Lots of people don’t realize this, but Nissan has been building an affordable electric car for almost a decade. The Leaf debuted in 2010, and Nissan has sold approximately 380,000 examples all around the world, with about 130,000 Leafs hitting American roads.
Today, though, Nissan appears to have squandered its first-mover advantage. Tesla is synonymous with electric vehicles, and Chevrolet made a big deal about the Bolt EV when it arrived a couple of years ago as the first affordable long-range EV. When the Bolt went on sale at the end of 2016, the original Nissan Leaf was more than half a decade old and provided just over 100 miles of range – less than half the Chevy’s 238-mile estimate.
Nissan heavily refreshed the Leaf last year, increasing the range to about 150 miles, and redesigning the exterior and interior around the existing vehicle architecture. The result was a better electric car, and one priced well below the Bolt EV, but without a competitive battery, Nissan was fading into the background along with other EVs offering modest driving range.
That situation changes at the end of March 2019, though, when the new 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus goes on sale. Equipped with a 62 kWh battery, a higher-output 160 kW electric motor, and a couple of charging upgrades that make the car easier to live with, the Leaf Plus will offer 226 miles of estimated driving range at prices that Nissan promises will be “very competitive” with other vehicles in the segment.
Finally, Nissan Fields a Leaf With Over 225 Miles of Driving Range
JP Lattes, senior manager of EV marketing and sales for Nissan (and not the name of a coffee company), says that people new to electric vehicles will “make the jump” only if an EV offers more than 200 miles of driving range. With 226 miles of range, a Leaf Plus will need to be charged once per week by the average driver, Lattes says, instead of twice a week for the standard Leaf.
The Leaf Plus’s battery has 288 cells compared to 192 in a standard Leaf. The added capacity supplies a 51% improvement in driving range and extracts 214 horsepower from the electric motor. That’s a 46% improvement over the standard Leaf’s 147-hp rating.
Furthermore, in addition to Nissan’s “No Charge to Charge” program, which allows Leaf owners and lessees to recharge the car for free for the first two years (not available in all markets), the Leaf Plus is compatible with both 50 kW and 100 kW DC Fast Charge stations. The 50 kW stations are more common, and provide an 80% charge in an hour. Find one of the few 100 kW stations, and the Leaf achieves the same level of charge in 45 minutes.
Get the Leaf Plus in mid-grade SV or top-of-the-line SL instead of basic S trim, and it comes with a standard L1/L2 portable charging cable that’s compatible with a typical 240-volt electrical outlet that most homes have for plugging in a clothes dryer. Is this a big deal? That depends. I live in a 1960s ranch in Southern California, and one of these outlets is in my garage. If I bought a Leaf Plus, I wouldn’t need to get a home charging station installed, and I’d have a fully recharged EV in 11.5 hours.
Thanks to its extra power, the Leaf Plus is more satisfying to drive. It accelerates quicker and the power delivery remains consistent through 100 mph, according to Nissan. During a brief drive in the San Diego area, the benefits were mainly noticeable when accelerating down freeway on-ramps and while passing slower vehicles.
With much of its weight snugged down low in the car’s chassis, the Leaf feels a bit like a slot car on a curving road, and the added power makes the Leaf more satisfying to drive.
I’m a big fan of the Leaf’s one-pedal driving system, too, though you need to remember to re-engage it after each re-start. It’s more aggressive than what you get in some direct competitors, such as the Hyundai Kona Electric and Kia Niro EV, and I find it easier to predict stopping distances with the Nissan system.
Comfort is Not a Quality of the Nissan Leaf
When Nissan most recently redesigned the Leaf, it ejected the original car’s organic and futuristic interior look in favor of a layout that you might expect to find in an Altima or Rogue. While that might displease people who think an EV ought to be special, the change likely makes it easier for first-time buyers to get comfortable with an electric car.
For 2019, the Leaf Plus introduces a new NissanConnect infotainment system to the model lineup. The display grows from 7 inches across to 8 inches, and the software and navigation system receive updates via your home Wi-Fi connection. New graphics, multi-touch gesture recognition, and a customizable home screen all bring a modern look and feel to the car’s cabin.
Additional upgrades include Nissan’s door-to-door navigation function, which continues providing directions to your destination through your smartphone’s NissanConnect app even after you’ve parked your car blocks away. New apps are automatically added to the system as they become available, and NissanConnect EV Services are accessible by desktop, smartphone, wearables, and voice-activated home assistant speakers.
Otherwise, the Leaf Plus’s interior is like the standard Leaf’s: cramped and uncomfortable. The front seats are fine, but with hard plastic coating the upper door panels and the portions of the wide center console where your legs are likely to contact it, you’re never entirely happy with your surroundings.
Especially while driving the Leaf, the center console plastic digs into the bones on the side of my leg just below my kneecap. It gets painful, fast. And unlike the front passenger, who can simply move his or her legs, the driver’s right leg needs to operate the accelerator pedal and must remain in contact with plastic.
I spent about half an hour riding in the Leaf’s back seat. Perched atop part of the battery pack, it provides stadium-style seat height. But the floor is also raised, and the seat cushion isn’t shaped to provide thigh support, and there isn’t room for your feet under the front seat, so it’s not a happy place. There aren’t any air vents or USB ports, either. At least the front seatbacks are softly padded.
Trunk space is generous at 23.6 cubic feet. The cargo floor is recessed, though, like a minivan’s. And that figure does not take into account the bulky charging cord bag that hangs from a hook on the left side of the cargo area. Folding the rear seat adds just 6.4 cu.-ft. of extra space, which doesn’t make any sense but that’s the official figure from Nissan. The resulting load floor is not flat, making it hard to slide larger objects into the car.
The Bottom Line
The 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus represents a big improvement over the standard Leaf. At the same time, however, it still isn’t a segment-leading EV.
Among key competitors – Chevrolet Bolt EV, Hyundai Kona Electric, Kia Niro EV – the Leaf Plus still doesn’t match their driving range. Utility, depending on how often you need a flat load floor or maximum volume, is either a pro or a con. And because the latest Leaf remains based on a vehicle architecture first sold nearly 10 years ago, interior packaging isn’t as good as it should be.
Furthermore, as this review is published, of this quartet only the Chevy has been extensively crash-tested by both the federal government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). It performs well, if imperfectly.
The first-generation Leaf did not do well in crash testing, and it remains to be seen if the 2018 refresh has resolved its rating in the small overlap frontal-impact assessment. Nissan has added an intelligent forward collision warning system for the 2019 Leaf Plus, which should help it to improve in terms of front crash prevention.
Pricing for the new Nissan Leaf Plus will be set closer to the car’s arrival at dealerships at the end of March. Nissan promises that they will be competitive, and I’d recommend that the company set them low enough to effectively eliminate the Leaf’s remaining shortcomings.
In other words, Nissan needs to make people an offer they simply cannot refuse.