2018 Nissan Leaf EV First Drive: 150 Miles, Pro Pilot Assist Highway Driving

LAS VEGAS — Yes, Nissan redesigned the 2018 Nissan Leaf knowing it would have a range of just 150 miles, against 220-plus for the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3. This is a bang-for-the-buck play, delivering a car less expensive and with more range than the old Leaf, while still undercutting the Chevy and Tesla by more than $ 5,000 in price. But: A Leaf with Bolt/Model 3 range arrives in about a year, ultimately letting buyers choose how much they want to pay versus how far they want to go.

In a test drive here this week for writers and analysts, I found the new Leaf accelerates faster, rides more quietly, and looks better inside and out than the 2011-2017 Leaf. An optional semi-autonomous drive feature, ProPilot Assist, has the potential to make for nearly trouble-free highway driving. An e-Pedal switch lets the driver use the throttle pedal to both go and stop under most situations. The entry Leaf S starts at $ 31,875 with shipping, $ 690 less than the outgoing Leaf.

On the Road with the New Leaf

Step in the new Leaf and the interior looks more upscale; you could easily be in a high-end Nissan Sentra or Versa. The instrument panel is a combination of a 7-inch LCD and a mechanical speedometer. A second LCD sits near the top of the center stack. There’s decent legroom in back, although the seat cushion sits low.

Press the starter button low on the center stack next to the single USB jack, then push the mushroom-looking console shifter left and down to engage Drive. The car sets off with reasonably good acceleration, since the electric motor is now rated at 110 kilowatts (147 horsepower) and 236 pound-feet of torque, 38 percent more than 80 kw (107 hp) and 187 lb-ft of the first-gen Leaf that weighs about 100 pounds less. Estimates have the Leaf’s 0-60 mph time at around 8 seconds, versus 10 seconds for the original Leaf. In the city, there’s plenty of acceleration since electric motors deliver the maximum torque (power) at zero rpm.

There are two drive modes chosen by the mushroom shifter, D (drive) and B (regenerative braking), plus an E (eco) button on the console. Acceleration and throttle mapping is the same for D and B, while Eco provides gentler throttle response. Come off the throttle in D and the car coasts down slowly; do the same in B and there’s clearer deceleration as battery regeneration kicks in sooner.

Push the e-Pedal button on the console and deceleration is even more pronounced. With e-Pedal, the car applies up to 0.2 g’s of stopping power from regeneration and from the friction brakes, so you can coast down to a stop. Within the first day of driving, you should be able to estimate when you need to come off the throttle to coast your way to a stop at the sign or traffic signal. If you find you’re slowing too rapidly, you can get back on the throttle to resume coasting or apply more energy to the motor. What initially might seem like a silly-party-trick feature actually works well on the road. There is a brake pedal for harder stops. e-Pedal differs from other coast-down-to-stop systems in that e-Pedal also applies the regular friction brakes.

Blue button on steering wheel engages Pro Pilot Assist. Adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning combine to provide semi-autonomous, single-lane driving from 20-90 mph. Button on left sets following distance.

Highway Driving with ProPilot Assist

Getting on the interstates at the western edge of Las Vegas, I pressed the blue ProPilot Assist button. It engages lane departure warning and full-range adaptive cruise control for a semi-autonomous form of highway driving that keeps you positioned in the center of your current lane and paces the car ahead. You can engage ProPilot Assist at any speed above 20 mph, then it works at 0 to 90 mph. This is Level 2 of the SAE’s 0-5 levels of autonomy: multiple systems working together to assist the driver. It wants to feel your hands on the wheel — micro-movements are enough — and it will drive you as long there’s energy in the batteries.

How did it work? There was some trial and error at first. On these Nevada interstates, the road-edge markers are solid lanes and the lane dividers are multiple raised dots. My Leaf initially favored the solid line and tried to take that line onto the exit ramp before I applied a little pressure to keep it straight on the highway. A couple times after that, it appeared to wander and I corrected before waiting to see if it would cross a lane boundary. Shifting to the middle lane with dots on both sides, PPA was better at keeping the car centered. Later, it was fine driving on an outside lane (lane dots one side, continuous lane paint the other side). There was no divided-highway curve that was too sharp for the car to handle on its own.

Over time, I grew more comfortable, but not enough to feel fully at home and free to try something stupid, such as write a text while driving. Note that this was one of the rare cloudy days in Las Vegas and the pavement markings were worn and due for a new coat of paint. But that describes a lot of roads in the US. I’m looking forward to spending a full day — or 150 miles worth of a day — getting more familiar with ProPilot Assist. The idea of a single button enabling the features needed for Level 2 autonomy is intriguing. Given that Nissan is working with a single radar and a single camera, it suggests Nissan put a lot of work into the software.

