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CarGurus Expert ReviewThe Good
A fairly roomy cabin, plenty of standard techno-goodies, some pretty fair driving habits, neck-snapping acceleration and getting to ignore those usurious gas pumps make the all-electric 2012 Nissan Leaf a force to be reckoned with.The Bad
Limited cruising range and, thus far, few charging points, as well as questionable exterior looks, a cramped back seat and a dearth of cargo space indicate the Leaf has a ways to go in replacing the conventional gasoline-powered hatchback.
The CarGurus View
Despite some worries about range, a lack of charging points, tepid cargo capacity and a curio-shop design, the 2012 Leaf points to the future of everyday road travel. Nissan’s cute-ish compact hatchback saves on gas, saves the whales, flaunts a bunch of standard techno-features and is kind of fun to drive. What more could the average, eco-minded short-distance commuter want?
At a Glance
Tired of paying high gas prices? Don’t take many long trips? Consider, then, the 2012 Nissan Leaf. Introduced to a limited market in 2011, this 5-door, 5-passenger compact hatchback is all electric, no gasoline needed. Yes, the Leaf still requires prospective buyers to sign up on a registration list in order that they may be eligible to purchase this battery-operated hatchback, at least for the moment, but Nissan vows this will change shortly. Offering a surprisingly roomy cabin, decent handling characteristics, and zero emissions, the futuristic Leaf even boasts federal tax credits, to the tune of some $7,500, to offset a somewhat hefty base MSRP of around $35,200. That’s about $2,400 more than last year’s base price, however, keep in mind that the 2012 version adds more standard features, including a standard cold-weather package with heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel, heated outside mirrors and a battery heater. Furthermore, the federal tax credit may be bolstered by additional eco-friendly credits in certain states.
Despite its car-of-the-future status, the 2012 Leaf does have a few drawbacks that may not make it the perfect choice for many. Chief among those is, as one would expect, a despairingly limited range. Though Nissan’s battery-powered hatchback is touted to get 100 miles on a charge, weather, driving habits and terrain combine to keep realistic range in the area of approximately 73 miles. Then there’s the fact that charging stations are few and far between, while at-home charging systems can be pretty expensive. Additionally, recharging the battery pack when fully depleted can take from 30 minutes at a quick-charge station to 8 hours on a home charging system. Obviously, this must be factored into the timeframe for any long-distance journey. Finally, this all-electric hatchback offers only 24 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded and, to add insult to injury, the seats are incapable of folding completely flat due to the rather bulky battery pack. And, of course, there’s that rather obtuse exterior that has both reviewers and more than a few tire-kickers either scratching their collective heads or uttering flowery phrases.
In any case, the 2012 Leaf is available in two trims, the base SV and the top-end SL. Both trims are front-wheel-drive (FWD) only and both offer alloy wheels, hard-drive-based navigation, comfy seats and solid government safety scores. The SL trim, moreover, and in keeping with its elite image, is delivered with a standard quick-charge port, as well as a few other added techno-goodies.
Of course, the Leaf is unique in being one of only a few affordable all-electric vehicles, with Chevy’s much ballyhooed Volt, Ford's new Focus Electric, and Toyota’s just-introduced Prius plug-in being its only rivals. For those who need more range while still driving greener and cheaper, any of a number of compact hybrids ought to do, with VW’s non-hybrid turbodiesel Golf TDI also putting up some pretty solid mileage figures. Despite its limitations, however, the 2012 Leaf is a solid performer and living proof that the affordable all-electric vehicle is here to stay.
An 80-kilowatt electric motor that’s powered by a 24kWh lithium ion battery pack drives the 2012 Nissan Leaf. Managed by a direct-drive single-speed transmission, the electric drive system manages to put out 107 hp and a seatback-straining 207 lb-ft of torque. Regenerative braking also helps recharge the potent battery pack, though the increased range possibilities are marginal, at best. The average cost per mile is considered in the range of 2 to 3 cents, which looks pretty good compared to the approximately 10 to 12 cents per mile that the average gasoline-powered compact hatchback is likely to offer.
Reviewers are most likely to talk about range when discussing this handy hatchback. Most find the EPA-estimated range of 73 miles for the Leaf to be fairly accurate, though the agency does give Nissan’s nifty electric car an average fuel/energy efficiency equivalent rating of 99 mpg in its recently evolved MPGe system designed especially for measuring driving efficiency in all-electric automobiles. Reviewers do, however, generally lament the lack of charging stations, the expense of capable home charging systems and the time-consuming process of recharging a depleted battery. Many admit, furthermore, to suffering simple “range anxiety”, worrying that battery power will give out short of a charging station.
Virtually all reviews, however, are quick to laud the jack-rabbit acceleration shown by the Leaf’s direct-drive transmission and impressive torque numbers. Low-end throttle reaction is noted by a number of reviewers to be better than in most gasoline engines, while merging and passing on the highway are described by many as comparable to the average 4-cylinder gas- or diesel-powered compact. Most reviewers also make much of how quiet things are without a gas-driven powerplant racketing away under the hood. Alas, road and wind noise are described as considerably more noticeable, though not to a disturbing extent, according to the majority of reviews.
