What Car? says...
If you think the Nissan Leaf and other electric cars are a 21st century invention, prepare yourself for a surprise: EVs date back to Victorian times.
Yes, there were battery-powered horseless carriages whirring around city streets well before the turn of the last century, and electric cars once dominated land-speed records. That said, there’s a big difference between the Leaf and its ancestors.
When the Nissan Leaf was launched, it made other battery-powered alternatives seem like golf buggies because it looked, well, like a proper car. It drove like one too, with decent acceleration and a top speed that meant you could get where you were going faster than you could on a bicycle.
It's now in its second generation and is a much better all-rounder than the original Leaf. It’s faster, better to drive, bigger inside and, perhaps most importantly of all, capable of much longer distances between charges.
There’s also a range-topping e+ version with a bigger battery that promises an even longer range and faster acceleration. Unfortunately for Nissan, a whole battalion of new or revised electric rivals have whizzed silently into view.
You can choose from electric SUVs – including the Hyundai Kona Electric and Kia Niro EV – and electric hatchbacks, such as the Cupra Born, Peugeot e-208, Renault Zoe and VW ID.3. You can go inexpensive (with the MG4 or MG5 for example) or splash out on the ultra-cool Tesla Model 3 if you have a larger budget. Heck, there’s even a same-brand alternative in the form of the Nissan Ariya.
So, is the Nissan Leaf better than those alternatives, and will it really fit into your lifestyle if you’re switching from a petrol or diesel car? We’ll tell you all you need to know over the next few pages of this review, including how it handles and whether it's cheap to run, along with which trim and power option make the most sense.
Remember, if you do decide to buy one – or any make and model of vehicle – make sure you search our free What Car? New Car Deals service to find out how much you could save on the asking price with no need for any bartering. There are some, er, electrifying new electric car deals to check out.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Forget milk float performance, the 39kWh battery version of the Nissan Leaf can manage 0-62mph in around eight seconds. That's quicker than the Renault Zoe but not as nippy as the Cupra Born, Kia Niro EV and VW ID.3. The 59kWh Leaf (called the e+) is quicker still, with 0-62mph in 6.9sec. Acceleration is surprisingly brisk, if not quite in the same league as the Tesla Model 3.
With electric cars, performance isn’t just about how quickly you can speed up – it’s also about how far you can drive between charges. Official figures for the 39kWh Leaf say 168 miles, which is not great but beats the Honda E, while the 59kWh version can officially manage 239 miles on a full charge.
In our own testing, the 39kWh car managed 128 miles on a full charge – less than the All-Electric Fiat 500. The 59kWh version managed 217 miles, which sounds reasonable, but the cheaper MG5 can easily beat that, as can the 64kWh Niro EV.
Suspension and ride comfort
The 39kWh Leaf is more comfortable than the Mini Electric and the Zoe. In fact, ride comfort is hard to fault on motorways and faster A-roads. Around town you notice being jostled around a bit more than you would be in the Peugeot e-208 or Peugeot e-2008 but potholes are still dealt with in a perfectly respectable fashion.
The heavier 59kWh e+ version has firmer-feeling suspension, and its ride height has been raised by 5mm to help accommodate the bigger battery under its floor. The result? Sudden impacts – such as potholes and speed bumps – can cause a bit of a jolt that would otherwise be absorbed by the softer Citroën e-C4.
On a motorway, the 59kWh e+ is quite unsettled, and along undulating roads you’ll experience a lot of head bobbing, which gets annoying. The Born and ID.3 are far better at smoothing out imperfections.
The Leaf isn't as agile as the Mini Electric, but it does stay more upright through bends than the Zoe and MG ZS EV. The steering is precise, so you can guide it through town or along winding roads without drama, but don't expect much feedback through the wheel to help you gauge grip levels.
You could also argue that the Born isn’t the last word feedback, but it has smoother steering that’s accurate with well-judged weighting, giving you the confidence to attack B-road bends. It’s sharper than the Leaf, resulting in a car that feels more alert to your inputs, making for a more engaging drive.
The Born also has a tighter turning circle (10.2m), making it highly manoeuvrable in city traffic, although class honours go to the Honda E (9.2m).
