SAN DIEGO – While the Nissan Leaf was far from the first all-electric vehicle to be introduced in the U.S. when it went on sale at the end of 2010, it was the first mass-market highway-capable 5-door hatchback EV from a major manufacturer.
This was followed by compact models such as the Ford Focus Electric, Honda Fit EV and Chevrolet Spark EV – all of which have been quietly phased out of production.
The Leaf has not only survived but (somewhat) thrived to become the best-selling EV model in the world, with global sales recently eclipsing the 400,000 mark. But now there’s fresh competition by way of the Chevy Bolt and Hyundai Kona Electric, both with longer range than the Leaf.
The original Leaf had a measly range of just 73 EPA-rated miles (118 km) with its 24-kWh battery fully charged. This crept up to 107 miles (172 km) in subsequent model years with an optional 30-kWh battery, and 150 miles (242 km) with a 40-kWh battery available with the latest second-generation model that was introduced last year.
That’s why the new Leaf Plus that goes on sale this spring in the U.S. and Canada in S Plus, SV Plus and SL Plus trims with an EPA range of up to 226 miles (364 km) comes at a crucial time for Nissan to preserve its EV sales crown. The range increase results from a redesigned battery pack that uses higher-density cells to provide a 62-kWh capacity.
In addition to longer range, the larger battery allows for a more powerful motor. The latest Leaf’s 160-kW motor serves up twice the power as the 80-kW unit that propelled the original car in 2011.
By tweaking the propulsion system’s software, maximum output is boosted to 214 hp and 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm) of torque – an increase of 45% compared to the 40-kWh battery pack and 147 hp in the regular Leaf. This is slightly more than the Bolt’s 201-hp motor, although at 238 miles (383 km) the Chevy EV still has more range from a battery with roughly the same capacity.
The larger battery doesn’t impinge on the Plus’s interior or cargo space because the cells are about 3% more energy-dense than those in the regular model. This allows Nissan to squeeze 50% more capacity from a battery just a bit larger than the one used in other iterations of the Leaf.
Only astute Leaf peepers will notice exterior changes: a small chrome “Plus” added below the trim badge on the rear (below, left) and blue lower front bumper trim. A slightly taller battery pack makes the Leaf Plus sit 0.2 to 0.4 ins. (5 mm to 10 mm) higher, depending on wheel size, than its siblings.
Behind the charge-port door is an “e” on the cap to indicate the CHAdeMO fast-charger port that can charge at up to 100 kW to get the battery to 80% in 45 minutes. Next to this is a regular 6.6-kW charging port that can top off the battery in about 11.5 hours at 240V or in about 56 hours at 120V.
The biggest change inside is an 8-in. (20-cm) infotainment touchscreen that replaces the regular Leaf’s 7-in. (18-cm) display. The updated navigation system has a new door-to-door feature that syncs with a smartphone to get drivers from their car to their ultimate destination on foot.
The new infotainment system also allows for over-the-air firmware updates instead of manual updates via USB or a Nissan dealer. All features associated with the NissanConnect smartphone app carry over, including keeping tabs on battery-charge status, scheduling charging times, finding the nearest charging station and preheating or precooling the interior.
The Leaf Plus is available with a full complement of driver assists, including lane-departure warning and intervention, forward collision alert and pedestrian detection with automatic emergency braking, blindspot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and Nissan’s Around View Monitor.
It also comes with ProPilot Assist, that keeps the Leaf centered in its lane, automatically adjusts the distance to the vehicle ahead vis-a-via a preset speed, applies the brakes to bring the vehicle to a full stop even if the driver’s foot is off the pedal and gets back up to speed at the touch of a button on the steering wheel or by pressing the accelerator.
On the road, the extra oomph of the ’19 Leaf Plus is a palpable cut above the regular Leaf. The no-lag acceleration is a great help when merging into cutthroat Southern California freeway traffic and a hoot while carving the suburban canyons east of San Diego on our drive route.
Nissan’s e-Pedal feature, introduced last year on the redesigned Leaf, provides robust regenerative braking and one-pedal driving. The Leaf Plus feels a bit more planted and stable than the regular Leaf, thanks to its additional 308 lbs. (166 kg) of curb weight.
Nissan notes that adding the Leaf Plus to its lineup gives it a pair of EVs to compete with equally priced rivals. Starting at $36,550, the Leaf Plus is in the ballpark with the Bolt, which starts at $36,600.
It falls short of the Hyundai Kona Electric, with 258 miles (415 km) of range and a $36,400 base price. But Nissan believes the Leaf Plus also has a shot at taking on the Tesla Model 3 and its 260 miles (419 km) of range and $42,900 starting price.
With 400,000 Leafs sold since 2010, Nissan has a good head start on other OEMs in the small but expanding compact EV market. With the Leaf Plus adding improved performance, longer range and faster charging, Nissan is in a great position to increase its EV market-share lead – and retain its sales crown for years to come.