Base price: $30,875
Charging speed: 90 miles in 30 minutes
2019 option: 200-plus-mile battery
The Tesla Model 3 and Chevy Bolt get all the attention, but the Nissan Leaf is the world’s best-selling electric car so far, with more than 300,000 built. Completely redesigned for 2018, the new Leaf boasts stats that were unthinkable back in 2010, when the original car debuted as a 2011 model. The headline number is range, EPA-rated at 151 miles, more than double the original’s 73. The 40-kilowatt-hour battery sitting under the floor has the same physical dimensions as before, but packs 67 percent higher energy density. And the base price dropped almost $3,000, too. These are the kind of trend lines that validate everyone (say, me) who responded to the initial wave of EV criticism with “Just wait.”
When that first Leaf hit the street, I rode around in one with Chris Paine, director of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? We agreed that the electric car was definitely alive. What wasn’t, at that point, was the charging infrastructure—that night, I charged up by plugging in at my ground-floor hotel room. Now, long-distance electric travel is entirely possible, but I’ve only done it in a Tesla, which enjoys its own private network of strategically located Superchargers. How does it work for everyone else? I decided to charge up a new Leaf and find out whether it could knock out a 250-mile day, a whole lot of driving, whatever your fuel source. I’m a big believer in being a tourist in your own state, since there are destinations we take for granted just because they’re within driving range. You think, Oh, I’ll go check that out sometime, but then never do. For me, GoPro Motorplex is one of those places. It’s a kart track outside Charlotte that’s modeled on the Kartdromo Parma circuit in Italy, where the likes of Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton did some of their formative racing. It’s less than two hours from my house and I’ve been meaning to check it out for, oh, seven years. Now’s the time.
Normally, I’d plug my destination into Waze and use my phone for navigation, but in the Leaf, it pays to use the car’s system. When I set the address, 118 miles away, the screen flashes a message that reads, “The current battery level may not be enough to reach the destination. Would you like to find a charging station?” The Leaf wants to play it safe and make a pit stop at the fast charger at Ben Mynatt Nissan, 90 or so miles away. Fine.
Not long into my drive I can see why the nav system added the charge stop. As with a gas-powered car, range isn’t an absolute. Put the Leaf in Eco mode, which gives the accelerator the responsiveness of a drugged sloth, and the range goes up. Turn on the heat, the range goes down. Hound a Ford Focus RS up an on-ramp at 90 mph and range goes way down. (I wanted to show that guy that the Leaf’s new motor, with 147 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, enables surprisingly relentless acceleration.) With cruise set at 75 mph on the highway, I watch the range prediction drop three miles for every actual mile traveled.
I pull up to the charger after 95 miles, with 27 miles of range remaining. Many, though not all, Nissan dealers have free fast chargers on site, a sort of Leaf version of Tesla’s Supercharger network. But while Superchargers tend to be near coffee shops or restaurants, this DC fast charger is unceremoniously stashed out back by the service bays. There are vending machines inside by the bathrooms. Hey buddy, you want a charger or a Sandals resort?
I unplug after about 45 minutes, now with 126 miles of range. That’ll get me to the track, and then to lunch and on to another charger on the way home. Hey, maybe there’ll even be a standard Level 2 charger at the track. Every little bit helps.
There’s not, that I can see. So the Leaf sits in the parking lot while I explore the track and affirm that karts are really fun, totally exhausting, and that I shouldn’t have waited seven years to come here. But driving one of these things is like wrestling a bionic octopus. The Leaf, by comparison, is impossibly serene, one of the chief virtues of electric cars. With no combustion underhood, no gears to shift, the Leaf is utterly smooth and quiet, a mini Maybach. The driving experience belies the price, which undercuts the Chevy Bolt by about $7,000. The Leaf makes a pragmatic economic case at almost every turn, but my second charging stop proves that not all juice is free. I pull up to an EVgo charger at a BP station and soak up 73 miles of range in a half hour, for a total of $13.15. So, a familiar ding for a gas-station top-off.
I make it home having covered 251.7 miles and spent an hour and 15 minutes charging. The trip wasn’t as mindlessly convenient as it would’ve been in an internal-combustion car (or, for that matter, a Tesla with the big battery), but it wasn’t onerous, either. You stop every couple hours, eat a sandwich, check some emails, and get back on the road. That you can have a 250-mile day in the basic Leaf—a more powerful, long-range version will challenge the Bolt for 2019—tells me that the car’s capabilities are more than equal to the real-world needs of most drivers. Yes, the Leaf is a car for people who love saving money more than smoking Camaros off the line. What’s wrong with that?
The car as your personal power plant
All electric cars convert power from AC to DC to charge themselves up. The Leaf, however, can intelligently go from DC back to AC. That means you can power an entire house with one. You can store the energy collected from your solar panels. Or you could charge the Leaf at night, when grid electricity might be cheaper, and run your house off its batteries during the day. Nissan is still figuring out how this will work safely with U.S. power grids. But in Japan, Leafs are already being used this way—part transportation, part generator.
Any electric car can use a Level 2 charger (240-volt), the kind you find at hotels, public parking lots, and maybe your own garage. But when you need a DC fast charge (480-volt), not everyone agrees on a standard plug. Here’s who can use what.
This appears in the June 2018 issue.