While much has evolved from the first- to second-generation Leaf, it's what hasn't changed that's most important. The Leaf, in form and function, is still an economy car — a five-door hatchback in a world where the almost meaningless differences between a five-door hatchback and a five-door crossover somehow matters. People buy crossovers, and ignore the hatchbacks on dealer lots to get to them.
Nissan could have jacked the new Leaf up on its suspension, bolted on some off-roady-looking all-season tires, added some cladding and called this thing an electric crossover. Or even do what Chevy did with the Bolt EV and call it a crossover even though it clearly is not. At least some buyers would have been tempted by a "Leafinder" or "Rogue E" who otherwise wouldn't consider a plain old Leaf. So count that as a strategic marketing opportunity missed.
That in mind, and based on about 20 minutes of driving around Las Vegas on a steamy Wednesday afternoon with three people (including a Nissan product nanny) in the car, there's plenty to be impressed with about the new Leaf. Our own John Beltz Snyder had greater exposure to the Leaf in Japan (albeit restricted to Nissan's Tochigi proving grounds), but this is Autoblog's first taste of the U.S.-spec Leaf.
The new Leaf is bigger than the first-generation car, roomier and vastly more sophisticated in its appearance and appointments. The general silhouette of the Leaf is still econobox, but there's nothing cheap in the details. On the sampled pre-production car, the paint was perfect, every plastic bit was perfectly finished and every switch operated with the sort of precision that would be impressive in a Gulfstream G650. Let's hope all that quality will also be aboard the production cars.
Like the first Leaf, this second one is mostly engineered as a small, conventional front-drive car. That means the electric motor is in front driving the front wheels, unlike, say, the BMW i3 that tucks the motor in behind the driver to drive the rear wheels. Because of this layout, the Leaf still drives an awful lot like other front-drivers — the front wheels are asked to do a lot, and the rears aren't doing much. Considering the limited exposure to the Leaf on the billiard-table smooth I-515 between Las Vegas and its suburb Henderson, there's not much that can be said about the Leaf's handling. But it feels OK. For now.
Tweaks to the power delivery system have swollen the 2018 Leaf's synchronous AC motor from the 2017 version's 107-horsepower and 187-pound feet of torque up to 147 horsepower and a thick 236 pound-feet of torque. Since electric motors produce consistent torque no matter how quickly they're turning, the new Leaf feels much quicker than the outgoing model and delivers seamless thrust. Nissan claims a curb weight of 3,405 pounds for the SL, and that is 175 pounds less than what General Motors claims for the Chevy Bolt EV. The Bolt's motor, however, is rated at 200 horsepower and 266 pound feet of torque.
The 2017 Bolt hits 60 miles per hour in around 6.5-seconds. The 2017 Leaf does the same trick in a languid 10-plus seconds. Let's guesstimate the 2018 Leaf's 0-60 time at just under 9.0 seconds. Short of the high-end Tesla hot rods, the Bolt is likely to remain the choice of the world's electro-boy racers.
Nissan claims 150 miles of range for the new Leaf under reasonable conditions. That's better than the 107-mile stretch of the 2017 Leaf and tops the 124 miles Hyundai claims for the Ioniq Electric, but well behind the Bolt's claimed 238-mile lope. But Nissan promises that the 40-kWh lithium-ion battery pack at launch early next year will be supplemented with a 60-kWh array that, do the math, will stretch range to 225 miles.
Supposedly the suspension is tuned tauter for North America than in Japan. OK, fine. But there's no way to evaluate that until the new Leaf is experienced on more challenging roads. That in mind, the 17-inch wheels the Leaf SL wore were wrapped in modest 215/50R17 low-rolling-resistance rubber. Any expectations of extreme cornering prowess are sure to prove misplaced.
So instead of driving engagement, the new Leaf is overstuffed with new technology. Even the base $29,990 "S" model is equipped with an "E-pedal" system that modulates regenerative and mechanical braking to allow virtually one-pedal operation as the car stops itself when the driver's foot is off the accelerator pedal, just like the Bolt EV. That Mattel has offered similar operation in various battery-powered Barbie Jeeps and Corvettes for years wasn't noted in the press materials.
Moving up to the mainstream $32,490 SV model adds a navigation system to the seven-inch center display screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, radar-based "intelligent" cruise control and a phone quick charge port. Atop that, a $2,200 "technology package" includes Nissan's new ProPilot semi-autonomous tech. A top-of-the-line SL runs $36,200 and includes all the goodies, including blind spot warning, lots of cameras, and ProPilot, which seemed to work okay for the mile or so we were able to turn it on.
What's frustrating here is that while the agony of this rollout persists, there's still reason to be suspicious that the electric car market is, in fact, a viable one. Worldwide, electric cars represented a puny 0.2-percent of the total car market despite such incentives as the $7,500 the United States government kicks back to those bold, brave or batty enough to buy one. It's hard to believe that this new Leaf will inspire a new wave of enthusiasm for electric cars.
There's plenty of talk about mandating electric cars in France, China and California, and there's probably been a half-dozen hyped-up announcements since you started reading this sentence. But sooner or later, buyers have to find electric cars so attractive that they'll dump their internally combusted dreams solely based on the zappers' merits. Only Tesla has drilled into the market consciousness to pull that trick off so far. And that's with vehicles that, as good as they drive, are as much virtuous status symbols for the wealthy as real cars.
Nope, we're not there yet. American buyers are bound to show up at Nissan dealers, look at the $30,000+ plus price tag on a loaded Leaf SL (even after the $7,500 bribe) and then walk over and buy a $31,710 top-of-the-line Rogue that has more room, drives great, will go about 400 miles between fill-ups and refuels in a few minutes at any of America's 168,000 or so gas stations.
Whatever government mandates lie in the future, the new vehicle market is still millions of people making individual purchasing decisions. Decisions that usually include taking on a load of debt for a machine they're actually excited to own for five, six or seven years. Most electric cars simply aren't able to attract those buyers. At least not yet. And it seems doubtful that the new Leaf will change that.