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What is this? Don’t get too excited. It’s the second generation Nissan Leaf. You can read about the basics of it here. We went to Las Vegas to find out what it’s like to drive. So? Hang on, couple of things to get straight first. Like the range. The quoted figure of 235 miles in the first story was for the less-than-real-life EU test standard. The US EPA’s numbers, which are much more realistic, puts the new Leaf’s range at 150 miles. Which puts it firmly in the ‘will cause range anxiety’ category for anyone other than urban commuters. What’s the other thing?
Nissan said repeatedly at the launch that this car was the result of listening to existing Leaf customer’s requests and demands. As much as that’s supposed to sound like a warm and fuzzy slam dunk, it’s the opposite. Customers generally have no idea what they could have, so only ask for what they know. That doesn’t push any boundaries. Which means? The new Leaf doesn’t contain anything unexpectedly cool or surprising. Which is a shame, especially for a new all-electric car. Like most other Nissans, it is functional and practical but also feels like all the fun has purposefully been drained from it to make it a rational rather than emotional choice. But it drives OK, right? Yeah. The chassis feels compliant, controlled and quiet. Steering is good. It accelerates swiftly – much faster than the current car – up to even motorway speeds and is quiet and calm while it does so. We only got to do a 14-mile loop a couple of times, so can’t tell you anything about the battery life other than it didn’t do anything odd. So it’s plenty functional and comfortable enough, with nothing standing out for real criticism or praise. Which is, apparently, just as Nissan wanted it. Nothing at all? Well, there are two things. One is the e-pedal, which allows you to mostly drive using just the right pedal. It accelerates when you press down and brakes when you lift off. Simple. It’s different from the system in the BMW i3 in that it blends in the regular service brakes with the energy recovery system. This allows you to do things like hill starts without having to balance the brake and throttle pedals. If that offends your driving sensibilities, you can turn it off. And the second thing? ProPilot. This optional package offers lane-keeping and active cruise control for the compulsive texters amongst us. But it should, as with most new tech, be used with an air of caution. What happened? The first (pre-production) car we drove steered – and remember the car is helping strongly with the steering, so we had to fight its actions – to the right when I released the wheel to see what it would do. So much so it would have hit a car if we hadn’t intervened. It was later diagnosed as a dodgy sensor and the second car we tried worked fine. I’m sensing a but… It demonstrated that systems like ProPilot, which will also have a crack at parking the car too should you be feeling lazy, should not be fully trusted to work at all times. Just as an occasional safety net. How does this stack up against the Tesla Model 3? Initially on price, quite well. With the base Leaf due to start where the current car is today, just a shade under $30k. But get into the better-equipped models – the SV and the range-topping SL and the price rises to over $37k. That’s the low end of Tesla territory. Admittedly low-spec territory, but that Tesla badge comes with a cachet the Nissan doesn’t have. Plus the Model 3 has over 85 miles more range per charge. And the other all-electric cars? The Chevy Bolt, despite its disappointing looks, outperforms the Leaf in almost every way. Faster, greater range, etc. It comes in a little more expensive at MSRP, but you can probably get a discount from your Chevy dealer to bring that down. However, this isn’t the Leaf’s main headache. Give it a year or so and the market is going to be filled with interesting electric cars from all over the world. But surely Nissan knows that? They do, which is why they are already preparing a higher powered, longer range version of the Leaf for next year. Unlike the Tesla - which can just be activated over the air when the owner pays the price - it’s a whole new battery system which cannot be retrofitted to this car. While you have to admire the company’s honesty, it does seem to have shot itself in the foot with this announcement. Why buy this one when there’s a better one coming next year? Talking of which, should I buy one? No, no and no again… lease it. The depreciation on Leafs – and other electrics like the Fiat 500e – is nothing short of staggering. So don’t get left holding the thing after three years. Lease it and give it back or get a new one in a few years, when the battery starts getting tired. It’s really an OK city car – and the UK ones will be built in Sunderland, so you can feel good about buying a British-built product if that matters to you – so it’s fine for that job. Just don’t expect too much from it and it won’t – or shouldn’t – disappoint.