Nissan is offering a second vision system, ProPark Assist (not tested). It helps with all manner of parking. Others who tested the Leaf’s parking earlier in the year said parts worked adequately and parts took a long time to position the car before making the final maneuvers.

The 2018 Nissan Leaf comes in three grades, or trims: S, SV, SL.

Nissan Leaf Grade Walk

The 2018 Nissan Leaf comes in three grades, or trim levels. All are front-drive, four-door hatchbacks. And all have the same 40 kWh battery, up from 30 kWh on the 2017 Leaf that was good for 107 miles. Charging time is 8 hours with a 6 kW charger and 16 hours with a 3 kW charger, and an 80 percent fast charge takes 40 minutes. Weight is 3,433 to 3,508 pounds.

Leaf S, $ 31,875 (with shipping). In addition to being $ 690 or 2 percent cheaper than the old model S, Nissan cites an additional $ 4,500 in value with the 40 percent range increase, 37 percent more horsepower, standard automatic emergency braking, the 7-inch meter (instrument panel LCD) plus analog speedometer, and auto on/off headlamps. ProPilot Assist is not offered on the Leaf S.

Leaf SV, $ 33,375. The mid-level Leaf adds Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and full-range adaptive cruise control. The $ 2,220 Technology Package includes ProPilot Assist, Intelligent Lane Intervention (lane keep assist), blind spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, LED headlamps, auto high beams, an electronic parking brake, Bose premium audio, a driver-only 6-way power seat, an auto-dimming mirror with HomeLink garage door opener, and a Level 2 120/240-volt portable charging cable.

Leaf SL, $ 37,085. The premium model adds blind spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert, Nissan’s popular four-camera surround view monitor with moving object detection and driver attention alert, Bose premium audio, the Level 1 / Level 2 EVSE ( Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment)) smart charging cable, and turn signals on the outside mirrors. Most of the SV tech package options are standard here; the SL’s $ 650 Technology Package includes ProPilot Assist.

The Leaf goes on sale in the Japan home market in October. US customers can take delivery starting in early 2018 and, as with the Tesla Model 3, you can get on a waiting list. The Leaf is eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $ 7,500, and rebates or tax credits in some states.

The 2018 Nissan Leaf from the side looks a bit like a Nissan Versa Note stretched 12 inches.

Should You Buy?

As the Nissan Leaf reaches 150 miles of range, it increases the number of people who can live with an EV. If you decide you always want 20 miles in reserve, the range difference — 130 versus 87 — is 50 percent greater.

Compared with the Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3, the Leaf is the lightest, although the Bolt EV is 12 inches shorter at 164 inches (and carrying 50 percent more battery capacity). The Leaf has significantly more cargo space behind the back seat than either, even though the Tesla is eight inches longer. The Tesla and Chevy accelerate faster. The Bolt EV is rated at 238 miles with its 60 kWh LiIon battery, and the Tesla at 220 miles for the 50 kWh miles and 310 miles for the 75 kWh batteries.

Things will get better in about a year, when Nissan can offer a 60 kWh battery pack on the 2019 Leaf. Here’s why Nissan doesn’t have it now: The 2018 Leaf looks all-new because of the body redesign. But the underpinnings are based on the earlier Leaf. The wheelbase remains 106.3 inches and the new 2018 battery array was fit into the existing dimensions. It’s going to take more engineering work, plus battery advances, to fit 60 kWh into the same Leaf. The 2018 Leaf already has two-thirds more energy density in the same space.

One thing that’s changing in Nissan’s favor is the positive perception of EVs and the belief among some buyers that there’s nothing wrong with driving an EV as a Monday-to-Friday commuter car, then renting something bigger with a combustion engine for holiday weekends. In other words, you don’t need a Nissan Armada full-time because you’re about to buy a 75-inch TV sometime in the next year and haul it home. Only an outlier commuter couldn’t get to work and back on a 150-mile EV; most could go 2-3 days before needing to recharge. Still, first-time EV buyers think range first. Longer range is better. Inductive charging that eliminates the need to plug in will also grease the ways for EVs.

Nissan has done well with the Leaf so far. Our first impression is that with a clean-sheet design, Nissan might have been able to offer cars with 200- and 300-mile ranges now. That will come: 200-plus miles next year, and 300 miles perhaps in 2-3 years, around 2020.

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