Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL car test drives reviews nissan green reviews
2012 Nissan Leaf SL. Click image to enlarge
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Manufacturer’s website
Nissan Canada

Originally published on June 27, 2012

Review and photos by Mike Schlee

Photo Gallery:
2012 Nissan Leaf

If you have a passing interest in automobiles, you have probably heard about the all-electric Nissan Leaf by now. We have covered the vehicle a few times ourselves here at Autos.ca. So why are we back in one? Well, I personally haven’t had the chance to spend time behind the wheel of a Leaf, but have spent a lot of time behind the wheel of its most direct competitor, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Since the Leaf has already been covered on these pages in the past, I am not going to get too deep into the details of how it works and instead focus more on how it is to drive.

Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL car test drives reviews nissan green reviews
2012 Nissan Leaf SL. Click image to enlarge

Still in its inaugural model year, the Nissan Leaf is a zero emissions vehicle that runs purely on electric power. Powering the Leaf is an 80-kW AC synchronous electric motor that may only put out a paltry 107 hp but has a stump pulling 207 lb-ft of torque right from idle. Even at a hefty-for-its-size 1,594 kg curb weight, the Leaf will chirp the front tires from a dead stop thanks to the torquey motor (assuming traction control is disengaged). The engine continues to pull with decent power all the way up to highway speeds.

The throttle response can be manipulated in the Leaf to improve overall efficiency and range. Move the drive selector to the left, then down, and the vehicle enters D for Drive mode. Move it over the left and down once more and the vehicle enters Eco mode. The big difference is in the throttle response between Eco and Drive. In Drive, attaining and sustaining highway speeds is very easy, while in Eco mode, it is not and requires constant throttle input. When accelerating up to speed, a noticeable high-pitch whine starts to emanate from either the electric engine or the transmission around 80 km/h or so. At higher speeds though, tire and wind noise overpower it and the sound fades into the background.

Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL car test drives reviews nissan green reviews
Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL car test drives reviews nissan green reviews
2012 Nissan Leaf SL. Click image to enlarge

Driving the Leaf is like driving any other subcompact car, minus the usual engine noise and added sound effects to warn pedestrians of your approach. This is a good thing as Nissan has succeeded in making something as groundbreaking as an all-electric car while still making it familiar enough for the general public to accept it. In corners, the Leaf even handles alright, but the 205/55R16 tires are quick to give up grip due to their fuel economy–focused compound and tread pattern. With no engine noise to speak of, I could hear exactly how hard I was pushing the tires as they started losing grip with a different faint, high-pitch whine that eventually builds up to full-on wail.

As with most EVs and hybrids, the Leaf features regenerative brakes that generate electricity during off-throttle coasting and braking. To assist in stopping the Leaf, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist are standard. Although usually strong, twice while driving the Leaf I noticed a strange brake hiccup that reduced the amount of braking I had applied for a fraction of a second. It wasn’t serious, nor did it put me in danger of hitting anything, but it was a bit unnerving at first.

Since the Leaf is an electric vehicle, the big question is, as always, how far does it go on a single charge? I received the Leaf partially charged Monday afternoon and drove it home to immediately charge it up. When I returned the next morning, the Leaf was fully charged and displayed an unrealistic range of 181 km to empty. After driving 41 km to work, the Leaf now displayed a more accurate range of 91 km to empty. This was how my week with the Leaf went; I averaged 80-85 km of driving a day and would get home with roughly 45 km of range left. My commute consists of equal parts city driving, highway driving, and rush-hour crawling. Charging the Leaf from empty with a 220V charger will take roughly 7 hours, or 16 hours with a standard 110V household outlet charger like I used. I never had the Leaf drained to empty though, and 12-13 hours charging seemed fine to get it back to full from three-quarters empty.

As with any all-electric vehicle, turning on the climate control affects your vehicle’s range. When the range read an unrealistic 181 km to empty, turning on the fan dropped the range by about 12 km. When the distance to empty was at a more realistic 90 km, it only dropped 7 km when I turned on the fan. Unlike the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the air conditioning only dropped the range by a few more km, whereas the Mitsubishi saw a more significant drop in range due to the operation of A/C. On the flip side, the range reduction with just the fan on in the i-MiEV was less than in the Leaf.

Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL car test drives reviews nissan green reviews
Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL car test drives reviews nissan green reviews
Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL car test drives reviews nissan green reviews
Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL car test drives reviews nissan green reviews
2012 Nissan Leaf SL. Click image to enlarge

To help dispel owners’ range anxiety, or assist with route planning, the navigation screen has a cool feature that shows a Range Map that consists of a circle radiating out from your current location showing you how far you can drive on your current charge. The navigation system also features a list of the nearest quick-charging stations and, with the touch of a button, allows you to program a route to them.

As I mentioned earlier, Nissan has done a good job of making the Leaf look and act like a normal compact car. However, that is not to say it doesn’t have its own distinctive looks. The overall shape has fluid, futuristic look that many consider cute. For me, the bulbous front headlights that stick several centimetres above the hood line are a bit too much and seem out of place. The rear end design is attractive and is complemented by a rear spoiler on our SL-trimmed test car; it features a photovoltaic solar panel that supports charging of the 12-volt battery for the various car accessories. The headlights are LED, and by this I do not mean they feature LED strips that are all the rage in automotive design today, but rather the actual headlight illumination is produced by LED lights.

Inside, the Leaf offers good sightlines all around and features comfortable enough seats that lack a bit of support. Those familiar with my reviews know how much I dislike driving vehicles without a telescopic steering wheel and unfortunately the Leaf omits this feature. Although this did make my driving position a bit odd, the compromise was not as bad as in other vehicles I have driven missing this option. The rest of the interior consists of hard plastic materials everywhere, but much like the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan does a good job of making them seem more expensive than they really are. Also like the Volt, the radio and HVAC controls look either space age or high-end kitchen appliance, depending on your point of view.

The actual sound from the stereo system is decent and clear. The rear seats do fold down, but the resulting load floor is not flat as there is a battery hump right behind them breaking up the space between the cargo area and the rear seats. All Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) come standard with auto climate control, keyless entry, push-button start, navigation, stereo with satellite radio, and Bluetooth. Our SL-equipped car added fog lights, a RearView Monitor4 (back-up camera), the photovoltaic solar panel in the rear spoiler, automatic on/off headlights, HomeLink Universal Transceiver, and a cargo cover.

At $40,030, it is hard to swallow the Nissan Leaf’s price tag with or without government kickbacks if you look at it based on purely economic value. However, there are several other good reasons to purchase the Leaf, such as investing in future technologies, relieving yourself from a dependency on gasoline or helping to improve the air quality in your neighborhood. No matter what your stance is on the Leaf and its price, it is a solid first effort from Nissan. As with any new technology, subsequent generations should take care of the Leaf’s current shortcomings. Look how far Toyota has come with the Prius over the past dozen or so years. If Nissan can duplicate this development path with the Leaf, we may start seeing electric cars as a normal sight on our roads in the near future; the same way hybrids are everywhere today.

Pricing: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL



About Mike

Mike Schlee is the Social Editor at Autos.ca and autoTRADER.ca. He began his professional automotive writing career in 2011 and has always had a passion for all things automotive, working in the industry since 2000.