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Leafing the way – the Nissan Leaf is the OG EV

It’s hard to think of EVs without mentioning the Nissan Leaf. It was many people’s first experience with Zero Emission motoring, mine included: the very same month I moved to a place where charging overnight was not an issue, I landed myself a Gen 2 (enthusiast-specific naming that still refers to the first shape cars), and I could not have asked for a better daily driver. But gone are the days of the Gen 1 and 2s, as Nissan has introduced and updated a new shape of the Leaf that bought heaps of goodies to a fan favourite. And of course I would not turn down the opportunity to spend a few days with the updated trailblazer – I met Dave some months ago for us to film its review, and it left me impressed already. Now, with more time to explore the ins and outs of living the next generation of one of the most successful EVs of all time, I wanted to focus on the livability of it, which I know is a big barrier for those considering going electric, and something I can confirm first hand my Leaf could improve on.

Back in the early EV days, most of the options went out of their way to present different and curious designs, and the Leaf was no exception. The bulbous headlights and the curvy rear end were not for everyone’s taste, although I’ve grown to quite like it as years went by. For the latest shape, however, Nissan was in a position to try something more subdued, more “normal”, and it worked wonders here. The new shape makes better use of the platform, brings a more democratic design, and shows elements that we’ve seen many, many other EVs adopt, such as “fake” textured grilles, aero wheels and the two-tone paint. At the end of it, there’s a package that makes for a modern take that evidences how much Nissan knows a thing or two about EVs and their journey. 

Something that Nissan didn’t do, on the other hand, was make their first mass-market-EV a compromised city car. While many other offerings of that time were cramped and felt very cheap, the Leaf started with a platform that is spacious and refined enough to build upon even a decade later. After years interacting with my Leaf day in and day out, I see in the new one familiar elements that hark back all the way back to 2011 when it was launched, but that’s fine – it’s mostly mounting hardware, shifter, stalks, etc. What needed upgrading was not only updated but was also completely redesigned. The dashboard is 100% new and really elevates the experience, and so is the technology. We’ll cover that later, but it cannot be stressed enough how much better of a city car the new gen is.

Ergonomics are also a non-issue. Front seat space is great and it should be easy to find a good driving position with all the range of adjustment available, even though it always feels like you’re sitting on top of the car. The new dashboard fascia makes the commands fall more to the hand, and there’s plenty of storage on the centre console and the door pockets. Rear room is also adequate, but you can still spot the vestigious tunnel hump and the rear seats are so high my head scratches the headliner. It is, still, completely usable for a family of four, and with my other cars being a coupé and a convertible, the Leaf is always our vehicle of choice to do the airport runs when someone comes to visit, and it can easily take not only those four people but also an international trip’s worth of luggage. Its boot grew as generations passed, now being deeper than ever and making better use of the space between the strut towers, even if it is to house the amp for the Bose sound system. 

Over the years and shapes, the Leaf has amassed a legion of fans in Kiwi land – ask me how I know. I am a member of a couple of Facebook groups where people from all around the country discuss Leafs and their (overwhelmingly positive) experiences. I relied on that group to learn about the different trim levels and make up my mind about which one I wanted to import from Japan as soon as the government rebates were announced. Many decided to do the same I did, and the groups are filled with stories of people that love the savings, the silence, the convenience. They go as far as to set up charging station meet ups, but that’s a step too far for my quasi-antisocial self.

But enough talk, it’s about time I go for some driving. And one of the main talking points of this trim of the Leaf is its new, revised powertrain. Not only is it more efficient, it also offers literally double the power of the OG – what more could you ask for. Even with the modest figures of 80kW, the older gens are a force to be reckoned with in street lights due to the immediate torque delivery. In this new gen, each of the front wheels get those same 80kW, and that leads to a totally new driving experience, it is properly zippy now. It maintains the same predictability and smooth delivery, but it has much more to draw from and will keep building and building power until past motorway speeds. It also has an acute case of torque steer that I had not experienced in a long while, making for a multi-dimensional foot down experience.

Probably due to the wider tyres with a more modern compound, it manages to put that extra power down to the tarmac like a pro, but will still do a one-wheel-peel if you push it hard enough. Who said EVs are devoid of fun? The integration between energy regeneration and friction braking is as good as always, and the ability to use One Pedal Driving is a game changer, especially when done this gracefully. You get a more relaxing drive when you want and also great times by allowing you to gauge how much speed to shave off by lifting ever so slightly. It might take some time to get used to it, but I can’t come back. 

All that Zero Emissions fun might take you to the EV charger sooner. The Leaf’s charging hardware might be a bit different than the usual CCS connectors we see everywhere now, but NZ has had these cars around long enough for you to find the ChaDeMo chargers pretty much everywhere. The 59kWh battery offered in this trim level offers a claimed range of 385km, which is a number enough to completely eliminate range anxiety, especially when compared to my car’s 100km. When plugged to a 50kW fast charger, going from 20 to 80% will take you around 90 minutes (but 100kW is available for this trim level). Additionally, the 6.6kW charger that used to be an optional in previous models is standard here and will make charging at home that more convenient. It’s been two years that my partner hasn’t had to stop a petrol bowser, which for her is an unintended but super welcome benefit. I drive other (very thirsty) cars myself so I still do the occasional stop, and even this Leaf did a quick one as well, but that was just for a top up of air for the tyres, not petrol. 

Photo courtesy of Nissan

During charging, I decided to dig deeper into the tech on offer. In my car, I ended up going with the base spec to make it easier to swap the head unit for one that offered CarPlay, a must for me if you’ve read any of my other reviews. So I’m glad to say all these now ubiquitous pieces of tech are standard kit in the Leaf, regardless of the trim level you go for. The wired CarPlay works great, the navigation system brings very up-to-date information about charging stations and hat tip to Nissan for still maintaining an extremely honest and accessible demonstration of the battery degradation. Another mention goes to ProPilot, the driver assistance and safety package that includes a good lane keep assist + blind spot monitoring package and a very smooth adaptive cruise control. The ability to pre condition the cabin and select start and end times for charging are really beneficial in the EV world and are now much easier to set up and edit. 

Once charging was done, I went to visit a couple of friends that are now in the market, and considering EVs. I used the Leaf as a prop for my EV crash course – I’m fun at parties, you can tell – and by the end they were happy about all the figures, data dumps and spreadsheets I had shown them. My decision towards getting my own Leaf was from the point of view that I wanted to go EV, save on petrol and have something more interesting for the daily commute, while very aware of all the compromises that a short-ranged car would bring. The new Leaf addresses literally every short coming my model had, to the point these same friends, who shallowly know basically every EV, struggled to believe the two cars shared fundamentals.

Am I seeing double? No, it’s just that people know how good these are so you’ll always bump into a clone!

I have owned 30 cars in my life so far, and undoubtedly some of them are head scratchers (seriously, what was I thinking?), but the Leaf couldn’t have lived up more to my expectations. It’s given us years of trouble-free motoring at virtually no cost, with plenty of space and convenience. The government rebate was a big reason behind my buying decision, and the announcement of its demise will likely get some people moving quick. So, if you’re on the same bandwagon, make sure to check the OG! Thanks for reading this far, and see you next time!

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