2019 Nissan Leaf review: Quick drive

A quick pre-launch spin in Nissan's reborn EV

The 2019 Nissan Leaf is a much improved and revised version of Nissan's pioneering electric car. If the Japanese brand can get the pricing right, it will be popular too.

You’ve decided you want to buy an electric vehicle, and the 2019 Nissan Leaf has positioned itself as the smartest, most affordable option on your shopping list. Tesla product is simply too expensive – or, ahem, unavailable – and the BMW i3 is just that little bit too far beyond what you can justify.

This initial, brief local drive isn’t about assessing the Nissan Leaf against its non-electric competitors. Think Hyundai i30, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3 or Volkswagen Golf. You’ve already decided you want to buy and drive an electric vehicle, so comparing it to conventional hatches just isn’t relevant.

Rather, this test will focus on – if the pricing lands where we think it will – whether the Nissan Leaf is still the most compelling option in a segment that will get rather crowded pretty quickly. The Leaf was always the frontrunner; it’s easy to forget that. Can it retain its position at the head of the real-world queue?

While the average punter can’t hope to easily afford Tesla’s current offering, the BMW i3 is, however, closer to the price more people can justify forking out for a daily driver. The entry-level i3 electric-only model starts from $68,700 and steps up to $69,900 for the i3s. Therefore, if the Leaf can sit around that crucial $50K barrier, it’s a compelling price point for the average buyer.

There’s a whole other argument to be had about how we generate our power, and whether it is truly green to own an electric vehicle in Australia in 2018. You can, however, opt for solar power, build enough storage into your home system and manage your electricity use carefully to minimise the impact on the grid. And if you’ve decided you definitely want an electric car, the perceived reliability and quality that come with the Nissan badge are worth something before you even start.

First up for me, there’s the Leaf’s styling. Or lack of the usual quirkiness, more to the point. Electric cars have generally had a tendency to look a little weird, edgy or sharp for no reason other than they are electric. The Leaf, not so much. It looks just about exactly how you’d expect a small Nissan hatch to look.

It’s a clear benefit to my way of thinking that the Leaf doesn’t look like some strange stick insect with wheels. You could argue that the Leaf could look more futuristic if you wanted to take the contrary view, but I like the relatively normal styling and I think it will broaden the appeal. Just because you’re an early adopter doesn’t necessarily mean you want to look like one.

Nissan also claims a huge 400km battery range for the new Leaf. We’ll test the accuracy of that statement when we get a Leaf in the CarAdvice garage for a full week of testing, but on face value, with the average commute being less than 50km return, most Aussies will have more than enough range in the Leaf.

(NOTE: The above figure of 400km was based on initial details drawn from the Japanese unveiling of the new Leaf. Nissan has now confirmed the local range, based on the new WLTP testing system, will be 270 kilometres. In our view, this range will get most urban families through a few days of unplugged motoring. For those needing more, we might see the the E-Plus model come to Australia.)

The Leaf will recharge overnight at home from just about zero too, with the included pack. Use a fast charger like we did at the NRMA head office in Homebush, approximately 20km outside the Sydney CBD, and you’ll get to 80 per cent capacity in 40 minutes – just enough time to have a coffee and check some emails.

Weighing in at 1500kg, the Leaf is somewhere in the range of 200–300kg heavier than a petrol-powered hatch of the same segment size, but with 320Nm available from zero, it’s spritely enough. There’s 110kW on offer as well, and 0–100km/h comes up in eight seconds so it’s not lightning fast, but it’s more than snappy enough to satisfy urban dwellers. There’s no doubt the immediacy that we’ve come to expect from electric vehicles is there.

The Leaf does start to plateau out somewhere between 60 and 80km/h, but I ran it up to 100km/h on the motorway and it sat there effortlessly. Up to 60km/h, acceleration is really effortless and linear. And silent, of course, which brings its own new tech-focused sensation. Single-speed gearing is something you’ll need to get used to. It’s a strange sensation initially, but like the feel of the brake pedal, it will quickly become second nature.

On the subject of the brake pedal and the feel of same, Nissan is keen to promote the clever ‘e-Pedal’ system. It’s activated via a switch on the console, so you can use the brakes as normal if you prefer, but I quickly became comfortable with e-Pedal activated. It delivers energy recuperation and deceleration as soon as you lift off the throttle too, bringing the car to a stop without using the brake. It only took two corners for me to work the system out and not need the brake at city speeds.

In short, e-Pedal works really well once you get used to it, and you can anticipate and slow right down to a complete stop right where you want to pull up. It’s not too aggressive either. You can obviously feel the retardation, but it quickly stops feeling strange and becomes something you use to your advantage.

Brake feel is pretty much par for the course without e-Pedal activated, and the brakes feel much like a normal hatch when you use them in the conventional way. Why would you, though, when you can trundle around town without ever using them and getting some energy gains into the bargain?

The steering impressed me also, in that it doesn’t have that strange ‘enhanced’ or computer-game-inspired electric feel that some electric cars can have. Feedback through the wheel feels a hell of a lot like a normal Nissan hatch. No bad thing there then.

The only caveat we did notice with the electric platform is the ride, which is firm but not uncomfortable around town. While it’s not uncomfortable or too sharp, it is firmer than we’d like, and firmer than non-electric competitors might be. It’s certainly smoother and not as sharp as the i3, that’s for sure.

One factor that works against the ride quality is the weight of the battery pack and all the associated technology that is mounted down low in the chassis, making suspension suppleness a difficult utopia to achieve.

Steering turn-in at city speeds and general handling are also good, perhaps beyond what you need for commuting, so that’s another good positive in the Leaf’s favour. The steering doesn’t feel artificially heavy at higher speeds either, and the turning circle and general manoeuvrability at low speed are excellent. Crucially, the car never feels heavy. Lane-keep assist is beautifully passive too. It doesn’t try to vibrate the steering wheel out of your hand and is effective while still subtle.

The cabin is all important in any segment, and especially so here if Nissan wants to appeal to the mainstream buyer. Straight away it feels quiet and premium, obviously aided by the lack of engine noise, which does exacerbate road, tyre and wind noise at speed.

The seating positioning is excellent, fore and aft visibility also excellent, and I liked the adjustability in the driver’s seat. We’d like reach adjustment for the steering wheel, though. A big factor for me in Australia with electric cars is air-conditioning, and the way in which they can be tepid when you’re not on the move. The Leaf’s system stayed ice cold, even when stationary.

While our test vehicle was a British car, the infotainment system was responsive, the touchscreen worked nicely, and the steering wheel controls easy to decipher. A quick test of Apple CarPlay indicated that worked well too, and there is also the provision for Android Auto smartphone connectivity.

The general drive controls, like the gear shifter and park brake, are nicely conventional too – not too fussy and not too joystick-like. A good thing in my book too. The two-tone seat trim itself was finished to a high standard, fit and finish all excellent, but there is some piano-black trim that can get dusty and take fingerprints.

The second row is decent without being cavernous, and there’s enough room for adults, even if you have taller adults up front. The luggage space is also right where it would be for the segment, regardless of whether the Leaf was electric or not. My highlight of the cabin? The little petrol bowser icon on the charge-input door switch.

While I test-drove the Leaf on local roads before I knew local pricing, one point is almost immediately clear. The Leaf isn’t a quirky science experiment that is only interesting because it is electric. Quite the contrary. The Nissan Leaf is an excellent small hatchback that happens to be electric. Which is exactly how an electric car should be positioned in 2018 too.

If Nissan can nail the pricing, expect to see a hell of a lot more of them on Australian roads in the near future.

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