Noise and vibration
Electric cars tend to be much quieter than their petrol and diesel counterparts because there’s no combustion engine rumbling away. So, if you’re used to a conventional car, you’ll find the Leaf eerily hushed, especially at town speeds, where suspension noise is the main sound that reaches the interior.
There is some wind and road noise on a motorway, but the Leaf is definitely a more peaceful companion than the ZS EV or the Zoe, if not the e-C4.
The Leaf comes with a one-pedal driving function called E-pedal. The battery's energy recuperation system does most of the braking, so you can slow down to a stop simply by lifting off the accelerator. If you prefer using the brake pedal, you might prefer the more natural-feeling brakes in the Kona Electric and Niro EV.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Driving position and dashboard
You sit quite high up in the Nissan Leaf, which you’ll either like or you won’t. Every version has telescopic steering-wheel adjustment, so you can move it in and out, and up and down to get a better driving position.
The lever mechanism to adjust the driver’s seat backrest can make it difficult to get the angle right, which is a far cry from the infinitely tuneable wheel adjuster in the VW ID.3.
The dashboard is mostly user-friendly, and there are simple physical buttons to operate all the major controls, rather than the silly touch-sensitive interfaces you'll find in some rivals, including the ID.3.
Visibility, parking sensors and cameras
You won’t have any issues seeing the road ahead, but the chunky windscreen pillars can block your view diagonally at junctions and roundabouts. Over-the-shoulder visibility could be better, too, although you do get a reversing camera as standard, even with entry-level Acenta trim.
Top-spec Tekna can be optioned with a rearview mirror that can be flipped to show a camera image instead, although why you’d need it over the 360-degree, bird’s eye view camera that comes with this trim and mid-range N-Connecta is beyond us. N-Connecta and Tekna also come with front and rear parking sensors.
The standard halogen headlights are acceptable but not brilliant, so it’s worth upgrading to the more powerful LED units if you can. They're a reasonably priced option on N-Connecta trim and come as standard on Tekna models.
Sat nav and infotainment
Every Leaf comes with an 8.0in touchscreen that’s reasonably simple to use thanks to its logical operating system and some physical shortcut buttons that let you hop between functions. We’re also grateful that Nissan gives you a proper volume knob rather than a fiddly touch-sensitive pad. Still, the Mini Electric gets an iDrive rotary controller that makes its infotainment even easier to use.
The resolution of the Leaf's touchscreen is disappointing. It's nowhere near as sharp as the Kia Niro EV one, and can be tricky to see in bright conditions.
All trim levels come with sat-nav, a DAB radio and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring. The standard stereo has six speakers, but Tekna and e+ Tekna get an upgraded Bose system with a subwoofer in the boot, although its sound quality isn’t as amazing as you might imagine. The Nissan smartphone app lets you check the car's battery charge and switch the climate control on and off remotely.
The Leaf’s interior isn't great by current electric car standards. The Renault Zoe and the Renault Megane E-Tech have a more appealing mix of materials, especially on the higher-end trims, while the Niro EV feels sturdier and has nicer-feeling switches and knobs.
The Peugeot e-208 interior feels like another step up, while the Mini Electric leads the way in terms of plushness and construction integrity.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
Tall folks are unlikely to grumble about the amount of space in the front of the Nissan Leaf. Even though the seats are mounted quite high up in the car, there’s loads of head room and you’d have to be seriously lanky to need more leg room.
The door bins are a decent size and there’s another small cubby in front of the gear selector that's useful for stowing a phone or a set of keys. If you like a cup of coffee during your daily commute, you’ll appreciate the two decent-sized cupholders between the front seats.
Mind you, anyone tall will be happier sitting in the back of a Kia Niro EV or Soul EV. Why? Well, because rear head room in the Leaf is rather tight – to the point that anyone over six feet tall will probably have to cower. Anyone long of leg will find they need to sit with their knees bent at an odd angle due to the Leaf’s high floor (the batteries mounted below rob some space).
That's not such an issue in the ID.3 because the seating position is better, plus it has a flat floor with no central tunnel for the middle seat occupant to straddle. The Niro EV or Soul EV will also be more suitable if you regularly carry three people in the back, thanks to their broader rear-seat area. The Leaf’s rear door bins are quite small too.
