2013 Nissan Leaf review – the updated, British-built EV

16 April 2013

2013 Nissan Leaf front view

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Good: Improved cabin, steering, heating and suspension, longer range
Bad: Still pricey and still limited in range
Price: From £15,990 after grants, battery not included
For reasons best known to Nissan, I’ve travelled all the way to Norway to test the newly updated Leaf electric car, which is now built in the UK.

Despite appearances, there is some sort of logic to my journey from London to Oslo to drive a car built in Sunderland. First, it’s a lot nippier here – indeed a few frozen flakes of snow are wafting about in the air – all the better to show off the Leaf’s newly improved heater. And secondly, Norway is by far the biggest market for Leafs in Europe, and for EVs in general. About 40% of the 10,000 Leafs sold in Europe to date live here, with demand stoked by attractive taxation, well developed charging infrastructure, and great perks like access to bus lanes.

Nissan Leaf among other EVs in a car park

As a result, the first generation Leaf is a common sight on Oslo’s streets, as are most other breeds of EV. In one small car park I spot multiple examples of both the first and second generation Think electric car, the wedge-shaped Kewet Buddy in various eye-popping colours, lots of Mitsubishi i-Mievs and both generations of the Reva G-Wiz quadricycle, plus a modern Fiat 500 converted to battery power.

So nobody bats an eye at my shiny electric ride, particularly as the new Leaf doesn’t look even slightly different to the old one. Take a short walk around this top-of-the-range example and you might spot the new 17-inch alloys, or the four tiny cameras that enable a new surround-view parking system, but that’s about it. The rest of a claimed 100 improvements are either under the skin or inside.

The most important update is increased range. Under the NEDC test regime, a fully charged Leaf will now run on for 124 miles, up from 109 previously.

2013 Nissan Leaf on the move

The 24kWh lithium-ion battery – now British built like the car – hasn’t got any bigger, but the Leaf has been made more efficient. Aerodynamic tweaks have cut drag, a revamped powertrain is about 30kg lighter, and the braking system has been given an increased bias towards regenerative rather than mechanical braking. All of which adds up. There’s also broader fast-charger compatibility, to shorten the wait whenever high-power hookups are available.

Real world range should also improve, particularly in the winter months, due to a much improved cabin heater. The Leaf might have been designed from scratch as an electric car but it still had to endure compromises. The heater was a noticeable one – it was essentially an ordinary car unit modified to cope with the lack of a piping hot engine up front. In winter, the old Leaf could summon all the cheery warmth of a politician’s smile.

Now Nissan has followed Renault’s lead and installed a heat-pump – essentially a reverse mode for the aircon – which is apparently 70% more energy efficient than the old ceramic immersion heater. And more importantly it now produces detectable hot air. I actually turned it down when I got too warm, which I don’t ever recall doing in the old car.

On an icy day when it’s -10°C outside, the Leaf will now manage 77 miles rather than flagging at just 62 miles, according to Nissan.

The drive motor has been overhauled too – it has the same peak power rating but delivers it differently. The new car feels slightly less quick away from a standstill, but keener to keep accelerating as speed builds. Terminal velocity is still capped at 90mph, but the dash to 62mph is now completed in 11.5 seconds, down from 11.9 seconds.

While tooling up for British production, Nissan took the opportunity to sort out the suspension. Previous UK models were built in Japan and bounced off the boat with suspension as soft and pillowy as a feather bed, but the new one is much more firmly sprung and noticeably better damped. It no longer feels all at sea on faster roads, or as inclined to wallow over urban potholes and ridges.

2013 Nissan Leaf steering wheel eco button

Similar attention has been paid to European tastes in steering. The electrical assistance has been dialled back and made variable according to both steering angle and speed, with the intention of improving directional stability on fast roads while retaining an easy twirl for parking. The wheel still feels on the light side, but no longer seems as if it might be connected to the front wheels by fairy dust and pink ribbons. It inspires a little more confidence in bends as a result.

The old transmission lever offered an Eco mode to help stretch the car’s limited reserves, by softening throttle response, toning down the ventilation system and increasing brake regeneration. These various tweaks have now been separated out, with an Eco button on the wheel controlling the throttle and ancillaries, while the gear shift toggles between normal and increased braking effect.

2013 Nissan Leaf palm selector

Eco mode feels a little blunt and won’t be to everyone’s taste. I found it acceptable around town but annoying on faster roads. The increased braking is a welcome option that you can summon up as required, when descending hills or arriving at a slower speed limit.

Software tweaks should make life easier for those souls brave enough to plan a longer journey in their EV. The satnav will now give an estimate of remaining charge at a destination, taking account of roads and gradients, while Nissan’s online services can even display the status of some chargers – whether available, occupied or out of action.

The boot is also bigger and more practical, as a result of moving a slimmed-down box of power electronics from the rear to the nose of the car. The old car had a big hump between boot and cabin, which has now vanished. The result is a 370-litre boot, somewhat bigger than average for this size of car, and 40 litres more than before.

2013 Nissan Leaf front interior

Equally welcome is the attention paid to the cabin, where you can now find upholstery that isn’t the same colour as tumble-dryer fluff. A dark charcoal fabric is now standard fit on the base model Leaf, mid-spec buyers can choose between the new dark livery and the old lint beige-grey, while top-spec cars get a touch of luxury with black perforated leather, stitched in blue. Dashboard plastics and most other bits of trim are suitably darkened to match whenever a dark fabric is fitted. The result may be a little more sombre but it is infinitely more practical and – to my eyes – much better looking than the ghastly grey.

The fact that there are trim levels to choose among is new too. The previous take-it-or-leave-it Leaf spec has been ditched in favour of Nissan’s more typical “VAT” trim selection: Visia, Acenta or Tekna. Visia is a noticeable downgrade from the old car – a steel wheels and no frills poverty spec that must manage without the improved heater, and where even fast-charger compatibility is an option. Acenta is roughly on a par with Leafs previous, while Tekna gets the leather, bigger alloys and gadgets.

2013 Nissan Leaf driver's view

To buy or not to buy? That is the question that potential Leaf owners must now ponder, following Nissan’s decision to offer both purchase and lease options for the car’s battery. The difference in upfront cost is exactly £5,000, irrespective of trim level, while leasing costs start at £70 per month for a three-year contract capped at 7,500 miles per annum. More miles or a shorter commitment costs a few quid more. A couple of taps on a calculator suggests the break-even point arrives at about six years, depending on mileage.

Interestingly, a lease-battery or bought-battery car will remain in the same bucket for life – labels inside the driver’s door will reveal which is which, to avoid confusion in the secondhand market. There’s currently no plan to allow a leaseholder to change their mind and make a payment to own the car outright.

Separating out the battery cost has allowed Nissan to post an attractively low entry cost, with list prices starting at £15,990 for the Visia model, after the government’s Plug-in Car Grant and without a battery. The old model, with battery, used to cost £23,490 after the grant.

That particular price carries straight over to the new Acenta model, which can also be had for £18,490 without the battery. And finally the Tekna costs £20,490 without battery, or £25,490 with.

2013 Nissan Leaf rear view

Taken all together, the changes to the Leaf have dramatically improved its appeal, although there’s no quick fix for its biggest stumbling block of limited range. A Leaf is still a short-range car unless you’re keen on the military-style planning needed to ensure you can top up en-route to a more distant destination.

Without these improvements, the Renault Zoe would have been clearly the best EV currently on the market. But the revamped Leaf has at least drawn level, if not nudged slightly ahead of its smaller French rival.

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