The Gen 3 LEAF looks much the same from the front

First Drive Report: 2016 Euro-spec Nissan LEAF. Like the Old LEAF, But With More Range (If You Pay)

From the moment it launched in 2011 Nissan’s all-electric hatchback, the Nissan LEAF EV, has proven popular with buyers around the world looking for an affordable, easy-to-drive family car. But with nearly 200,000 LEAFs now sold globally and customer satisfaction high, the one thing Nissan customers have been asking Nissan to provide has been a larger battery pack and thus a longer range per charge.

The 'new' Nissan LEAF comes with a larger battery pack

The ‘new’ Nissan LEAF comes with a larger battery pack

So, for 2016, Nissan has done just that, introducing a new version of the popular plug-in — which it ostensibly calls the “3rd generation LEAF” — complete with a larger 30 kilowatt-hour battery pack as standard on the two highest-trim models (2016 Nissan LEAF SV and SL models in North America). The North American Nissan LEAF S meanwhile comes with the smaller 24 kWh battery pack of previous model year LEAFs.

However, in Europe, that 30 kWh battery pack isn’t included as standard. Instead you’ll need to pay an additional £1600 (€2200) for the privilege of being able to go further per charge for LEAF Acenta and LEAF Tekna models.

On paper the new, larger-capacity 30-kWh battery pack gives the Nissan LEAF a range of 155 miles (250 km) on the famously over-optimistic European NEDC test cycle. Even on the much more realistic EPA test cycle the 30kWh Nissan LEAF scores a very respectable 107 miles (172 km). Nissan is keen to point out this positions the 30kWh variant of the LEAF back in class-leading position, with the nearest rival in terms of range being the Renault ZOE in Europe, which is NDEC rated at 149 miles (240 km). In North America, the nearest rival in the compact segment is the Kia Soul EV, which offers 93 miles per charge on the EPA test cycle.

So, with that in mind, we headed to the European launch of the third-generation LEAF (a title we’re particularly uncomfortable with since the exterior of the car is essentially the same as the model we first saw in 2011) to put it through its paces.

Indeed, exterior changes on the 2016 Nissan LEAF are ones which Nissan itself describe as ‘subtle,’ and the new LEAF is virtually indistinguishable from its older brethren. Perhaps more interestingly, however, under the skin the car is also almost completely unchanged.

Contrary to previous reports Nissan engineers told us during the launch event that the new 30kWh pack could, technically, be fitted to the previous generation of LEAF electric cars as the charging system, motor, controller, and suspension are all identical to the 2013 LEAF.

However, Nissan stated that each car would have to individually undergo homologation, an expensive and time consuming process that it felt would not be worth the effort for owners when added to the cost of the new battery pack. As a consequence, no upgrade path is being offered right now.

On the European NEDC test cycle, a claimed 250 km of range is possible.

On the European NEDC test cycle, a claimed 250 km of range is possible.

Despite the otherwise subtle changes, there is one new thing that the 2016 LEAF has over previous models: a new telematics system, which Nissan was keen to show off.

Called Nissan Connect EV (as opposed to CARWINGS), the new telematics system includes a topographically-aware and traffic-aware GPS system which offers the most ‘electrically economical’ route.

The test route for the launch was the famous Col de Turini; a stage of the Monte Carlo Rally that climbs over 5,000 feet through a massive number of hairpin bends. Not only that, but on the day of the test drive the climb dropped the external temperature from the cozy 13°C (55°F) of central Nice, down to a rather more chilly 2°C (35°F) at the top of the pass. A reasonably challenging drive for most cars, and one which most electric cars (save for the mighty Tesla Model S and Model X) would struggle to accomplish. As part of the launch, Nissan decided to hold an eco-competition to see just who could manage the trip using as little energy as possible, which meant that some of the attendees on the launch event did indeed try to employ their best hypermiling skills during the drive while others tried hard to do the exact opposite.

While we started out on our drive with the intention of following the direction from Nissan’s press team, we quickly bored of the challenge, and drove the LEAF in as close to an ‘everyday’ manner as we could, albeit one influenced by many years of driving in an environmentally responsible manner. While the car remained in Eco mode to maximize regenerative braking, we were certainly going as fast as we’d have felt comfortable on the Col de Turini in any car, internal combustion engine or electric.

