Look at the 2013 Nissan Leaf – even one parked next to a 2012 model – and you'll be hard-pressed to spot the differences. Changes and updates have been made, but you have to know the details to tell. It's sort of like listening to a hipster tell you why Interpol and The National have completely different sounds.
Nissan says it didn't reinvent the Leaf because what the company has created is working. Over 25,000 Leafs have been sold in the US – 62,000 around the world – since the car went on sale in late 2010. That may not sound like a lot, but it's heads and shoulders above any other all-electric car available anywhere. The car has its detractors – boy, does it ever – but Nissan knows it's hard to argue with real-world success.
We recently spent a few hours driving the new Leaf – an SL-trim version, optioned out to $36,910 – around the hills of central Tennessee after a visit to Nissan's new 475,000 square-foot battery plant. What we learned there provided a lot of hints about the company's electric future. Nissan may be leading today, but company head Carlos Ghosn has made huge, multi-billion-dollar bets on zero-emission technology and the rest of the world has been very slow to prove him right.
As we said, there are some changes to the 2013 Leaf. Length, width, height and wheelbase measurements all remain the same from the 2012 model, but the car has lost weight. The SL went from 3,401 pounds to 3,340 lbs and the SV dropped from 3,385 to 3,340 lbs. The entry-level S trim, new this year, is the lightest, at 3,291 lbs. One of the easiest ways to spot a 2013 Leaf is to see one of the two new exterior colors, Metallic Slate or Glacier White. But most of the changes are small ones, like a little light in the charge port or the fact that you can now release the charge port door with the key fob. Also, a new auto lock feature secures the charging connector in place. There are new 17-inch alloy wheels available and the car's updated hybrid heating system is about 33 percent more efficient. The onboard charger has been moved from the rear cargo area to the front, which increases interior cargo space from 24 cubic feet to 30 with the seats down. The new 6.6-kW onboard charger, standard on SV and SL and available on the S, cuts charge time in half, down to four hours from empty to 80-percent full.
The new 6.6-kW onboard charger cuts charge time in half, down to four hours.
From the driver's seat, you see some differences, too. A redesigned leather-wrapped steering wheel, sun visor extensions and a new rear headrest design that has been changed for better visibility, for example. The navigation system includes a new Eco Route feature that will try to get you where you want to go using the fewest electrons. Most importantly, the dashboard lists a new percent of charge value for the battery – much more useful than the simple bars in previous versions.
The first word that comes to mind when you step on the accelerator is not a good one: neutered. It's been a while since we've been behind the wheel of a Leaf, but it was immediately clear that Nissan has made some compromises here. The biggest drivetrain change is that the new motor has had its torque output reduced, from 207 to 187 pound-feet, thanks to revamped software code. This gives the overall system more efficiency and more range, 75 official miles from the 24-kWh pack, but the horsepower remains the same, at 107. It also makes the car feel a bit sluggish.
The biggest drivetrain change is that the new motor has had its torque output reduced, from 207 to 187 lb-ft.
In practice, the Leaf, which can still initially leap ahead of most gas-powered cars at stoplights and remains as easy as ever to get to 35-40 miles per hour, feels neutered in a way the car didn't before. There's just something missing. Perhaps it's the new motor. Perhaps it's just that we're getting more and more used to the way EVs drive that it takes more to impress us now. Whatever it is, we were not the only journalists to notice it, and Nissan doesn't provide 0-60 figures for us to compare just how different the new Leaf is to its older cousins. But if you really want to feel the car drag, engage the new "B" mode, which increases regenerative braking pressure, or "eco," which maximizes efficiency. For driving fun, we recommend neither.
If you're used to a gas-powered econobox, the Leaf is surprisingly quiet. If you're used to an earlier edition Nissan Leaf, then it's old news to you how much more serene it is to drive a car without engine noise. We didn't have anything bad to say about the electric power steering, but not much good, either. It does the job just fine, and that's all that's important – this isn't a sports car, or even a hot hatch. The Leaf's single-speed transmission remains wonderfully smooth throughout its speed range and the entire package reminds us, once again, that the Leaf is an ideal commuter car – provided you're the right commuter. For example, if you don't live in California, a state where the number of EV options are getting pretty astonishing, and dislike burning gasoline. Just as we don't recommend pickup trucks to everyone, we can't recommend an electric vehicle to everyone. But if you can charge up at home or work and drive fewer than 50 miles per day, on average, the Leaf remains a great, clean and affordable way to get to and from work.
Nissan wants to start selling the Leaf in much larger volumes.
It's abundantly clear that Nissan didn't want to change the Leaf formula too much. Source components and build the car in the US? Sure. Sacrifice a little bit of performance for more range? No problem. Keep most everything else the same? Yup. The reason is that Nissan wants to start selling the Leaf in much larger volumes. As Ghosn said not too long ago, "Our ambitions on the Leaf are not 2,000 cars a month. We know this is a breakthrough technology, we know this is a breakthrough car."
To that end, we just have to look at the company's new battery plant in Smyrna, TN. Mark Swensen, VP of production engineering and component facilities, said it's about a 30-day process to build a Leaf battery there. Once completed, the packs are driven by truck pretty much right next door to the plant where the Leaf is built (on the same line as the Altima and Maxima). The electric motors are made about an hour away in Decherd, TN. In the battery plant, clean rooms (where the high-tech components are assembled in an antiseptic environment), use HEPA filtration systems to keep the air clean. One such room is kept at a -40C dew point, which means a drink placed in the room would need to be at -40C before it got any beads of "sweat" on it.
Nissan has enough capacity to build 200,000 battery packs per year in Smyrna, TN.
Currently, there are around 250 employees in the battery facility, and the place feels roomy, with lots of space for more bodies or robots or other manufacturing components. This is because Nissan has enough capacity to build 200,000 battery packs per year in Smyrna, but it's building nowhere near that many right now. No one from Nissan, unsurprisingly, would talk about how many packs will be made at the plant this year, but we cannot imagine full capacity being reached any time soon. After all, with production plants on three continents now running (the original in Japan and a new one in the UK), local demand is being satisfied where the cars are being built, and the US is not on track to buy 200,000 all-electric vehicles – even from all automakers combined – this year. That many sales would require over 16,000 EV sales a month. The Leaf may be the best-selling EV out there (we think), but in a good month it sells just 2,200 units. Not counting exports, Nissan would need an eight-fold sales increase to push the battery plant to the limit. In other words, there's room to grow.
Growth is exactly what the company road map predicts. Brendan Jones, Nissan's director of EV infrastructure strategy and deployment, said that 80 percent of Leaf buyers are new to the brand and the car saw a large increase in younger buyers in the last year. So far in 2013, year-over-year sales are up 160 percent through April (2,103 in 2012 and 5,476 in 2013). The average Leaf buyer, Jones says, is highly educated (73 percent have more than a high school degree) and their average credit score is 750. Nissan expects the sales breakdown for the three trim lines of the 2013 Leaf to be 20 percent of the $28,800 entry-level S, 55-percent mid-level $31,820 SV and 25-percent high-end $37,250 SL.
Year-over-year sales are up 160 percent through April.
Add it all up, and it appears Nissan thinks it has figured out the formula to keep new people coming in to experience the world's best-selling EV. It's done the math to calculate which aspects of the car needed to be improved (drop the price, for one) and which can be somewhat ignored (torque, performance) to attract the largest number of buyers. So far, the plan is showing signs of working, but it's a long drive from roughly 25,000 electric vehicles a year – the current US pace – to 200,000. A very long drive.
Check out our video review below.