|Accel, 0-60 mph||6.4 sec||6.5 sec|
|Quarter Mile||15.1 sec @ 93.3 mph||15.1 sec @ 93.3 mph|
|Braking, 60-0 mph||120 ft||123 ft|
|Lateral Acceleration||0.77 g (avg)||0.76 g (avg)|
|MT Figure Eight||28.1 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)||28.2 sec @ 0.60 g (avg)|
|EPA City/Hwy/Comb||114/94/104 mpg-e||114/94/104 mpg-e|