Last October, Nissan announced that it would be relaunching the Nissan Leaf with a brand new version of the car. The second generation Leaf was to have a new design, more range, and a slew of more advanced features to make life easier. The car was available in Japan last year, but now pre-orders are being fulfilled here in Europe and it will soon be in the hands of regular people - if they're not already.
We heard all about the shiny new features and upgrades the Leaf 2018 would include back at launch, but what we didn't know was what it was like to drive. Great features are only great if the car itself isn't rubbish after all. Lucky for me Nissan was giving journalists the opportunity to test drive it, including me. So I got to go to Tenerife and drive it up the side of a volcano. Here's how I got on.
Note: There's video included here to complement the text, in case you can't be bothered reading everything. Everything is getting covered in the text, but if you feel like watching me talk and drive then you've got the option.
WTF is the Nissan Leaf?
The Leaf is Nissan's premier electric car, first launching in the US and Japan back in 2010 (2011 in Europe and Canada). It wasn't the first plug-in electric car Nissan had made, but it generated attention and sold well enough that Nissan has continued on with the brand eight years later. While not without its criticisms (the car's design is considered a bit ugly for one) or issues, it won numerous awards and went through a few minor iterations throughout its seven year run.
That leads us to now with the release of the second generation. It's been built from the ground up to make a car that not only looks nicer, but also includes more advanced systems and battery technology. The principle is the same, in that you plug the car in to charge it up then climb inside to drive wherever you need to go - only stopping because you need to or because you've driven so far across the country that the battery died.
The Test Drive
The test drive itself involved me driving myself from the ITER renewable technology centre on the south coast, up the volcano to the Pico Viejo crater, and back down the other side of the volcano. That's just under 150km (93 miles) of driving over the course of about three hours - with a hefty break in the middle.
Aside from the route, which was preset by Nissan, everything else was all real-world conditions. Real driving, public roads, and plenty of idiots flying round blind corners in the middle of the road. Believe me, people who drive around mountains regularly must be incredibly brave - or incredibly stupid.
Driving the Car
With the exception of the whole automatic gear box thing, there wasn't anything about driving the new Leaf that felt unfamiliar. I've been on the road since I was 16, on and off, and getting in and driving about was no different to any of the other cars I've driven. The nature of it being an electric car means sitting behind the wheel feels physically different, especially since it's so smooth and quiet, but the driving itself? Not so much... other than the fact it is very easy to find yourself speeding by accident.
The only ways the Leaf is different is the fact that you have to plug it in (which isn't exactly the most perplexing of tasks), and that it's filled with a lot of new and interesting hi-tech features you don't tend to see on older cars. But most new cars have hi-tech features, regardless of how they're powered. All that new stuff does take a bit of getting used to, but they're not essential learning. if you wanted to you could ignore them all and the driving experience wouldn't feel all that different from a 15-year old car with no features more advanced than a tape deck and an FM radio.
A few years back you might have seen a meme floating around making fun of mac users, and their one-button mice. This one, with Xzibit from Pimp My Ride:
The short version is that this is exactly what the e-Pedal is. It's a mode that turns your accelerator pedal into a dual-purpose go/stop pedal. The Leaf is an automatic, so there's obviously no clutch to consider.
So if you put your foot down it'll accelerate as normal, but take your foot off and the car will automatically start braking and slow down far faster than you would by letting go of a regular accelerator pedal. That braking includes the lights as well, so the people driving behind you won't get a nasty shock
The e-pedal also engages regenerative braking, which means you can recoup some of your lost charge as you drive. Of course the more economically you drive, the more you regain. It's excellent when you're going down hills.
The e-pedal does take some getting used to, and I found when you turn it on the car automatically starts slowing down if your foot is a bit too light on the accelerator. By the end of the drive, though, I was so used to use the e-pedal that it felt strange switching back to the two pedal system to use the motorway. The trick is to work out how to ease off the pedal more gradually than you would in a normal car, otherwise you'll end up stopping far more suddenly than the person behind might expect.
That being said, the e-pedal isn't a proper replacement for the brake. The brake is still active, and if you need to stop in a hurry (like some idiot driving on the wrong side of the road to get past some cyclists) you can't completely rely on the e-pedal. The good news is that the braking sill engages as you pull your foot off, so you have a fraction of a second where you get more stopping power than you would in a normal car or with e-pedal disengaged.
