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Review: 2018 Nissan Leaf’s self-driving features make for a relaxed ride

2018 Nissan Leaf.

Peter Nowak/The Globe and Mail

You know what they say about cars: once you go self-driving, you never go back.

Or at least that’s my experience after recently spending some time behind the wheel of the 2018 Nissan Leaf. Getting back into my own older car and having to work the steering and pedals myself now seems laborious. First-world problems, right?

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The new Leaf’s marquee feature is ostensibly that it’s a fully electric vehicle, but that’s almost old news now given that the Renault-Nissan Alliance offered the first version of the car back in 2010.

Since then, the Leaf has become the most successful EV worldwide, with 310,000 units sold, about 6,100 of those in Canada. Its relatively low price compared with competing EVs is a big factor in those results, with the base 2018 Leaf S model starting at $35,998.

Nissan’s ProPilot Assist feature, which is available starting with the $39,598 SV trim, is actually the main attraction here. A single button on the steering wheel activates it, giving the car control over steering, acceleration and braking. It keeps the Leaf centred in its lane and at a constant speed and distance from vehicles ahead on the road.

The system works in two parts, which individually rely on radar housed under the front grill and a camera in the rear-view mirror.

The radar feeds the adaptive cruise-control function by monitoring traffic ahead of the Leaf, which allows it to autonomously adjust speed and following distance accordingly. The camera picks up the contrast between dark road surfaces and light lane markings to keep the Leaf centred.

Both functions can be turned on and off individually, too, depending on your situation and preferences.

The adaptive cruise-control functions, which allow the Leaf to autonomously adjust speed and following distance, can be turned on and off individually.

Peter Nowak/The Globe and Mail

It’s pretty simple and, over the course of my several-hour test drive, it worked surprisingly well.

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Nissan claims ProPilot’s self-steering capability is more advanced than similar systems because it doesn’t “ping-pong” from one lane marking to the other. During a test, the Leaf lost sight of markings a few times, but in each case it was simply because there weren’t any lines to be seen.

In those few situations, a gentle audio cue and yellow steering wheel icon on the instrument panel alerted me of the need to take control. As Owen Thunes, Nissan’s EV powertrain manager, puts it, “If you can’t see the lane markings, the system can’t see them.”

That said, Nissan – and every car maker participating in developing autonomous technologies for that matter – is adamant that such self-steering functions are not necessarily meant to be relied on as such.

While it can be exhilarating to take your hands off the steering wheel and cruise around like you’re David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider, it’s a bad idea to do so.

You always have to be ready to take back control when the car loses sight of road markings – and it inevitably will. The technology is still in its early days and it’s going to take years for it to mature to the point where it’s completely trustworthy.

The Leaf actually begins to protest after about five seconds of your hands not being on the steering wheel. If you don’t put them back on within 15 seconds, the car will begin to brake.

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'It’s fatigue reduction, it’s an assistant,' Owen Thunes, Nissan’s EV powertrain manager, says of the car's self-driving features.

Peter Nowak/The Globe and Mail

ProPilot Assist may not be trustworthy autonomy just yet, but it does significantly ease the burden of steering, to the point where you can lightly rest your hands on the wheel most of the time.

Combine it with the equally great adaptive cruise control, which lets you take your foot off the pedals for as long as you want, and you’ve got a relaxed driving experience. As Thunes says, “It’s fatigue reduction, it’s an assistant – it is not an autonomous vehicle.” It’s not self-driving yet, but it’s getting there.

ProPilot Assist is also available in the top SL Platinum trim level of the 2018 Rogue at $36,998 and it’s coming to the 2019 Altima later this year. But with provincial EV rebates currently as high as $14,000 in Ontario, the 2018 Leaf is the most economical way to get it for the time being.

The Leaf is also the only Nissan car with ePedal, a standard function in all trim levels that allows for single-pedal driving. It’s similarly great and works well. Easing up on the gas a little gently slows the car, while removing your foot entirely brings it to a smooth stop.

The ePedal can be turned off and the actual brake is still there for quick slowing and stopping. But, just as with ProPilot Assist, I found it hard to go back to regular pedals, which now seem more taxing to use.

All told, there’s a lot to love about the 2018 Leaf – but there’s also no doubt it’s not for everyone.

It’s a compact car for starters, so it’s not ideal for tall people. The driver’s seat doesn’t have much vertical adjustment while the passenger’s has none at all, so it can feel cramped.

More importantly, it still is an EV, which invites its own set of well-worn concerns. Drivers will need to install a charging station at home and more than likely have to deal with range anxiety at some point.

The 2018 Leaf has an improved 40 kWh battery that gives it a decent 242-kilometre range, which is more than enough for the typical commute. But that’s still potentially problematic on long trips despite the growing proliferation of charging stations (Canada currently has 6,842 of them, according to Nissan).

The 2018 Leaf has a 242-kilometre range.

Peter Nowak/The Globe and Mail

There were a few moments during my test drive, which took me through the Quebec countryside, where I worried about getting lost and running out of power. It was an unlikely scenario, but it’s still not a thought you’d necessarily have in a regular gas-driven car.

EV anxieties are sure to diminish with each passing year as batteries improve and charging stations continue to multiply, but they’re still bound to affect any car-buying decision in the present.

But with outstanding features such as ProPilot Assist and ePedal, Nissan is increasingly making those decisions easier.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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