Nissan LEAF: Revisiting the World's Best-Selling Electric Car

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Nissan (NSANY) LEAF is the world's best-selling electric car, by far. As of April 2014, more than 110,000 had been sold. It is also a prime example of how a company listened to its customers and fixed a variety of issues from when the car was first made available, in this case in 2010.

When the Nissan LEAF came out in 2010, it was the market's first really usable mass-market pure electric car. However, it had a variety of shortcomings:

  • It was ugly.
  • It had ugly wheels.
  • It had ugly gray cloth seats.
  • It lacked a state-of-charge meter for the battery.
  • It had limited settings for locking/unlocking the charge port.
  • The battery was sensitive to extreme climates.
  • It had an inefficient heater.

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Long story short, many of us held off on buying the Nissan LEAF because of these shortcomings. However, shortly after the product's introduction in 2010, Nissan listened to early enthusiast owner suggestions and has now implemented fixes for many of the important complaints:

  • A premium wheel is now offered, with upgraded tires. Looks good!
  • Black leather seats. They look good!
  • Battery's state-of-charge is now prominently shown.
  • You can set charge port lock/unlock preferences almost any way you want.
  • Battery less sensitive to extreme climates.
  • Heater no longer reduces range as much.

To make the point of how Nissan listened to its customers better than perhaps some of its German competitors, I will elaborate on one point: The locking and unlocking of the charge port.

Some people want to lock the electric cord when it's plugged into the car. Perhaps they risk getting a ticket if someone unplugs the car (as is the case in California). Perhaps they just don't want anyone messing with their car.

Other people want to be good samaritans and allow co-workers or neighbors to share the electricity when in need. Yet others want to have their charge port locked until the car is fully charged, and then it should be automatically unlocked at that point.

The point here is that Nissan listened to its customers and said: You can set the LEAF to whichever preference you have. You know best. We don't. Memo to the German automakers: Don't force your customers to conform to your ivory tower theories of how people must behave. Allow the user to configure the settings.

In the Nissan LEAF, you sit higher up than in most electric cars, like General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt and the Ford  (F) Focus Electric. This helps make it easier to get in and out. Excellent ergonomics!

Once you're in the driver's seat, the only thing lacking is a telescoping steering wheel. If you are taller than 6 feet, or have short arms, this could be a problem. However, if you are 6 feet or shorter or have long arms, you will likely find a very comfortable seating position.

When you start driving the car, the first thing that strikes you is the excellent build quality. The car is devoid of any squeaks, rattles and shakes. It feels as solid as a tank, like a car costing twice as much.

The interplay between the steering and suspension is excellent. In city driving in particular, the car is very agile, and easy to place and to park.

But wait, there is more! The interior ergonomics are also superb. The buttons and dashboard may look a bit cheap, but they have a great feel to them.

Let's talk about the thing you touch the most, the steering wheel. It looks a bit cheap. However, the leather is reasonably grippy, and the thumbs rest in a carefully sculpted place that feels just perfect. On the steering wheel, the buttons are among the industry's very best and easiest to operate, like those for the cruise control.

The back seat is a little short on headroom, perhaps 1-2 inches but otherwise well laid out. The luggage space is average for its class, and the back seat folds 60/40 with ease.

What are the remaining shortcomings of the Nissan LEAF? Obviously at the top of the list is the rated 84-mile average range. As we know, after a few years of use and in extreme climates, this could shrink to 50 miles or even less.

Like so many other pure electric cars with limited ranges, the LEAF is not for everyone, or at least not for everyone all the time. That said, if your commute is short and you don't drive your car very far otherwise, the LEAF may just be the right car for you. We just don't know how many of "you" there are.

One thing that has not changed is the basic body style. Most people I ask think it is ugly and would never want to be seen in a LEAF even if it were free and had 300 miles of range. The "signature" blue color wore out on me a long time ago.

In my more moderate opinion, I think the car looks OK in the new gray color, and with the new wheels on the range-topping "SL" equipment tier. That said, most people will not consider this car until it is redesigned, perhaps in 2016, into something more socially acceptable.

Let's compare the Nissan LEAF to its main competitors:

Chevrolet Volt: Yes, these cars are fundamentally different because one is all-electric and the other has a generator, but still. The LEAF has a vastly higher build quality than the 2011 Volt I have driven almost 40,000 miles. The Volt looks a lot better inside and out, but the LEAF is more usable in terms of instrument panel switchgear. The LEAF has a lot less noise from the suspension, and simply offers a more refined ride. In the Volt, however, you sit deep down as you would in a Camaro, encouraging you to take turns faster.

Ford Focus Electric: There are many similarities here. The main differences are the Ford's horrific lack of luggage space and lack of DC charging. This makes the choice very easy in the Nissan's favor, even though I would rather take a sharp curve in the Ford.

BMW i3: Compared to the battery-only BMW i3, the Nissan has obvious advantages: It's cheaper, it has a back seat for three people instead of two, and it has more luggage space. However, the BMW i3 offers a gasoline generator as a $3,850 option, and that critical advantage transforms the equation dramatically for many people.

Mercedes B-Class: Daimler's (DDAIY) Mercedes offers perhaps 13 to 16 miles more of range, and it has a better back seat and much bigger luggage space. As a result, it easily wins the comparison with the LEAF, unless you need DC charging. However, it costs at least $5,000 more and typically closer to $10,000 more.

Volkswage (VLKAY) eGolf: Available in the U.S. by December 2014, the car will be very similar to the Nissan LEAF in most aspects. This will be one of the narrowest comparisons. For example, the Golf has more rear seat headroom, but the LEAF has access to more DC chargers.

Kia Soul EV: Available in California starting in September, this will likely be another very close call. Stay tuned for a drive review and comparison.

The Nissan LEAF is made in three gigafactories that are located in Japan, Tennessee and Britain. A minivan derivative has just started production in Nissan's Barcelona, Spain, gigafactory. The price of a loaded LEAF in the U.S. exceeds $37,000, but most people lease, and there are often dealer discounts. Depending on your state and tax situation, you may also be eligible for tax and other incentives.

The bottom line: The Nissan LEAF is one of the most pleasant drives for city/suburban driving, matched only by the Mercedes B-class, BMW i3 and perhaps the upcoming VW eGolf. The build quality is fantastic, and the overall usability is class-leading with superior controls and "electric car maturity" in terms of conforming to the user, instead of the other way around.

If you can live with the average range of 84 miles when the car is new, and if you find the exterior styling acceptable, the Nissan LEAF should be at the top of your list for electric cars in the sub-$42,000 category. Do yourself a favor and test drive one. I think you will like it a lot.

At the time of publication, the author had no positions in the companies mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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