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One Week With: 2018 Nissan Leaf SL

An ideal commuter car

Todd LassawriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

ROYAL OAK, Michigan — In late 1968, my father bought a 1961 Pontiac Tempest four-cylinder sedan for $150 as a second car to drive to and from his office. The car served its purpose for another 18 months or so, counting Dad's daily commute of no more than 15 miles each way, plus the usual local weekend errands.

The heater didn't work very well for those two Metro Milwaukee winters and you could see the pavement go by in first and third gears, because the rubber boot was torn, and there was that transaxle with "rope" drive. We didn't even take the Tempest as far as the 60-some-mile rides to the Illinois border to buy margarine (it was outlawed in Wisconsin grocery stores). The commuter Tempest represented preternatural range anxiety not unheard of among cheap used cars back then.

Which is why I can't help thinking of that car when I think about modern electric vehicles. BEVs are perfect commuter cars for metro areas of a certain size, where sitting in heavy traffic in a Corvette or Porsche 911 seems such a waste, not to mention the emissions.

At $30,875 sticker price, or just $23,375 after the EV federal tax credit, the base Nissan Leaf S makes for a good commuter car. With its 150-mile range it could even take you on that weekend margarine run—though the non-dairy butter substitute has been legal in Wisconsin stores since the '70s. Put it this way: If you live in the northern Chicago suburbs, you can use the Leaf for a weekend New Glarus beer run.

My week or so with the nicely appointed Nissan Leaf SL was relegated mostly to daily commutes, about 5.5-miles each way to our Detroit Bureau in Royal Oak. I plugged in only at the office, using our Nissan-supplied 240-volt charger. Shut off the ignition after a drive and the dash display tells you what time a full charge will be ready after a plug-in.

Full charges seldom seem to get you to the official range estimates, especially in colder weather, though in the case of the Nissan Leaf SL, it was only as low as 146 miles charging in temperatures from the low-30s to low-40s, and got as high as 161 miles when winter took a break for a few days in April.

With the second-generation Leaf, Nissan has discovered regenerative braking. Pull a switch on the center console, and driving around town becomes mostly a one-pedal operation. In regular stop-and-go driving, the Mark II Nissan Leaf is smooth and, of course, quiet, making for a serene commute. Immediate torque makes it easy to squirt into traffic. The interior is comfortable and nicely upscale, with handsome suede-like trim, heated front seats and an eight-way power driver's seat with power lumbar support.

Nissan's ProPilot Assist essentially combines adaptive cruise control with an aggressive lane-keeping assist and full emergency braking. It's the equivalent of what you can get in some premium brands, though it's not as advanced as Cadillac's Super Cruise.

On what serves as Metro Detroit's "handling" test road, the Exit 69/Big Beaver Road cloverleaf (really), the Leaf is well-mannered with moderate body roll and the feeling that the battery placement keeps the center of gravity low, though there's no hint that it wants to go out and play on the serious esses like the Chevrolet Bolt.

Over the course of a week, its full charge maxed out first at 146 miles, four short of the published range as temperatures refused to break out of the 30s, but later in the week, when temps nudged 50 Fahrenheit, a full charge netted an indicated 161-mile range. On longer drives, the range depletion beat the odometer by a few miles, which is common in BEVs as a car's computer gets used to one's driving style. Bottom line is that the bottom line is pretty good, even if the Nissan Leaf falls short of the Chevrolet Bolt's range by 88 miles.

The good news is that 150 miles range is plenty for a commuter car. I never saw less than 80 miles range, which came after a couple of out-of-the-way errands, a 30-minute drive to a local restaurant for dinner, and the round-trip commute. That sort of remaining range feels a lot better than what you'd get from a Mark I Leaf, or say a Mini EV, which would start out with 80 or 90 miles, fully charged. If you're of sufficiently upper middle-class means, you should consider the Nissan Leaf as a second car, especially if your first car is a big SUV.

If you're more of a middling middle-class, wait for Nissan to increase the Leaf's range, then pick up one of these for a nicely reduced price. It might not be an eight-year-old Tempest-like bargain, but at least you'll feel confident driving past the state border for that special craft beer.

2018 Nissan Leaf SL Specifications

PRICE $37,085/$37,865 (base/as-tested, before federal or state)
ENGINE 110 kW AC synchronous motor, 40 kW lithium-ion battery
TRANSMISSION 1-speed reducer
LAYOUT Front-engine FWD four-door, five-passenger hatchback
EPA MILEAGE 112 MPGe, 125/100 miles city/highway
L x W x H 176.4 x 70.5 x 61.4 in
WHEELBASE 106.3 in
WEIGHT 3,508 lb
0-60 MPH N/A