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2018 Nissan Leaf EV first drive review

Nissan hopes to be first in selling a BEV in Thailand late next year. Can the new Leaf be any compelling?

Ever since the Nissan Leaf was launched in 2010, a total of 280,000 units were sold worldwide making it the best-selling battery electric vehicle. Well, which isn’t surprising because the Leaf was actually the only car of its kind back then.

Today, more BEVs from other brands have joined the mass-market scene including the Chevrolet Bolt, Hyundai Ioniq and Renault Zoe, as such. Thus, the success story of BEVs, even if not extraordinary, has led Nissan in unveiling the second-generation Leaf in Japan recently before rolling out it into global markets by next year. And here are some good news.

As the Leaf’s new rivals are being represented by brands in Thailand that are either weak or non-existent, Nissan has found it the right opportunity to start selling its latest BEV on an official basis in late 2018.

New Leaf could cost just under 1.5 million baht. Sure, the Thai government wants to lure makers in building BEVs, as well as semi-electric versions tagged as HEVs (hybrid) and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid). But as the BEV is a completely new thing to Thais, it needs familiarisation before being able to go into large scale production in the country.

That’s why makers who will commit themselves to BEV assembly will be able to initially import such cars with exemption in import duties. So, if a nicely equipped Leaf goes for just under four million yen in Japan, Thai punters can expect to pay around 1.5 million baht for it or maybe less with more basic features. Considering its C-segment dimensions, it’s quite a tall order for the Leaf because that price level is the playground of mid-size family cars like the Teana.

But from another angle, new technology initially comes at a price, explaining why Toyota’s Thai-built Prius once sold for some 1.3 million baht in now-defunct, third-gen form. It might be a little too early to deliver a definite verdict for the new Leaf after driving it for the first time in Japan late last month. But there are many things to like about it if you’ve managed to clear yourself from some hurdles in owning a BEV.

The first one naturally is price. Forking out 1.5 million baht for the Leaf can get you bigger saloons, as said earlier, and even generously sized SUVs of several types. That said, you probably need to be an early adopter of new technologies to accept the Leaf for what it is.

As ever, charging point is on the front.

The second one is driving range. As you may have already noticed in the sidebar regarding the Leaf’s technical highlights, the touring distance has doubled to 400km thanks to a higher density lithium-ion battery pack. Sure, constant use of air-conditioning and unpredictable traffic conditions in Thailand will certainly drain more energy.

However, half that claimed distance should most likely cover the needs of urbanites who merely require charging at home and needn’t rely on a government-invested charging grid. Ah, infrastructure, the third point BEV users are highly like to ponder about. For those who want to substitute their weekend family cars with a BEV might as well just forget it for the Thai being.

That’s because there really isn’t one in place covering the whole of Thailand. Which is why the Leaf won’t sell in large numbers yet and would probably end up being a second or third car in your garage. Does it drive well?

Having driven the first-gen Leaf on Thai roads and the new one in the city of Yokohama, it’s safe to say that there are improvements but not a massive scale (aside that critical claimed enhancement in driving range). Let’s start with the looks. From what used to be a frumpy-looking car from the onset, the Leaf has now transformed itself on the catwalk with more balanced proportions and playful exterior colours.

Yes, the new Leaf should be able to attract a wider audience. Then there’s the interior design which doesn’t look space-age anymore and tends to come in line with other Nissan’s currently on sale. There might be two ways of perceiving this.

One is that the new Leaf’s tidier dashboard may help keep people who have been converted to BEVs familiar with how the way things work. The other is that the new Leaf won’t feel unique or sci-fi anymore. Maybe the pioneering Leaf was ahead of its time or Nissan found it necessary to put more common parts shared with other conventionally powered models in the new Leaf (the steering wheel being one example).

Even so, it’s still quite a nice place if you don’t expect the Leaf to have a premium feeling of luxury cars. While the version with leather seats certainly looks pleasing on the eyes, it lacks the cushiness of the cloth variation. But we can already see the average Thai preferring the former in a car costing this much.

Boot isn’t flat when rear seats fold down.

Despite sitting on a generous wheelbase length, the Leaf isn’t exactly a roomy car when compared to other C-segment hatchbacks. Blimey, even the smaller B-segment Note has more rear legroom. And because Nissan finds it necessary to install a tunnel in the centre of the cabin to house various electrical harness, it doesn’t feel airy in the back.

Rounding off the practicality assessment is a low boot that isn’t flat when the highly-placed rear seats are folded down. Packaging-wise, the Leaf isn’t a marvel yet. Dynamically speaking, the Leaf isn’t perfect, either, if better than before.

The steering wheel still turns quite casually and the ride can be lumpy over rutted roads. But the ride on highways is nicely controlled and generally quiet. Nissan engineers say there will be four different set-ups depending on region: Japan, Asia, Europe and North America.

There’s a possibility that the Leaf may have more ground clearance and a softer damping to cope with Thai roads which is quite understandable. But whether a quicker steering as the Europeans are getting (and a firmer ride which seems unnecessary in this part of the world) would be featured is something only driving enthusiasts would yearn for. Yes, the Japanese version doesn’t provide for any driving fun but that would possibly be missing the point in a BEV aimed at the masses.

But the all-electric performance, as in any other BEV, is cool. Although the rather controlled driving conditions didn’t really permit us to discover the Leaf’s true performance potential, acceleration is instantaneous, mid-range remains responsive and the overall experience is smooth and quiet.

e-pedal button is ideal for one-pedal driving. A particularly new feature is the so-called e-pedal operation.

Switch it on via a button ahead of the gear knob and you can drive with just your right foot. Press the throttle to go and lift off for braking. The car will come to an automatic stop even on gradients.

Some may find the deceleration rate – which you can’t adjust – to sometimes be a little forceful. But generally speaking, e-pedal works well and is a good substitute for conventional deceleration because the brake pedal has such a wooden feel – similarly as in the previous Leaf. There are two other driver-assist functions the new Leaf is trying to holler.

One is the automatic cruise control and lane-keeping function on single-lane highways referred to as Level 2 autonomous driving. In fact, this can already been found in the Japanese-spec Serena MPV. The other one is more novel has to do with automated parking whereby the Leaf can perform parallel parking, backing or forwarding into parking spaces.

While certainly useful and here to stay for the future, it works so slow that you might be able to finish a fag before the whole process is done. It would be nice if it worked faster because you really don’t want to keep up others in parking areas. Generally speaking, though, the Leaf has moved the BEV game forward, just that some fine-tuning is needed, be it about those driver-assist functions or the driving characteristics themselves.

If we had to pick the best bits of the new Leaf, it would be no other than its electrified performance, enhanced driving range and e-pedal operation.

Let’s just hope that other factors, which brands of other BEV models must also face, can be sorted by both the state and private sector simultaneously (no BEVs for sale means no infrastructure).

As a Nissan executive rightly said, let’s not make it a chicken or egg came first dilemma.

Driving cockpit doesn’t feel space-age anymore and comes closer to other Nissans currently on sale.

The new Leaf drives better than before, if still with some dynamic foibles.

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