Nissan makes the smart play with the 2018 Leaf
Holding pat and delivering lower-range cars like the 2018 Leaf while the competition stretches itself looks like a smart play in the long run
Hit or stand, what's your strategy? Using a city built on gambling to introduce the redesigned Leaf, Nissan played it safe with their mass-market vehicle while perhaps keeping a few cards up its sleeve for the coming years. It's not a risky move, but might be the smart play.
The redesigned Leaf arrives looking more like a mini-Murano than a concussed frog – that's the first piece of good news.
A new, 40-kilowatt-hour battery bumps range to an approximate 240 kilometres, with power levels increased to 147 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, the latter available from rest.
All these numbers represent a useful improvement to current Leaf owners, but are they enough to be competitive?
The Tesla Model 3, for instance, promises 350 km of range from its basic, rear-drive car. The Chevy Bolt offers 385 km. If range is the yardstick by which an electric vehicle is measured, then the new Leaf simply comes up short.
The issue is that you can't actually get your hands on a Model 3 yet, and probably won't be able to, until mid-2018 at best. Further, the early cars will all be the more expensive long-range versions, and you can expect well-equipped versions to price out the same as a BMW 3 Series.
The Bolt, too, seems to be in short supply, with wait times stretching out to three-quarters of a year. It's also not an inexpensive proposition, costing $43,195 before rebates.
The new Leaf arrives in the first quarter of 2018 and will start at $35,998. When you start factoring in Ontario's aggressive electric-vehicle rebates, here's where things get really interesting. The rebate of $14,000 comes off after taxes, making a base Leaf almost the exact same price as a basic Altima or a mid-level Sentra. B.C. offers a $5,000 rebate and Quebec will knock $8,000 off the price.
Add in the ability to use high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, an increase in free charging stations at places of work and public car parks, and the Leaf starts looking like a value proposition for the urban commuter.
Beyond the dollars-and-cents proposition, a very brief drive revealed the Leaf's relaxing and smooth character. Compared with a small-displacement internal-combustion engine, the response of the electric torque is addictive, the ride smooth and the drive quiet. It's not in any way sporty to drive, but that's not really the point.
Nissan is also rolling out their e-Pedal on this new car: come off the accelerator and the car aggressively slows, including application of the regenerative brakes. In stop-and-go traffic, you need never take a foot off the accelerator. You needn't worry about getting rear-ended either, as the system will trip the brake lights if deceleration hits a threshold.
Further labour savings happen with Nissan's first introduction of Pro-Pilot, the car maker's suite of semi-autonomous aids. A brief test of the adaptive cruise control saw the Leaf keep itself steady in the middle of the lane, damping out any oscillations. You are, however, required to keep your hands on the wheel. A large, brightly lit screen in the instrument panel makes it clear when the system is engaged.
Canadian-spec Leafs are a little more expensive than the U.S. models but come with a little more standard equipment. A telescoping steering wheel is still missing, but overall passenger comfort is good. The cargo area is a massive 668 litres with a 60/40 split folding seat, but note that there's no spare tire.
A Level 2 (240 volts) charger will bring the Leaf's battery up to 80 per cent in just 40 minutes or so, a little longer than the previous-generation car's smaller battery. Cold weather charging is improved, with Nissan claiming a 50-per-cent reduction in charge time at 0 C versus the earlier Leaf. It's rare that a battery would be fully depleted, so topping off while grocery shopping and at work will likely remove range anxiety for most customers. As the commuter part of a two-car garage that includes some kind of crossover for family weekends, the Leaf works better than some poverty-spec compact.
The sharp-eyed will have already noticed that this second-generation Nissan EV sure seems to have most of the same dimensions as the previous car. The two are very similar, right down to the dimensions of the new, denser battery pack. An upcoming 60-kWh pack, rumoured for the 2019 model year, will require some repackaging.
Such an upgrade would bump the Leaf's price and range, the latter to somewhere close to a competitive 360 km. As to the former, battery prices have been decreasing steadily over time, so Nissan holding pat and delivering lower-range cars now while the competition stretches itself looks like a smart play in the long run.
Electric-vehicle sales are still just the tiniest wafer-thin segment of the market. However, with more than 5,000 EVs delivered in Canada, a quarter-million Leafs worldwide and a host of trained-up dealerships, Nissan is ready to expand to meet demand as it comes. Further, Nissan Canada president Joni Paiva confirmed that Canada has the allocation to meet demand. "Leaf is strategic for us," he said, further indicating that maintaining a strong presence in Quebec is a priority.
The Leaf probably won't tempt too many people away from the familiar internal-combustion offerings, nor from their Model 3 deposits – the cult of Elon is more about perceived prestige than saving pennies. As the sensible choice in the segment, however, the Leaf is sitting looking at a comfortably well-stocked hand. Place your bets.