What's New for 2012
For 2012, the Nissan Leaf gets more standard features, with the trade-off being a price increase of $2,420 on base models and $3,530 on SL models. Cold-weather features such as heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, heated exterior mirrors and a battery heater are now standard on all models, with SL models adding a standard quick-charge port.
Introduced just last year, the Nissan Leaf was the first full-electric vehicle to be marketed to mainstream American buyers. In many ways, it succeeds in being just as accessible as its manufacturer intends. The Leaf has a spacious cabin, with a tall, airy greenhouse that comfortably seats four full-size adults and provides excellent visibility. On the road, the car boasts peppy acceleration and, were it not for the lack of engine noise, you'd probably be convinced you're driving one of any number of gas-powered models. And though the Leaf's cargo capacity is on the small side, this Nissan has hatchback utility in its favor.
Once you factor in the $7,500 federal tax credit (residents of certain states are eligible for additional credits as well), the 2012 Nissan Leaf's pricing is quite affordable. A 220-volt home-charging station that costs $2,200 is a must-have, but the financial blow is softened by a tax rebate as well. Charging the Leaf costs less than paying for gas, though the picture may be less favorable in states with tiered electricity rates, depending on your usage.
At the end of the day, however, electric cars come with certain compromises. The EPA rates the Leaf's range at just 73 miles, a number we essentially verified during a six-month test of the Leaf. This isn't a problem on shorter commutes, but it presents challenges on lengthier trips, since the number of charging stations is currently quite limited. And charging takes quite a bit longer than the minute or two you'd spend filling a gas tank; plan on this process taking about 30 minutes at a quick-charge commercial station and 4-8 hours with the home charger. Of course, those are both rare, so for the moment you're likely looking at a recharge time of twice that or more with a standard electric outlet.
Given these limitations, the 2012 Nissan Leaf isn't the best fit for all shoppers. For long-distance commuters, one-car households and apartment dwellers interested in green-minded transportation, the Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius (plug-in or regular hybrid) and Volkswagen Golf TDI are all better picks. The Leaf also faces new competition this year as there's an all-new Ford Focus Electric to consider. Still, if it makes sense for your lifestyle and you're excited at the idea of owning a full-electric vehicle, the 2012 Nissan Leaf won't disappoint.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Nissan Leaf is an all-electric four-door hatchback available in SV and SL trim levels.
Standard equipment on the SV includes 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, heated exterior mirrors, a battery heater, keyless ignition/entry, full power accessories, cruise control, automatic climate control, a height-adjustable driver seat, a heated tilt-only steering wheel, heated front and rear seats and 60/40-split-folding rear seats. Also included are cloth upholstery made from recycled materials, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bluetooth, an advanced trip computer, a navigation system and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB audio interface.
The Leaf SL adds a spoiler-mounted solar panel, automatic headlamps, foglamps, a rearview camera and a cargo cover, along with a quick-charge port that facilitates charging to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes at high-voltage public charging stations.
Every Leaf comes standard with Nissan Connection, a remote vehicle access system that reports battery recharging data and can activate the climate control via a cell phone. A home-charging station is optional.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2012 Nissan Leaf is powered by an 80-kilowatt electric motor (107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque) fed by a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. In Edmunds performance testing, a Leaf went from zero to 60 mph in 10 seconds, which is about the same as a subcompact hatchback with an automatic transmission.
The EPA estimates a driving range of 73 miles, but real-world range may vary and depends on driving style, traffic conditions, cruising speed and battery age. In fact, even ambient temperature plays a role in determining cruising range, because extreme temperatures are detrimental for battery performance. During a six-month test of the Leaf in metropolitan Los Angeles, we managed to average 85.5 miles of range. The EPA has given the Leaf an energy efficiency equivalent rating (MPGe) of 106 mpg city/92 mpg highway and 99 mpg combined.
The 2012 Nissan Leaf comes standard with antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. A rearview camera is optional on the SL. In Edmunds brake testing, the Leaf came to a stop from 60 mph in 126 feet, which is a bit longer than average for a compact hatchback like the Leaf.
In government crash testing, the Leaf received five out of five stars for overall protection, with four stars for frontal-impact protection and five stars for side-impact protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Leaf its highest rating of "Good" in frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
The Leaf's battery pack is located under the floor beneath the seats. This space-efficient placement is partially responsible for the car's roomy rear seats, which provide comfortable accommodation for adults. There's no shortage of headroom in the first row, though taller drivers may find their legs a little crunched. The cargo area is on the small side for a hatchback, however, and even when you fold the rear seats, the cargo floor is not flat.
A split-level instrument cluster dominates the cabin. The center control panel features a touchscreen, which controls the standard navigation system and shows special displays for things like cruising range and energy efficiency readouts. You can even program the start time for the recharging system to take advantage of lower electricity rates. Interior quality is about the same as that of other compact cars, but overall fit and finish is noticeably a cut above.
If you've driven a hybrid, you know how silent they are in electric-only mode. The 2012 Nissan Leaf cruises with this kind of serenity at all times, with only a vague high-pitched whine detectable under heavy throttle. Even the high-pitched noise the Leaf generates to alert pedestrians at low speeds is largely undetectable in the cabin. The downside is that wind and road noise are more noticeable at highway speeds, but overall the Leaf is impressively quiet.
As an electric car, the Leaf offers abundant torque. Acceleration is brisk from the first tap of the throttle, and the car gets up to speed with little fuss -- this Nissan certainly shines as an urban runabout. Press on the brake and the pedal is firm and sure, without the sort of strange, vague feel indicative of most regenerative braking systems.
With its battery pack mounted low in the body and a well-tuned electric power steering system, we've been pleasantly surprised by how well the Leaf takes turns. Its responsiveness is typical of that seen in other well-engineered compact family cars, and in most ways the Leaf feels pretty normal to drive.