The e-pedal was perfect going round the winding mountain roads, especially considering all the tight corners that were involved in the climb and descent. It's not that great for the motorway, however, given how sudden it is. Seeing as how you're not supposed to use your brake on the motorway anyway you shouldn't need it - so stick to the regular methods of speed control. Or use Pro Pilot, if you're feeling up to it.
Full autonomy is a long way off, but that isn't stopping companies from introducing some autonomous-like features into their cars. Nissan is doing just that with ProPilot, but rather it's better to think of it as a more advanced version of cruise control than a car that can drive itself.
The main feature ProPilot has is literally advanced cruise control. Once it's been activated it will sense the cars around it and maintain speed based on them - up to the maximum speed limit set by yourself. So if you set the speed limit to 70mph, and the car in front of you is going at 65mph, then you'll trundle along at a safe distance at 65mph. But as soon as that car pulls off or speeds up, your car will speed up to compensate - steadying off once it reaches 70mph or it detects another car in front.
If the road ahead clears up the Leaf does not waste any time in picking up speed. It's off before you've even realised it, which can feel a bit strange if there's a significant change in your top speed. While I didn't get to experience it, Nissan promises that the sensors will also bring the car to a full stop if need be.
The other big feature of ProPilot is the lane control, which has to be activated separately from the regular ProPilot systems. Lane Control keeps your car steady, making minor adjustments to its position on the road with the ability to read the road markings and act accordingly. Even though most of the road was straight while I had it on, I could feel the wheel shifting in my hands and even navigating the slight turns you find on the motorway.
It's nowhere near full autonomy, and I doubt that it could handle the tight bends I experienced going up and down the volcano, but for the motorway it meant I could sit back and let the car do most of the work. It would disengage if you turned the wheel too much, though, which is worth remembering if you ever get one of these for yourself.
That's not to say it wasn't a bit disconcerting. I imagine there's a big difference between sitting down without a wheel in front of you and letting the car do all the driving, but being there and having to keep your hands on the steering wheel while it mostly drives itself is one of weirdest things I've felt while driving. The system is designed so you have to keep your hands on the wheel too. If you take them off for 10 seconds it starts beeping at you, and Nissan says if you keep them off the car will slow itself to a halt.
The feeling is quite hard to explain, since I felt almost as though I wasn't actually paying attention to the road. But that did mean I was trying to be more attentive, even though it felt like I wasn't. It was a weird feedback loop of sorts that would likely make a robot's brain explode.
It was the most effortless driving I've ever experienced, though, which is definitely a good thing in my opinion.
Nissan chose to keep the ProPilot branding for autonomous parking system, even though it's totally separate from the driving variety. I couldn't get any video of the parking systems, because I was too busy trying to use them, but it's one of those things that's very useful once you've learned (and retained) everything you need to do to make it work.
ProPilot Park can do two things: bay parking and parallel parking. Bay parking seems similar to lane control in that the car is able to detect the lines on the road to manoeuvre itself into position based on them. Parallel parking is different, and requires you to drive past the two vehicles in front of and behind the spot you want to park in. Once the sensors have registered those cars, it can start parking between them.
You can cancel the manoeuvres at anytime, and if the car detects an obstacle then it'll cancel it automatically. That's a great safety feature, but it can be a bit of a pain. Not only do you have to re-position yourself again to get parked, it sometimes remembers that it detected an obstacle in that spot and refuses to register it as a valid place to park. So you have to turn off the engine to wipe its memory, so to speak, and start over.
The bay parking was quite slow, even if the car was going in straight rather than reversing. Frankly driving into a spot takes about a tenth of the time, so unless there's something impeding your ability to do that (like badly parked cars, or something else entirely) I feel it's better to just do it yourself.
Parallel parking was totally different, however, and was able to manoeuvre into a spot reasonably quickly and effortlessly. It's one of the things a lot of people suck at, including me, so having a car that could do it autonomously would be a huge advantage.
I don't really have anything bad to say about the new Nissan Leaf. It took me a while to get used to actually getting the thing going, but that was down to the fact I've very little experience driving an automatic and my mind went completely blank.