Ride & Handling
Like the vast majority of its conventionally powered contemporaries, the 2012 Leaf sports a fairly traditional suspension. A front independent suspension system is bolstered by MacPherson front struts, with a torsion beam rear end complemented by front and rear stabilizer bars. Though reviewers stop short of calling the Leaf’s ride plush, many consider the low-riding battery pack a major contributor toward a surprisingly composed cruise. Indeed, a few reviews prefer the ride in Nissan’s all-electric hatchback to that of most gas-powered compacts.
The electric power steering system, alas, is panned by many reviewers as a bit lacking in road feel, and the ultra-low-rolling-resistance tires that are standard on the 16-inch alloy rims common to both trims provide less grip in fast turns than many find comfortable. Again, however, the low-mount battery pack helps steady this nifty hatchback in turns, keeping it from displaying that pesky top-heavy feeling and pronounced body lean common to these types of autos.
The front and rear ventilated disc brakes, meantime, are noted by most reviewers to be powerful and sure, with no disturbing pedal anomalies, a rarity with regenerative braking systems.
Cabin & Comfort
Both 2012 Leaf trims sport a hefty number of standard appearance, comfort and convenience amenities. The base SV, for instance, is delivered with a standard rear spoiler and heated power-adjustable mirrors outside, with cloth upholstery, multi-level heated front and rear seats and a heated steering wheel endowing a bit of posh to the cabin. Add to that standard remote power door locks, power windows, a tilting steering wheel with mounted audio and cruise controls, climate control and an electrochromatic rear-view mirror, and this little hatchback begins to look positively decadent. A standard MP3-compatible single-CD player with 6 speakers, meanwhile, heads the list of entertainment features. This heady audio system is bolstered by NavTraffic satellite radio and a USB connection, while a hard-drive-based, voice-activated navigation display is also standard and handy in calculating distances to the next charging station. Finally, Bluetooth hands-free communications technology complements standard phone pre-wiring.
The top-shelf Leaf SL adds a quick-charge port, a universal remote garage door opener, a rear-view camera and a photovoltaic solar panel in the rear spoiler to the list of standard comfort and convenience features.
Options for both trims include an Eco Design package, featuring hologram 3D door entry plates and an “Appliqué” interior-themed center console, as well as a Protection package with front and rear bumper protectors. Standalone options/accessories such as logo-embossed front and rear floor mats, hologram kick plates and splash guards are also offered on each trim.
Reviewers find the non-traditional dashboard in the 2012 Leaf to be unique and, for the most part, user-friendly. The cabin is adorned with what reviewers consider cut-rate hard plastic, but a decidedly high-tech atmosphere has most in agreement that this reasonably priced all-electric car does about all it can do ambiance-wise. Reviewers find the front seats to be roomy and comfortable for average-size adults, the rear seats a tad less so. Two adults ought to be reasonably comfy in back for short trips, but the sub-floor-mounted battery pack will keep rear-seat occupants sitting in an awkward knees-up position. Though cargo space is decidedly sparse, cabin storage is reasonably adequate in the adequately sized center console, glovebox and door packets. Virtually all reviewers find, however, that rear visibility is compromised considerably by thick rear roof pillars and rear-seat headrests that are higher than normal.
Though it may appear a bit fragile, the 2012 Nissan Leaf boasts such standard safety features as front and rear antilock disc brakes (ABS) with electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assist, as well as traction and stability control. Occupant safety is bolstered by front and rear head airbags, dual front side-mounted airbags and front head-restraint whiplash protection. LED headlights and a remote antitheft alarm complete the list of safety equipment lineup-wide, with the SL trim also sporting standard front fog/driving lights.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2011 Leaf kudos as one of its Top Safety Picks. In IIHS tests for 2011, Nissan’s crafty little hatchback receives its highest rating of Good for front impact and side impact protection, and also for roof strength. Since the 2012 Version is a mirror image, expect further awards from the Institute for this nifty electric car. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), meantime, gives the 2012 Leaf its best 5-star rating overall in their more stringent testing methods, awarding 4 stars in front impact testing, 5 stars in side impact tests and 4 stars in rollover testing.
What Owners Think
The aforementioned range anxiety seems the most common complaint among owners of the 2011 and 2012 Leaf, with the cost of home charging systems and a lack of alternative charging stations coming in a close second. A number of owners also complain about the time it takes to charge a fully depleted battery. Poor rearward visibility in this compact electric hatchback has a number of owners a bit frustrated, while others lament its seemingly low ground clearance and lack of a spare tire. Finally, a number of owners are a bit put off by the Leaf's funky design. Most owners are aware, however, that the Leaf is not for everyone, at least as a main transportation source.
For those who decide to drive a heck of a lot greener, Nissan’s all-electric compact is worth its foibles in not burning a drop of gasoline or using any motor oil. Passing gas pumps posting $3.40 and more a gallon also gives virtually all owners a tremendous kick. Owners are thrilled, as well, by government tax incentives that significantly lower the Leaf’s initial cost. Finally, many pleasantly surprised owners find this nimble little battery-powered gadabout a pleasure to drive, describing its quiet, smooth ride as a perfect counterpoint to its competent if not flashy handling characteristics.
by Eric Tallberg
Talk about the 2012 Nissan Leaf
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I will be keeping my LEAF for at least 15 years. (shortest time I have kept a car) And I love it.