The 2018 Nissan Leaf gets a semi-autonomous upgrade

The number-one-selling EV in the world gets a much-needed makeover.

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    The Nissan Leaf is the top-selling electric vehicle in the world. Sure, Tesla and Chevy get all the hype with the Bolt and Model 3, but with more than 290,000 cars sold, Nissan's little electric car is the one people are buying. After seven years without a design refresh, the automaker dropped a new and improved model to continue to dominate the EV world. Although, that task will be a lot tougher thanks to increased competition.

    Gallery: 2018 Nissan Leaf | 12 Photos

    The new Leaf starts at $30,000 and has a 150-mile range. That's really what everyone wants to know, so let's get it out of the way. Besides traveling farther on the road, the car is an all-around improvement over the outgoing version. It has a stiffer chassis, better steering, a way better design and Nissan's first foray into semi-autonomous driver (ProPilot Assist is an option).

    When it comes range, the Leaf sits between the likes of Honda's Clarity EV and the Hyundai Ioniq EV, which hover around the 100-mile mark, and the 200-mile-plus Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3. That said, at 150 miles, its range is better than most in the increasingly crowded EV market. The closest real competitor is the Volkswagen e-Golf, with a 125-mile range and roughly the same starting price. But the Leaf has a secret weapon: Nissan's aforementioned semi-autonomous ProPilot Assist system.

    While Nissan is a bit late to the semi-autonomous game, ProPilot is a solid system on par with nearly every other automaker's combination of lane-keep assistance and adaptive cruise control. While it performed marvelously on the highway, it also did a bang-up job on Napa's backroads, something none of these systems is really made for but is a good indication of how well they read lane markings.

    The vehicle stayed within its lane at or slightly above the speed limit and even around corners sharper than those found on the average highway. Unfortunately, we never encountered stop-and-go traffic, but the adaptive cruise control was able to track the vehicle ahead of it at a line for a stop sign.

    ProPilot is an impressive start for the company. But while the car is great at keeping itself between lanes, the technology upgrades seemed to stop once the company got to the seven-inch capacitive touch center display. The automaker's infotainment system, Nissan Connect, isn't that great to begin with and the Leaf is saddled with a low-resolution display that makes it difficult to read media information and the feed from the back-up camera look like it's covered in Vaseline. Yes, it works, but it's not pretty to look at. Fortunately, it supports CarPlay and Android Auto as standard.

    Thankfully, driving the car is a sharper experience. The Leaf kicks out 147 horsepower with 236 pounds of torque, which delivers quick bursts of speed off the line and while driving. But it's not sustainable, after few seconds you're reminded you're in an economy EV. Considering that most buyers will be using it in urban areas where swift, small bursts of acceleration (to get out of tight situations) are all they really need, it's not so much a ding as a reality check.

    On the efficiency end, during our drive with the Leaf, the 150-mile stated range seems pretty much on par with our experience. I drove the Leaf 118 miles through winding mountain roads on a single charge. I spent most of our drive in "normal" mode. I also tested the vehicle's "Eco" mode and the e-pedal one-pedal driving system. I returned the car with a 9 percent charge or about 14 miles left on the battery.

    The test was held on and around the rural mountain roads near the town of Calistoga, north of San Francisco. In my daily commuting life, driving through San Francisco, I'd more than likely use the e-pedal system extensively. It brings the car to a gentle stop when you lift your foot off the accelerator. After a few tries I was able to get the car to stop right at the stop sign without using the vehicle's brake. That was more of a personal win than anything else.

    Nissan says that e-pedal will keep the car stationary on up to a 30 percent grade. I never encountered that steep of a road to test it on, but it was solid on the few hills I did encounter. It'll be interesting to see how it handles the streets of San Francisco.

    While the drivetrain (powered by its new 40kWh battery -- up from 30 kWh found on the previous model) is a solid performer and the handling of the vehicle improved, I'm not a fan of the sitting position and leg room. I'm 6-foot-3, and I felt like I was way too close to the dash and the seat was higher than my liking. If you're taller than me, the Leaf probably isn't for you. Anyone shorter than me, should probably be fine.

    Sure, the old Leaf was the number-one-selling EV in the world, but things have changed in the past seven years and Nissan needed to step up its game -- and with the new Leaf, it did. This is largely thanks to the new and impressive ProPilot Assist system option. I'm a fan. Still, the center console display is a huge disappointment. But you can mostly solve that by just plugging in your phone, which is something you probably planned on doing anyway because, after all, you're reading this on a tech site.

    Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the leaf had 140kWh battery. While impressive, the actual battery size 40kWh.

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