The quality of the drive was nice and smooth, and even though it was driving at heights in excess of 2,000 metres above sea level and climbing some very steep hills. 2,000 metres would only reduce the power of an internal combustion engine by about six per cent, but there's no doubt that you'd be able to feel something. The Leaf just carried on, even at the steepest points of the climb, and if I couldn't see how high I was driving I wouldn't even have noticed any difference. Except, of course, when my ears were popping. The automatic aspect was useful too, given all the tight turns involved on the route, but it was the inclusion of the e-pedal that really made a difference. If I'd been driving a two-pedal car I imagine it would have ended up quite tiresome constantly switching between the brake and accelerator.
The downside to this is that even though the Leaf is a very smooth ride, that isn't going to help if you suffer from motion sickness. The ever-bending road played a part, but the test drive was the first time I've ever felt sick while driving a car. I shudder to think how I might have reacted had I been a passenger.
It felt a bit noisy at times as well, especially on the motorway, though that's primarily down to all the high winds Tenerife was experiencing at the time. Considering there's no loud engine to drown out the outside world, the Leaf is remarkably soundproof - something Nissan claims to have had people focussing on for the new design. Nothing stops you from hearing the whir of the car as it travels along the road, like some sort of miniature four-wheeled TIE fighter.
The great thing I found with the Leaf is that despite seeming like a big jump forward, it behaves just like a normal petrol car. It's more advanced, sure, and there are a lot of features you'll have to play with, but you could feasibly ignore them all and have zero problems getting around. The only real difference is having to pay attention to your range on longer journeys, but that's to be expected of any electric car. Its range may not be as high as the Tesla Model X (258-350 miles), but it's also a fraction of the cost. With prices starting at just under £22,000, with financing available if you want it, it's the kind of car that regular not-uber-rich people can buy. It may be more than a decent second-hand car, but for electric cars to really pick up they need to be focused on being like the Leaf - i.e. accessible, affordable, and easy to use.
Other Things You Should Know
- The Leaf can reach a top speed of 89 mph, and is able to go from 0-62 mph in 7.9 seconds.
- Maximum range is 235 miles on NEDC testing and 177 miles on WLTP testing. What you experience will obviously depend n how well you drive, and what kind of roads you're driving on.
- The new Leaf is compatible with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, but if you don't have either you can take advantage of some smart features with Nissan's own connected app.
- Fast charging (50kW charging) takes 40-60 minutes to reach 80 per cent. It's quite a bit longer than filling up with petrol, though Nissan is aware of this. The fast charging stations can handle 150kW charging, but would require larger charging cables to accommodate it - and cars that can actually handle the current. The 2018 Nissan Leaf can not.
- Nissan has partnered with CHAdeMO to ensure there are enough quick chargers for customers, meaning Leaf owners can use any of the 4,617 fast chargers across Europe. 869 of those chargers are in the UK.
- Charger locations are visible on the car's GPS system, and Nissan hopes to release an app with locations and information about which chargers are in use in the near future. This app would also, in theory, let drivers reserve a time so they don't arrive at the charger and find they have to queue up.
- Nissan promised that anyone in the UK buying a new Leaf will get a 32A/6.6kW wall charger installed at home free of charge. Most of it is paid for by government grants, and Nissan will cover the rest. Cars plugged into a wall charger take 7.5 hours to charge, but you can also plug into a wall socket if you're willing to let that time jump up to 21 hours.
- The new Leaf takes advantage of a £4,500 government EV grant, and means starting prices range from £21,990 to £27,490, depending on which specific model you get. All of them are built in Sunderland too, so you won't need to worry about any extra import tariffs coming into effect after Brexit.
The new Leaf won't be for everyone, but the reality is that this is the kind of electric car that appeals to regular people who can't afford to spend £75,000 on a sports car made by an eccentric billionaire. It's not overly complex, it drives like a regular petrol/diesel car, and its relatively low cost means it's far more affordable than some other EVs made by other companies. I enjoyed driving it, and if I needed a new car I would be trying to work out whether I could afford one for myself. I probably can't, so it's a good thing I don't need it.
In any case, if you need a new car over the course of the next few years, I say you should consider buying a Leaf as one of your many options. Take it for a test drive, see how it feels, and decide whether it's right for you.