Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: 2014 Nissan Leaf SL

2014 Nissan Leaf SL in the driveway

Since its debut four years ago, the Nissan Leaf has changed the electric vehicle game as we know it. This eclectic electric is the first mainstream EV, and it's is certainly noticable in Portland, Oregon where they are commonplace. Its appealing price tag, spacious four-door hatchback interior, "regular car” driving experience, and EPA estimated 84 mile range have arguably made it a success.

We reviewed the 2011 Nissan Leaf SL a few years back when it was fresh on the market. Four years later, we find ourselves in the 2014 Nissan Leaf SL, equipped with the Premium package. Tweaked here and there with refreshed and added accoutrements, our impressions are still both mixed for this electric entity.

Gone are the 2011’s MPG-e statistics of 106 city and 92 highway and 73 mile range. Here are the improved 2014’s 126 city and 101 highway ratings and 84 mile range. That is a significant improvement, especially when one is worried about range anxiety. The rearview camera was optional back then, but it is standard on all Leaf trim levels now. Add to this more amenities and a few tweaked cosmetic elements, and you have an improved EV that has risen to the top of the mainstream EV/hybrid favorites and continues to stay there, despite other four-door EVs now biting at its heels. Those other EVs include the likes of the Ford Focus, Chevy Spark, and Honda Fit. Year-to-date Leaf sales are up 32.8% over last year. That says something.

360 degree parking camera.
The 2014 Nissan Leaf is available in three trim levels to suite your taste and budget: the S, SV, and SL. Our top-of-the-line SL came equipped with the optional Premium package, which gains you everything the regular SL has to offer, plus an around-view monitor with a unique 360-degree parking camera, and one heck of a Bose audio system, specifically its Energy Efficient Series. Can I truly say that I want the Leaf back just because the Bose audio was just that good? Pretty much. And that camera system is pretty wild. I can't say I've seen that on any other car, let alone any compact vehicle on the market.

In addition to the improved range and kick-ass seven-speaker stereo system, the SL trim level adds 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, automatic LED headlights, a CHAdeMO quick-charge port, and a solar panel mounted on the rear spoiler to help power the accessories. Other niceties include leather-appointed upholstery, cargo cover, heated just-about-everything (front seats, rear seats, steering wheel, and outdoor mirrors), charge port light, lock and timer, as well as a plethora of other goodies. Also prominent are tech features that include Nissan navigation, Pandora Link for iPhone, AM/FM/CD/AUX in audio system with USB connectivity, and CARWINGS. CARWINGS is a system that allows Leaf owners to communicate remotely with their car via web-based mobile phone or computer to check charge status, set timers, turn off the A/C, find charge stations, etc. Tech-o-plenty.

The Leaf's interior is pretty comfortable. The seats aren't terribly supportive, but they are pleasing. Rear seat room is adequate, and they fold down to make for more space. There are a mega-ton of menus, buttons, and displays, and the car will tell you just about everything you'd ever want to know about it.

The ’14 Nissan Leaf is powered by an 80-kilowatt electric motor that produces 107 horsepower and 187 pound-feet of torque. The system utilizes a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack that is housed in the floor. With an EPA-rated 84 miles to a charge, it is pretty assured that all of our daily commutes and errand-running efforts would be handled with ease. No range anxiety here. Although, if you run the seat heaters, stereo, heated steering wheel, and other electric items when it's cold out (like our brisk spring mornings in Portland), be aware—the mileage will often decrease dramatically. The less you use those convenience items, the more you will stabilize your range. Now, do you have to freeze your fingers off during your cold nine-mile morning commute to your job? Nope. It is something to be aware of, nonetheless.

Nissan Leaf trunk with cord bagThe Leaf is very intuitive and easy to drive compared to some other EVs/hybrids (you know who you are). The hockey puck-styled shifter nub is designed beautifully. Move it from the park position to either reverse or drive, release the parking brake, and you are ready to roll. Oh, of course, you need to unplug it first and close the charge door on the front hood and put the cord back perfectly into the small zippered bag Nissan supplied. Or you could be like me and just throw the cord in the back. You will need five minutes to coil the cord back up neatly in order to fit it in the bag. As neat-looking as the bag is when clipped to the side of the rear cargo area, I doubt any real-world driver would use or have time to mess with it.

The center stack and driver’s gauge cluster are easy to read and designed appropriately. If you choose to not listen to the truly excellent Bose system (how could you not?), the Leaf whines slightly during take-off. Take care when using the center stack—there is high-gloss piano black plastic surrounding it: Fingerprint city. This may be the latest rage, but for me, I worry about longevity of this finish. Carry a cloth with you and wipe it down. Smudges aren’t attractive to anyone.

There is adequate torque up front when driving the Leaf, but it struggles getting up to highway speed. Around town, the aforementioned power may be something you won’t notice, but passing and merging onto the highway doesn’t afford a ton of power; certainly less than the spunky, pint-sized Chevrolet Spark EV. The regenerative brakes are very spongy. Cornering is balanced and stable, although far from athletic. There is a lot of body roll around corners. The highway ride is cushy, and wind/road noise is kept out of the cabin nicely.

Living in Portland, Oregon, one sees many Leafs (Leaves?) on the road, and I am not talking about the vegetative type, but there are so many for a reason. This is a solid car that has a lot to offer, but here in Portland, they’re hardly unique. When it first came out, it was a cool, contemporary, and cutting-edge car. While it continues to be a solid tech-laden EV choice, they're everywhere. Well, at least in the automotive microcosm that is EV-crazed Portland. You probably see 100 Leafs for every one Chevrolet Spark, for instance. However, in many parts of the country, especially the frigid Midwest, they're a rarity. We had some friends visit from Wisconsin last year and they marveled at the first sight of a Leaf. We were a bit surprised by their reaction, but quickly realized they don't see hardly any of them due to the cold, range-decreasing temperatures.

2014 Nissan Leaf rear shot

This top-of-the-line Leaf SL has a sticker price of $37,090 including $850 for destination. A Leaf S can be had for $29,830 delivered. So yes, this SL has a lot of add ons. However, there’s a federal EV incentive of up to $7,500. Oregon also has as $750 incentive to buy a charger. (The previous $1,500 state credit has been discontinued.) You can look up your state’s incentives on Nissan's website.

The Leaf is great for what it is intended: a compact car that is still a strong choice in the EV realm. It is still a cool design that has a ton of amenities. And although I see about a half-dozen on my nine-mile round-trip commute, the Leaf is still a powerhouse EV contender. And if you ask someone to name an EV, you're bound to hear one of two cars: Tesla or the Nissan Leaf.


nlpnt said...

The biggest sales advantage over the Spark EV is that the Leaf is available in all 50 states and Canada; Spark EV is only offered in California and Oregon.

Barry Traylor said...

Sure is ugly though.