There is nothing noble about sweating through your shirt while sitting in traffic on Manhattan’s FDR Drive, wondering if your electric car has enough juice to get you to a charging station located in the dank bowels of an overcrowded garage. Such was my fate on a recent summer day while behind the wheel of a fully loaded 2016 Nissan Leaf SL.
Despite its age, the Leaf remains a competitively priced electric vehicle that can accomplish the tasks of a conventionally powered hatchback with few compromises. As the EV market has ballooned over the last few years, the Leaf has mostly stayed the course. The most significant upgrade was the addition of a 30-kWh battery pack for the top two trim levels, which boosts range over the magical 100-mile mark. Those are the Leafs that you want; the range remains at approximately 84 miles per charge for the $199/month Leaf S lease special.
Unsurprisingly, the Leaf is at its best when playing the part of a regular car. Its interior is a spacious and well-constructed place for four people — or five, in a pinch — to cruise silently and efficiently. Its styling is essentially inoffensive and its compact size makes it a damn good city car that slides neatly into parking spaces with the help of the optional 360-degree camera.
Driving an electric car can bring the desire to never want or need to use world-destroying petroleum again, but living with one can be an entirely different experience. EV drivers, for the most part, are concerned with image and range, not performance. The trick to achieving the greatest range is to keep the air conditioning and cruise control off, engage Eco mode, and shift to B mode whenever you anticipate heavy braking ahead. When fully charged, the Leaf’s range meter suggested I could travel nearly 120 miles — enough to travel one-way from New York City to the Hamptons before needing to recharge. If you live in southern California, where the thermometer seems to be planted at 72 degrees all year long and charging stations are abundant, the Leaf makes perfect sense. Load up your route in Waze, take the side streets, and revel in the consistent brake-recharging and low-effort driving.
The issue with that reading, however, is that it’s based on driving habits (gentler is better) and staying off highways. Eco mode tempers accelerator pressure, requiring a heavy foot in order to give the Leaf much go. To get to New York City from the suburbs without taking a parkway or a highway would require an inefficient route twisting through questionable locales. Highway driving over 50 mph or so, even at a constant speed, saps the efficiency out of EVs. My time in the Leaf was spent mostly in stop-and-go traffic, so the range didn’t fluctuate significantly. There isn’t much fun to using Eco mode, which makes the car feel a bit sluggish. A solar roof panel on top models is a nice touch and helps cool the interior on hot days if you program it to do so, but doesn’t do much to enhance overall range. A clever graphic on the aging navigation screen shows concentric circles of available range, noting best-case circumstances.
Forget, for a second, that it’s a bit odd for an Earth-saving electric car to have an Eco mode of any kind, and disable the green settings. If you’re confident that you’ll make it to your destination with miles to spare, deactivate Eco and mash the accelerator to move the Leaf with greater alacrity. With just 107 hp to work with, acceleration is hardly brisk. In a Motor Trend test, the Leaf needed 9.7 seconds to hit 60 mph. You’ll deplete the range more quickly, as I learned, but it makes the Leaf a lot less tedious to drive.
Recharging an electric car continues to require more time than filling up a fuel tank. It’s no great pleasure to wait hours for your EV to recharge, unless you can sleep while it occurs. That’s why it’s a great boon that, save for the budget Leaf S, all Leafs benefit from having a CHAdeMO quick-charge port in addition to a Level 2 charge port. Nissan claims that it can charge the battery to 80 percent in about half an hour, and it really does work. Nissan also graciously devised the No Charge to Charge program, which offers Leaf owners two years of free access to public charging stations. Despite the gratis cost of recharging, there isn’t a garage in Manhattan that will allow you to enter without paying to park.
I don’t know a person who hasn’t had a mixed experience while charging. In my week with the Leaf, that certainly occurred. One evening, while low on power one evening, I located the nearest CHAdeMO charger on PlugShare, the leading app for EV drivers in need of a quick fix. It was unoccupied when I arrived, but there was a catch: It required a bespoke card to get it running. The next quick-charger was a few miles away at Central Avenue Nissan in Yonkers. I was nervous that an after-hours fill-up would be a problem, but I was able to sneak in and charge until full.
The next morning, the outdoor temperature reading hovered at around 80 degrees with humidity of a billion percent. I was running late and traffic was building. I closed the windows on the fully charged Leaf, switched the climate control on, and headed toward Manhattan. Everything suddenly felt real again. Though more expensive plug-in hybrids alleviate range anxiety, the Leaf remains an economical and affordable entry point into EVs. What the Chevrolet Bolt will do to double the Leaf’s range and upend its hold on the hatchback market will only force Nissan to build an even more efficient Leaf in its next generation.
2016 Nissan Leaf SL Specifications
|Engine:||AC electric motor, 30 kWh lithium-ion battery pack/107 hp @ 0 rpm, 148 lb-ft. @ 0 rpm|
|Transmission:||Single-speed direct drive|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-motor, FWD hatchback|
|EPA Mileage:||124/101 mpge (city/highway)|
|L x W x H:||175.0 x 69.7 x 61.0 in|
|0-60 MPH:||9.7 sec|
|Top Speed:||90 mph (est)|