Electric vehicle (EV) sales in Australia have been glacial compared to what we’ve seen in similarly developed markets across Europe, Asia and North America. Australians who are keen to make the switch face impediments that do not exist for people in Oslo, Tokyo, or San Francisco.
EVs here are prohibitively expensive, there are no tax breaks or subsidies on offer, public charging infrastructure isn’t as widespread as it needs to be, and much of the grid remains fed by fossil fuels.
But no EVs sold locally have the growth potential of this pair: the second-generation Nissan Leaf, and the newly updated Hyundai Ioniq Electric.
Pricing and specs
The single-specification Leaf costs $49,990 before on-road costs ($54,500 drive-away). The two-spec Ioniq family costs $48,490 ($52,900) for the Elite, or $52,490 ($57,600) for the Premium tested here.
Both get heated and leather-trimmed seats, proximity key, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, big digital driver clusters, satellite navigation, digital radio, climate control, parking sensors at both ends, LED headlights with dusk sensors, windscreen wipers with rain sensors, and auto-folding side mirrors.
Both get five-star NCAP crash ratings and driver-assistance tech such as autonomous emergency braking that also senses pedestrians, lane-departure alert (the Hyundai beeps, the Nissan vibrates), blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and active cruise control.
The Nissan alone offers 17-inch wheels (the Hyundai has 16s), and a 360-degree camera. But the Hyundai alone offers a sunroof, a superior lane-assist system with steering adjustments instead of brake adjustments, a larger touchscreen (10.25-inch versus 8.0-inch), ventilated seats for front occupants, and driver’s seat electric adjustments and memory presets.
If you want to save $4000 you can get the lower-grade Ioniq Elite, which loses the following features: front parking sensors, leather seats, sunroof, wireless smartphone charger, heated and air ventilated seats, driver’s seat memory and electric adjust, and alloy pedals. That’s a lot!
Both cabins on test are immaculately screwed together and built to last, but they’re not on a par otherwise. The Nissan’s cabin has some modern touches but also some frustratingly dated ones, while the Hyundai’s has become more modern and more comfortable with the recent upgrade.
Nissan first. The Leaf has a crisp digital instrument display with all manner of driving data and a fancy start-up sequence, it has blue stitching and a backlit blue starter button, cool patterned dash inserts, and the lovely steering wheel from an X-Trail. Losing the gear shifter and fitting a nubby button-type set-up is cool, too.
The centre touchscreen is an 8.0-inch unit that runs an excellent live satellite-navigation system with speed warnings, and displays a 360-degree bird’s eye camera that is valuable despite its frustratingly iffy resolution and clarity.
The presence of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is good news, and rare for Nissan, though our test car’s system was a little glitchy, with my phone’s active connection regularly dropping out. I ended up relying on the Bluetooth streaming function more often than not. This bug was unique to this one car, so far.
The seating position is an issue, since the seats are short in the base and the steering wheel only has rake adjustment, not telescopic adjustment to bring it closer to you. As such, you tend to sit too high, with that wheel a little further away and lower down than proper ergonomic comfort would demand.
Other bugbears include cheap plastics scattered about the doors and dash, the foot-operated manual parking brake that brushes your shins, the lack of a wireless charging pad for your phone (it’s an EV!), and the comparative lack of cabin storage along the centre tunnel despite the lack of driveline components.
The back seats offer excellent head room because there’s no sunroof, though the knee room is suitable only for those under 180cm and the foot room below the seats ahead is minimal. There are also no vents or USB points in the rear, and a large hump running between the back seats at floor level.
The back seats split-fold 60:40, and the boot space is a sizeable 405L thanks to the super-low floor.
On first impressions, the just-updated Hyundai’s interior looks and feels more modern than the Nissan. There are silvery plastics, a floating instrument binnacle surround, and elegantly shaped vents that flow into the door speakers, showing some design nous that not all Hyundai cabins have.
That 10.25-inch windscreen can show three sub-menus simultaneously (charge status, navigation, and audio) or a single-screen large map with pointers to the nearest chargers, the digital instruments are even crisper, and the Qi charger tub is particularly easy to access and simple to use effectively.
The army of buttons along the tunnel for changing seat temperatures, drive modes, and transmission changes looks cool and modern, and the large rubberised space below the instrument fascia can fit a handbag. That’s leveraging the packaging benefits of batteries and motors.
The climate control is changed via a black-plastic touchscreen-type set-up that takes some adjustment, but which becomes intuitive, and the presence of a button that only focuses on the driver saves juice. On this note, one sub-menu shows you what proportion of the charge is going to in-car electrical and ventilation.
The fact you can both cool and heat your seats, adjust the driver’s side electrically, program in memory position modes for two, and move the steering wheel towards you, makes it a more comfortable car for long drives.
The sunroof is nice to have, and has a solid cover, but it does impinge on a tall person’s head room. On this topic, the huge rear pillar (C-pillar) does dent outward visibility to the rear.
Knee room in the rear is okay, but there’s a paucity of head room and toe room. Unlike the Leaf, you do get rear vents and a flip-down centre armrest with cupholders. The boot is shallower than the Nissan’s, but the design gives you a larger opening aperture for bulky items.
The Nissan Leaf’s in-floor 350V battery has a capacity of 40kWh, and its charging sockets are mounted in the nose. A 7kW home wallbox will charge the Leaf up in about 7.5 hours (or overnight), while a 50kW public DC charge through the CHAdeMO plug will take you from 20 per cent to 80 per cent in about 60 minutes.