Seat folding and flexibility
There’s not a lot to get excited about here. The Leaf’s rear seatbacks fold down in a 60/40 split, but that’s also the case in the majority of rivals.
The front passenger seat is height-adjustable and electrically adjustable on Tekna and e+ Tekna models. However, there’s no adjustable lumbar support – not even on the options list.
The Leaf beats its closest peers for luggage space because its boot is really quite long. It managed to swallow seven carry-on suitcases below the parcel shelf in our tests, compared with six in the Zoe, and five in the Niro EV. If you're wondering how the Honda E and Mini Electric compare, 'not well' is the answer: their boots are tiny by comparison.
The space isn’t particularly cleverly designed, though. There’s an enormous lip at the boot entrance, and folding down the rear seats creates an annoying step in the floor of the extended load bay. On the plus side, there are handy nets at each side of the boot to keep the charging cables neatly tucked away.
It's worth mentioning that the Bose sound system, fitted to Tekna and e+ Tekna models, steals a chunk of boot space for the amplifier and subwoofer.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Costs, insurance groups, MPG and CO2
The 39kWh version of the Nissan Leaf is one of the most affordable electric cars on sale, competing with the likes of the MG4 and MG ZS EV plus entry-level versions of the Renault Zoe. Jumping up to the 59kWh e+ models hikes up the price considerably, so the car costs a similar amount to the Cupra Born, Kia Niro EV and VW ID.3.
If you're a company car driver, you'll be on to a winner: all electric cars have ultra-low company car tax rates, at least for the next few years.
The Leaf uses a Type 2 cable to plug into a regular home charging point. Charging from 0-100% using a 7kW charger will take around 6.5hrs (39kWh Leaf) or 10hrs (59kWh e+). There’s also a CHAdeMO connector for fast charging at up to 50kW, which will take the Leaf 39kWh from 10-80% in about 40mins, and the 59kWh e+ in about an hour – roughly the same time as the Born and ID.3 take. The 59kWh e+ can charge at up to 100kW, which drops the 10-80% charge time to about 35mins with a fast enough charger.
Equipment, options and extras
Entry-level Acenta trim is all most buyers will really need. It gives you 16in alloys, climate control, automatic lights and wipers, cruise control, keyless start and tonnes of safety kit, along with the sat-nav-equipped infotainment system. If you want heated seats or parking sensors, you can add them as an option.
It's worth considering an upgrade to N-Connecta trim, which adds part-faux leather, heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, privacy glass, power-folding door mirrors and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
Tekna is too pricey to recommend, although it does add part-leather seats and a driver assistance system called Pro Pilot. That can take care of the steering in certain situations (such as when driving along a motorway) while keeping you a set distance from the car in front with adaptive cruise control.
Nissan as a brand did badly in the 2022 What Car? Reliability Survey finishing near the bottom of the league table in 25th place out of 32 manufacturers. Peugeot did worse, but MG, Renault, Skoda and Tesla all did better.
The older 2011-2018 Leaf proved to be more dependable than this current generation version in the electric car category of the survey.
The Leaf comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty for its standard components, while the electric drivetrain is covered for five years (also capped at 60,000 miles) and the battery is covered for up to eight years or 100,000 miles.
Safety and security
Every Leaf comes with automatic emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection as standard, along with lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
In 2018, the Leaf received a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP but when you look at the details of its report you realise that there are issues. Hip and pelvic crash protection for adults wasn't great, and the report also found that neck and chest protection could be better.
The MG ZS EV also has a risk of adult chest injures in a crash, but offers better child protection than the Leaf. The similarly priced Born and ID.3 achieved a five-star rating under the current, more stringent testing regime. All Leafs come with a Thatcham-approved alarm as standard.
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Officially, a 39kWh Leaf manages 168 miles per charge, while the 59kWh e+ version does 239 miles. In real range testing, we’ve found them to be 128 miles and 217 miles respectively.
We think that the entry-level Acenta version in 39kWh form still stacks up well against its similarly priced competitors because you’re getting a family car sized vehicle that’s well equipped and has lots of safety features as standard.