Some electric cars chase superlatives. Fast, flashy, pricey rides like the BMW i8 and Tesla’s top-spec Model S, out to prove the century-long dominance of the internal combustion engine over battery power is nothing but an historical error. Other EVs take a less combative approach. They present themselves as solid and standard, cars anybody could drive and deem an acceptable replacement for their gas-powered ride.
The second generation of the Nissan Leaf, unveiled this week, proudly stands in the latter category. Its styling is mainstream, nothing that screams “eco-warrior.” Its tech features are new enough to be exciting and familiar enough to avoid putting off or confusing drivers. Its 150-mile range puts it right in the middle of the EV field—less than the best, more than the rest.
“We’re not going for the most impressive headlines or capabilities, that’s not the space we’re playing in,” says Brian Maragno, the automaker’s director of sales and marketing for EVs. “Nissan is a high-volume manufacturer. We build high quality products.”
This is a car that aims for the mainstream customer, with a simple message: This is the electric car for anyone. And in my half-hour drive around the streets and highways of Las Vegas, I discovered that everything about the new Leaf is, well, fine. And that’s OK, because it’s exactly what it’s meant to be—a regular car that happens to run on electricity.
A New Normal
Nissan hasn’t given an exact 0 to 60 mph time for the 2018 Leaf, but reckon on 9 seconds, give or take. That’s hardly pavement burning, but the car feels nippier than that. Like all electrics (thanks to motors that deliver all their available torque from the get-go, rather than having to spin up like a gas engine), the Leaf is fast off the line. I managed to chirp the front tires away from the lights without trying. There’s a smooth power delivery (no gear changes here) and a nicely quiet drive, which is, yep, fine.
So don’t expect the ludicrous acceleration and whizbang features of a Tesla. Do expect the comfort and reliability you get from a comparable gas-powered car, in a vehicle you can likely afford and actually take home soon—while Tesla figures out how to build cars at scale and fulfill its preorders.
That said, Nissan hasn’t skimped on the technology. The Leaf comes standard with “e-Pedal,” a new mode that ratchets up the regenerative braking to the point where you can drive with one pedal most of the time. It’s a small but enjoyable feature, especially in traffic, even if I’d like a more aggressive option. (You can see it in action in the video above.)
You can also pay $2,200 extra for a tech package that includes ProPilot, Nissan’s version of Tesla’s Autopilot. Meant for highway use, it combines adaptive cruise control to keep a safe distance from the car ahead and steering assist to keep you in your lane. It’s definitely not a hands-off system, flashing warnings if you let go of the wheel for more than a few seconds. But it does make highway driving easier. It’ll bring the car to a complete stop, but if traffic doesn’t start moving again within three seconds, you’ll have to hit the accelerator or press the “resume” button on the steering wheel to start moving again. It works … fine, but takes some getting used to, as the steering assistance cuts in and out when lane markings are indistinct. And systems where the car starts moving without human prodding (like Tesla’s) feel much closer to the promise of self-driving.
More and more automakers offer that sort of feature these days, including Cadillac, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz. But Nissan’s among the first to bring it to a car well south of the luxury market, and that could be a major selling point.
“Putting automation hand in hand with electrification creates an exciting and futuristic car, where previously it was just an eco vehicle,” says Tim Dawkins, an autonomous car specialist at SBD Automotive.
The original Leaf, released in 2010, went on to be the world’s best-selling electric. Its successor enters a far more crowded field. The slightly more expensive Chevy Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 offer way more range. The similarly priced Volkswagen e-Golf and Hyundai Ioniq both offer more than 100 miles per charge.
But Nissan says the growing competition has helped sales, not hindered them. More EVs on the roads and dealer lots means better public awareness and more impetus to build out charging infrastructure. It makes people think about electric cars as a viable solution for their needs, and sales are climbing, if slowly. “It kinda makes us look like we might have known what we’re doing,” says Maragno.
If you want an electric car soon, from a manufacturer with a proven track record, you have a growing number of choices. And if you’re looking for a car where everything is absolutely, unreservedly, fine, put the new Leaf on your list.