SAN DIEGO, California—With a strong surge, a faint hum, and occasional stridulation from the suspension, our 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus whooshes away from the Gaslamp Quarter. We would play Yanni on the energy-efficient seven-speaker sound system, but we’re concentrating on route instructions that will lead us out of the city to the splendid sprawl of North County, where subdivisions cluster along the coast, horse farms occupy the inland valleys, and citrus groves rise with the slopes.
Nissan has chosen this paradise to show off the second-generation Leaf’s new foliage. Remember when the Leaf was introduced in 2009? It had a 24-kWh battery, produced 107 horsepower, and furnished a range of 73 miles. Today the base Leaf has a 40-kWh battery, produces 147 horsepower, and offers a range of 150 miles. Boasting an increase from 192 to 288 cells, the Leaf Plus pushes far beyond this with a 62-kWh battery, 214 horses, and up to 226 miles of range.
As 11th Avenue feeds into the Route 163 freeway leading out of downtown San Diego, we mat the pedal and self-time a zero-to-60-mph sprint of about seven seconds. If this held true on a stopwatch, the time would make the Plus a full second quicker than the base Leaf. Although we wouldn’t call the Leaf Plus edgy, strong midrange acceleration lets us hasten around a gardener’s overloaded pickup before palm fronds fall into the lane.
The Leaf Plus proves quite pleasant on the highway. Road and wind noise are minimal and the ride is fairly plush. We hear little from the 215/50R17 Michelin Energy Saver tires. There’s enough headroom to wear a Stetson, although everybody knows that cowboys drive electric pickups. The leather-upholstered seats are broad and comfortable, and the forward view is like that from a helicopter. S Plus, SV Plus, and SL Plus trims are offered. Our car is the latter. It includes forward collision warning and a tech package with advanced driver assistance features for semi-autonomous driving. Pricing was still to be released, but with options we expect to see the tab nudging beyond $40,000 before any tax incentives are applied.
Even in San Diego, where the overnight temperature can dip to 40 degrees, the cold-weather package with heated seats, steering wheel, and side mirrors is desirable. The new infotainment system presents on an 8.0-inch TFT display screen. A door-to-door navigation function syncs the system to a smartphone for instructions that continue once the car is parked and locked. The icon-based infotainment has a customizable home screen, and the ability to pinch and zoom on the map display is about on par with our smartphone but lacks the food smears. System updates come directly over the air. And what sort of modern automotive citizen would the Leaf Plus be without the owner’s ability to use a phone, wearable, virtual assistant, or even an old-fashioned computer to monitor state of charge, to schedule charging, and to precondition the cabin?
The second-generation Leaf introduced in 2017 included bi-directional charging capability, which allows the car to disgorge energy from its battery pack to the house or building during times of peak demand, thereby mitigating energy costs. This brilliant concept and impressive engineering achievement are a commercial fleet operator’s dream.
We doubt that the guy alongside the road selling berries from the back of his truck considered bi-directionality or even noticed the Leaf Plus. Visual distinctions for Plus versions are scant: a blue trim strip low on the chin and tail, a new logo on the quick-charger’s cap, and the word “Plus” on the badge. Please, Nissan designers, restrain yourselves! Although the face is much better than the first generation’s and the coefficient of drag is admirable at 0.28, it’s still an unhandsome car with odd proportions. It seems to want to be a bus. To attribute the aesthetic mishmash to the four-door hatchback body style and say it’s all in the name of aerodynamics and utility is being too lenient. Gawkiness is not endearing.
It should also be noted that the cargo area is less than ideal, mainly because there’s nothing like a flat load floor. We stopped in a parking area, folded the rear seatbacks forward, and then opened the liftgate. Unfastening the cargo cover, we managed to dislodge one rear pillar’s plastic trim. Down in the well over the torsion-beam suspension, a forbidding subwoofer threatened to grate our knuckles. Overall, the rear is something of a mess.
Cruising down Sorrento Valley Boulevard, we noted a bit of irony when silently passing by the office of Achates Power, the 15-year-old company that’s developing a compact, powerful, and efficient opposed-piston engine. We are told the appliance-like experience of electric propulsion is inevitable, but it sure isn’t selling today. More than 100,000 hand-raisers expressed interest in 2010 as the Leaf was launched, and Nissan forecast annual sales of 150,000 units. In the eight years since, cumulative sales have only just topped 130,000. Such dismal results would lead to a mass manufacturer canceling any other model line—and that’s without the extraordinary expense of battery production. Even with greater range and faster charging, the Leaf Plus is caught inside the age-old conundrum, yet Nissan has eight new EVs in the pipeline.
A glance at the range indicator before we turn back toward San Diego shows the number hasn’t fallen fast at all because of the ability to regenerate power. Yes, we’re convinced the Leaf Plus would be a good runabout or commuter. In case of the need to drive upstate, downstate, or far into the desert, another vehicle from one’s collection would be enlisted.
Calling at charming Carlsbad before returning to the big city, we ponder the greater problem of the EV’s muteness. Whether it’s a two-cycle triple or a turbo-six, an engine gives a car its primary personality. The electric vehicle remains mum. Some will find this pleasing. For others, advances in artificial intelligence and virtual reality could simulate character as convincingly as a medical clinic’s scheduler simulates interest and compassion. Just find the right submenu, dial up a “Lamborghini V-12 Experience” or “Chevy Small-Block Experience” and enjoy the trip to work.
2019 Nissan Leaf Plus Specifications
|BASE PRICE||$38,000 (est)|
|MOTOR||permanent-magnet synchronous AC electric motor; 214 hp, 250 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-motor, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MAX RANGE||226 miles|
|240V CHARGE TIME||11.5 hours|
|L x W x H||176.4 x 70.5 x 61.4 in|
|WEIGHT||3,800 lb (est)|
|0–60 MPH||7.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||98 mph|