Payne: Analog Nissan Leaf EV is the anti-Tesla

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 2, 2024

Auburn Hills — The Tesla Model 3 and Y dominate the electric vehicle market. They are the standard by which all other EVs are judged. But as numerous Hertz customers have communicated to me, not everyone is comfortable in a Tesla. If you haven’t been in a Tesla before, the experience can be bewildering.

Where’s the instrument screen?How do I operate the mirrors?Why doesn’t it have any %#*!@ knobs?

Some folks just want a normal car. For those folks, there is the electric Nissan Leaf.

Small and nimble, the 2024 Nissan Leaf is fun in the twisties. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Leaf hit the U.S. market looong before the Model 3/Y in 2011 and — rather than tear up the blueprints and re-invent the automobile as Tesla did — Nissan’s intent was to create a good ol’ Nissan with an electric motor where the engine usually is found.

Getting acclimated to a Leaf is as easy as learning your way around a Nissan Sentra or Toyota Corolla or any of your typical gas-powered cars. I have a Tesla Model 3 and Subaru Impreza in my garage, and the Leaf has a lot more in common with the ‘Ru.

Hatchback. Similar interior space. Simple digital instrument and dashboard displays. Console choked with more buttons than an airline cockpit. I selected Drive from the console-mounted shifter (won’t find that on a Tesla) and I was off.

I adjusted my seat heater with a dash button. My mirrors with a door button. My temperature with a dash button. My AM radio station and favorite Sirius XM stations with a button. Heck, Tesla doesn’t even offer AM or Sirius XM stations.

The 2024 Nissan Leaf has notable upgrades from the original model that debuted in 2011.Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Through the twisties of Oakland County back roads, my front-wheel-drive, top-trim SV Plus Leaf was as playful as our family FWD Impreza. With its short wheelbase and rigid chassis, the Nissan is eager to be thrown around, and I toggled e-Pedal for single-pedal driving using motor regen as a brake. Stomp on the gas pedal and you’re reminded this is an EV — instant, silent electric torque at the ready — even spinning the front wheels on slick winter roads out of stoplights.

Credit a 62 kWh battery in the SV Plus, which nearly triples in size over the OG 2011 model and its mere 24 kWh lithium-ion pack. It’s also a step up from the 40 kWh standard battery.

“Range aside, the Leaf seems like a normal car,” wrote our friends over at Car and Driver magazine back in 2010 of the new Leaf.

Oh, yes. Range.

The Leaf has certainly improved over the years from the OG’s 73-mile range when it debuted in 2010. With its bigger battery, the second-gen Leaf has not only gained better acceleration but better range as well. The $29K base S boasts 149 miles of range, and my range-topping SV Plus says it can go 212 miles in Normal mode.

The 2024 Nissan Leaf offers both CHAdeMO and CCS charging ports.

The 2024 Nissan Leaf offers both CHAdeMO and CCS charging ports. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

But with more battery comes a lot more price (see the GMC Hummer EV at $100K-plus with a 210 kWh battery) and the SV Plus sticker jumps to $38K. That’s Tesla Model 3’s entry-level price with 240 miles of range and a proprietary charging network for when you want to hit the road. What’s more, the Leaf is no shoo-in for the capricious federal tax credit of $7,500 even though it is Made in the USA. Seems its battery sourcing is not to the liking of federal bureaucrats that spoon out the sugar. Dealers have been urging buyers to lease EVs since the $7,500 is easier to get that way.

I drove the Leaf locally during my week-long test — charging it back to full on my home-installed 240-volt garage charger. The Leaf pioneered CHAdeMO charging in the U.S. among mainstream autos, but that standard has fallen behind the CCS standard (favored by other manufacturers) and the fast-emerging de facto North American Charging Standard favored by Tesla.

My Leaf tester has both CHAdeMO and J-1772 plugs, which made it easy to charge at home on my Level 2, 240-volt garage unit (especially since the closet CHAdeMO to me was 15 miles away in Farmington Hills).

The backseat in the 2024 Nissan Leaf i tight for six-footers.

The backseat in the 2024 Nissan Leaf i tight for six-footers. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Had I hit the road, plugging into the CHAdeMO would have been a lot more effort than Tesla’s proprietary network and even growing CCS infrastructure. Bark your destination to the Tesla and it maps your route — including when-and-where to charge, nearby restaurants to wait out the charge, and so on. Leaf will only find chargers in the immediate vicinity (as well as gas stations, since it shares software with gas models), but it won’t map a route for you to the third-party chargers that pepper the landscape. Best to download a Better Route Planner app on your phone. Time to Charlevoix from Detroit compared to a gas model? Ninety minutes longer due to two looong charging stops.

More problematic: EV range doesn’t hold up in Michigan’s cold winter climates. Chart a course up north, for example, and you need to be cognizant that some fast chargers are 100 miles apart, which can get tricky for low-range 212-mile models like Leaf.

It’s typical for my Tesla Model 3 (and other EVs) to get just 60% of range traveling at 75 mph in 30-degree weather. That means 127 miles of range in a fully charged Leaf, so you might want to back off the accelerator pedal to 65-70 (which ain’t easy for your lead foot reporter). Expect to sit at the chargers for awhile, too. The Leaf can only charge up to 50 kW compared to 250 kW for Teslas.

The Leaf’s natural competitor, the Bolt, gets more range at 258, but I’ve seen Bolts crawling into chargers on I-75 on the way north with little range left. Speaking of natural competitors, the Toyota Prius hybrid starts to sound juicy with its 588 miles of range. Remember when Prius was the trendy choice?

Given their small size, Leaf and Bolt are best relied on as local cars where you can charge at work — or have a charger at home. If you eschew road trips for air travel, Leaf is in your wheelhouse. From its geeky roots, the nerdy Leaf’s wardrobe has been upgraded to fit in with other Nissans — though its center hood-mounted charge port is as convenient as ever.

The interior of the 2024 Nissan Leaf.The interior of the 2024 Nissan Leaf. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The mantle of Top EV has been handed off to the Ariya SUV and its fashionable interior. Ariya gets the latest self-driving software (sorry, Leaf), fancy bronze paint options (sorry, Leaf) and better, 130 kWh, CCS fast charging (sorry, Leaf). But Ariya also gets fancy haptic touch controls with no knobs.

Oh. No knobs?

Check out the good ol’ analog Leaf across the showroom.

2024 Nissan Leaf

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, front-wheel drive five-passenger hatchback

Price: $29,280, including $1,095 destination ($38,210 SV Plus as tested)

Powerplant: 40 kWh or 60 kWh lithium-ion battery mated to electric motor

Power: 147 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque (40 kWh battery); 215 horsepower, 251 pound-feet of torque (60 kWh)

Transmission: Single-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 106 mph

Weight: 3,831 (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. range, 149 miles (40 kWh battery); 212 miles (60 kWh battery as tested)

Report card

Highs: One pedal driving; easy-to-use controls

Lows: Lacks range; lacks charger navigation system

Overall: 2 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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