Nissan cites a WLTP-tested maximum driving range between charges of 270km taking into account brake-energy recuperation. The 110kW/320Nm asynchronous single-speed motor will zip the 1594kg Leaf from 0–100km/h in 7.9 seconds.
By contrast, the Ioniq’s 320V battery capacity is 38.3kWh and its charge sockets are behind a side-mounted flap. A wallbox will charge the car up in just over six hours, since its onboard capacity is higher. It can also handle up to 100kW DC fast-charges via a CCS 2 plug that can take the car to 80 per cent in 54 minutes.
Hyundai cites a WLTP-tested maximum driving range of 311km, meaning its set-up is claimed to have a greater kWh per 100km efficiency figure. Its motor makes 100kW/295Nm, and will take the 1575kg Ioniq from 0–100km/h in 9.0 seconds.
As time elapses, you can expect to see more and more of the dealerships in each brand's big network install EV chargers, growing infrastructure alongside providers such as Chargefox.
So, the Hyundai is quicker to charge and can travel further, but is also slower to 100km/h. On paper… But in reality?
Once you become inured to the driving position, the Nissan Leaf has most of the great attributes of an urban EV covered. It’s whisper quiet, with just a whirr under throttle, and neck-snappingly responsive up to 60km/h before a slight taper. For urban gap-hunting it’s a dream. The front Goodyear tyres even chirp occasionally.
It’s a shame the ride quality is too stiff and crashy over potholes and speed humps.
There’s a default throttle setting, but you can push a button near the gear toggle labelled Eco, which numbs the responses from a stabbing right foot to save charge. The motor always recuperates brake energy, but the switchable e-pedal braking feature slows the car more quickly than basic inertia when you lift off the throttle.
Using this function means you almost never need to use the brakes around town. You simply learn how long the e-pedal will take to slow the car when you lift off. I would constantly watch a small animation that shows how much power the motors were drawing, or how much they were recuperating and sending back into the battery, at any given moment. You can also monitor your live battery usage.
My 175km combined-cycle driving loop with highways, hills and urban stop-start, yielded energy use of 16.4kWh per 100km according to the computer. Factoring in energy returned to the system by braking, I was on track for a range of around 220–230km, having exhausted the battery to 17 per cent over that jaunt.
The Hyundai Ioniq certainly feels slightly less rapid under heavy throttle than the Leaf, as the numbers suggest. But between 0–60km/h you’ll still smoke most cars given that instant rush of motor torque. It’s less punchy, but far tamer and less prone to wheel spin than its Kona Electric sibling.
Hyundai Australia calibrates the suspension of its cars locally, and that effort is rewarded. The ride quality is much better, with the car able to isolate occupants from bumps and ruts more effectively. The Michelin tyres offer decent grip for low-rolling-resistance hoops, and the handling is more agile and nimble into corners.
You can cycle through various driving modes, from default Comfort to Eco that numbs the throttle and ups the brake regeneration resistance, to Sport that sharpens the car up notably from the line. An Eco Plus mode limits your speed to 90km/h and shuts off the AC, amounting to a limp-home mode when you’re nearly flat.
You can use the shifter paddle to play with three stages of brake-energy recuperation and resistance, though Nissan’s one-stage e-pedal feels more natural. The Ioniq also adjusts the amount of recuperation/resistance once you’re off throttle depending on your speed and terrain, if you leave it be.
The energy usage is also remarkably good. No matter how hard I stabbed that throttle, I couldn’t get the figure above 16kWh/100km, and over my even longer 223km loop (the same roads, just more of them, with the same final average 61km/h speed) the car averaged 13.3kWh/100km. After this loop, the computer told me I retained 63km of range, meaning I’d give 300km a nudge using Eco Plus.
So, while the Leaf is sprightlier, the Ioniq is both more comfortable and agile to drive, and charges more quickly while being more efficient with its energy.
Servicing and warranty
Hyundai will sell you a Delta home charger for as little as $1995 fitted. If you want one for your Nissan, the company has paired with Australia’s Jet Charge, which has numerous options here.
Each Nissan service is annual or 20,000km, whichever comes first, and then the first six visits are capped at $237, $317, $247, $330, $257, and $343. You’ll also need new brake fluid every two years or 40,000km.
The Leaf is covered by a five-year warranty, except for the battery that has an eight-year/160,000km warranty period. Nissan tells us the warranty applies if the battery status/health drops below nine bars out of 12 in this period, meaning any density degradation of less than 25 per cent is not covered.
Hyundai’s service intervals are 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first. Each of the first five visits is capped at $160.
The warranty on the Hyundai Ioniq is five years/unlimited kilometres, and the battery pack on all variants is covered for eight years/160,000km like the Nissan, with a similar amount of expected capacity loss built in.
Note, if you don’t live in extreme temperatures and don’t DC-charge constantly, you’d be unlucky to lose this much capacity in any EV.
Battery capacity: 38.3kWh
DC charging capacity: 100kW
Motor outputs: 100kW/295Nm
WLTP range claim: 311km
Transmission: Single reduction gear
Battery capacity: 40kWh
DC charging capacity: 50kW
Motor outputs: 110kW/320Nm
WLTP range claim: 270km
Transmission: Single reduction gear
Both are worthy of commendation, merely for offering EV transport with room for four people and a price tag that at least some people can afford. With battery prices still north of US$150 per kWh and the global supply of lithium-ion battery packs below par, expect this barrier to remain for a few years yet.
The Nissan has runs on the board, as evidenced by the fact that it is already in its second generation. But the Hyundai Ioniq’s superior efficiency, better road manners, and more contemporary interior design give it the win in this contest.
If you’re an early adopter after an affordable urban EV, then Hyundai is the current clubhouse leader.