Tesla gets a lot of credit for driving the global switch to electric vehicles, but you could make the case for Nissan being a bigger innovator in the plug-in space.
Brands like Honda, Audi and Mercedes-Benz have only just revealed their first-generation mainstream electric vehicles, and Hyundai is starting to find its feet, but the first-generation Nissan Leaf launched in 2010.
Despite growing competition, it's still the world's best-selling pure-electric vehicle, and the fact there's a second-generation model (the one pictured here) makes it unique in the motoring world.
No other pure-electric nameplate has been carried into a second generation, although the 2020 Renault Zoe will change that when production starts. To cut a long story short, this little Leaf is a big deal in the electric world. And it's finally on sale in Australia.
Priced from $49,990 before on-road costs, the 2019 Nissan Leaf (which is similarly sized to a Volkswagen Golf or Hyundai i30) slots between the Hyundai Ioniq and Kona Electric on price. It'll do 270km on the WLTP combined drive cycle thanks to the 40kWh battery pack under the floor, and is powered by an electric motor with 110kW and 320Nm.
Assuming the battery is completely empty, unlikely though that scenario may be, it takes 24 hours to charge from a conventional home wall socket, although that drops to 7.5 hours using a 7.2kWh wall box. Install costs vary, but the average homeowner can expect to pay around $2000 thanks to Nissan's partnership with JET Charge.
Those charging on the go will get cheaper rates at Chargefox ultra-fast charge stations nationally.
Nissan also offers something called V2G, or vehicle-to-grid. Currently being tested, the technology allows owners to charge their car using cheaper off-peak power, and then use it to supply their home when electricity costs rise. Nissan is planning a 2020 launch.
The company's experience with electric drivetrains is apparent from the second you start the Leaf. It's remarkably smooth and whisper quiet, even compared to its plug-in rivals from Hyundai.
Some electric vehicles are tuned to shock drivers with a huge slug of low-down torque. There's no eye-popping initial surge in the Leaf. Instead, the power delivery builds gradually off the line towards a buttery-smooth crescendo. The throttle has a long travel, which helps drivers mete out the power precisely as well.
Nissan claims the 100km/h sprint takes 7.9 seconds, which feels accurate in the real world. Unlike some other electric vehicles we've driven, the Leaf resolutely refuses to break traction on heavy throttle inputs once you're up and rolling, although the motor's torque can get the traction light flashing away from traffic lights if you're determined.
It's unremarkable in the best way, quietly (and competently) going about its business. With that said, the e-Pedal system takes some getting used to. Essentially a fancy term for aggressive regenerative braking, the e-Pedal allows for one-pedal driving in most situations, slowing the car at up to 0.2g when you lift off the throttle.
Once you're tuned in to how it works the system is excellent, and almost entirely negates the need for the brake pedal – which is wooden and tricky to modulate, even by electric standards – around town. Although the e-Pedal can be switched off, there's no way to more finely adjust how the regen’ operates; something Hyundai offers with the wheel-mounted paddles in its electric vehicles.
Unsurprisingly, the Leaf does its best work around town. The steering is light and direct thanks to a quicker rack, and the suspension is tuned to filter out potholes, speed bumps and pimply surfaces. There's a real sense of refinement about the ride and handling tune, which combines with an abundance of sound-deadening to make the Leaf a serene place to spend time.
Tyre roar and wind whistle from the pillars are notably absent at highway speeds, too.
Oh, and it's efficient. On a 125km highway loop averaging 55km/h, with the heater running at 22 degrees and seat heaters on high, the Leaf returned 15kWh/100km, which correlates with a real-world range of exactly 250km – slightly down on the WLTP claim, but within touching distance.
If the battery range isn't quite enough for you, there's a 60kWh version headed for our shores at some point as well.
With such quality foundations, you could make a claim for the Leaf being a little luxury car. On paper, its generous equipment list could support that claim.
A single trim grade is offered, and it wants for little. LED headlamps, privacy glass, electric folding mirrors, automatic headlamps and wipers, and keyless entry are all standard. There's also seating heating front and rear, and a heated steering wheel. Oh, and the Leaf is the first Nissan to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in Australia. Hallelujah.
The new infotainment system is a big step forward from Nissan's previous efforts. The central touchscreen is easier to navigate and has more up-to-date graphics than any other current Nissan in Australia, although the design team could have done more with the Leaf's instrument binnacle.
Next to the easy-to-read analogue speedo is a 7.0-inch display offering information about range, how much power you're using, speed, and the car's active driver assists, all of which is essentially par for the electric vehicle space around the Leaf's pricepoint. We just wish it didn't feel so slapdash in the way information and the menus are laid out.
Unfortunately, for Nissan, the Leaf's interior lets itself down with a number of easily avoidable 'own goals' on the design front. There's a foot parking brake, for one, and the front seats are mounted uncomfortably high. The steering wheel doesn't adjust for reach, the climate-control binnacle feels as though it's been nicked from a mid-spec Navara, and the indicator stalk is mounted on the left-hand side of the steering column.
There's nothing wrong with left-side indicators, of course, but it just seems strange given the rest of the Nissan range has them on the right.
Given the brand has experience with electric vehicles, it's disappointing Nissan hasn't made more of an effort to make the Leaf feel bespoke with a truly spacious, up-to-date interior. And given the Leaf is meant to serve as a leader for the brand, it's disappointing the accounts department wasn't willing to approve a proper steering column, electric parking brake and seat bracket.
Corner-cutting aside, the Leaf's interior is generally well laid out and a practical place to spend time. Leg room behind the driver and passenger is acceptable for a compact hatchback, and the 405L boot is impressively deep, although the charge cable, extension cable and Bose subwoofer all eat into usable space.
We'd wager most owners will leave the cables tucked away in their garage unless they know they'll be nudging the edge of the range envelope, but there's no removing the audio hardware. The loading lip is also very high, which will put older buyers offside.
On the ownership front, the Leaf has a five-year warranty and coverage for eight years or 160,000km on the battery. The latter kicks in if the battery degrades below 75 per cent of its original capacity.
Servicing takes place every 12 months or 20,000km (brake fluid every 40,000km and 24 months), and the first six services cost $237, $317, $247, $330, $257 and $343 respectively.
That's significantly more than you'll pay to service the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, which costs $160 to service at each of its first five visits.
Nissan has 89 dealers on board to sell and service the Leaf so far, and has turned to JET Charge to install and maintain charging infrastructure across its network.
If you're looking for a Leaf, you probably already know what you're getting in for. Spending $50K on a non-premium, non-performance hatchback isn't something you decide to do on a whim, especially given range anxiety is an epidemic in Australia.
With the caveats associated with opting for an electric vehicle (higher purchase price, for one) considered, the Leaf is a strong offering. Nissan's experience with electric vehicles shines through in the car's powertrain in particular, which is impressively smooth and quiet.
Under its unassuming skin lurks a car capable of winning people over to the electric revolution, although exactly how many private buyers Nissan will find remains to be seen.