The new bigger pack makes longer journeys more feasible

The new bigger pack makes longer journeys more feasible

Enough of the challenge and onto the car itself .

Given that beyond the new 30kWh pack adding a svelt 21kg (46 lbs) to the car (or less than a third of your average adult’s weight), the LEAF is essentially the same as its second generation sibling, and driving the car is, as you would expect, the same as driving the second generation LEAF. It just goes further.

The steering remains light, but positive. The low centre of gravity means that the car handles in an exceedingly stable and predictable manner even as it is swung around hairpin bends on a mountain. It remains as quiet and comfortable on the inside as it ever has been. The updated NissanConnect system is a little more up-to-date in appearance than CarWings has looked for a while, but in reality is not an enormous leap from CarWings (although Nissan indicate it should be more reliable and easier to set up).

The Nissan LEAF has always been a very pleasant drive, and the ‘third generation’ of the car certainly doesn’t change that.

But despite all those unchanging aspects, the new battery does add to the experience in a subtle way. Whilst it might have been possible to complete the Col de Turini in the a LEAF equipped with the 24kWh battery, doing so would have been a lesson in range anxiety. On arrival back after our drive, the high-end LEAF we were driving still had around 34% of its battery remaining. The winners of the challenge, if you’re interested, managed to use a few percent less charge than we did — and we weren’t trying to win.

In short, there was simply no concern that the car couldn’t make the journey. With a 24kWh pack, that comfortable extra range would rapidly disappear, particularly if driven with a little more spirit.

And this is perhaps the biggest change. Whilst Nissan’s statistics indicate that the majority of drivers cover less than 30 miles per day, in actuality only 2% of drivers actually cover more than 106 miles (170 km) per day. By boosting the battery to 30kWh, the optimistic NEDC range exceeds 98% of customer’s requirements. Even the somewhat more realistic EPA range of 107 miles still just covers that, and is much closer to what people will see in real life.

So the extra battery capacity brings the LEAF in as a contender for more drivers, perhaps long enough for them to realise that whilst they’ll never actually see 155 miles of range, the car has more than enough to meet their needs.

Nissan indicated that since announcing the new LEAF, there’s been a massive uptick in interest in both test drives and showroom enquiries, suggesting that the 30kWh battery may be a hit, even though the majority of drivers will rarely need that extra capacity. With that in mind, Nissan says it expects the majority of future sales will be of 30kWh models, although we’d point out that even in previous years, the higher-end models have remained far more popular than the entry level Visa (LEAF S) model.

Nissan are keen to push the practical implications of the extra pack capacity

Nissan are keen to push the practical implications of the extra pack capacity

But it’s not miles alone that the 30kWh pack adds to the car. In Europe, the 30kWh pack includes an 8 year / 100,000 mile (160,000 km) warranty that the pack will retain 75% of its original capacity (equivalent to a loss of 3 bars on the charge meter), placing it on par with warranties offered on the LEAF in other parts of the world.  For European owners, this is a significant extension on the current 5 year warranty (which will remain should you opt for the 24kWh pack) – and means that at 8 years old or 100,000 miles, the car would actually have, at worst, roughly, the capacity of a brand new 24kWh LEAF.

Having investigated further, the reasoning for the enhanced warranty is, at least in part, due to Nissan’s belief that the new pack will stay cooler when charging which should prolong its life.

Whilst we didn’t charge the car, Nissan indicate that the time to charge using a rapid (CHAdeMO) charger is unchanged as the new Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (“NMC”) cathode battery chemistry in the 30 kWh battery pack can tolerate a higher charge rate for a longer period. Like other options in Europe, CHAdeMO DC quick charging is optional at the point of ordering, although it’s standard on Nissan LEAF SL and SV trims in the U.S.

Of course, using the on-board chargers, the time to charge does increase. With a 3kW charger this increase is a slightly painful 2 hours, and on the a 6kW charger a rather more practical hour. Again, while U.S. customers get 6 kW on-board charging for no extra cost on the higher-spec, 30kWh-as-standard LEAF SV and SL, European customers will have to pay £1150 (€1570) for a charger upgrade in addition to the 30 kWh battery upgrade to slash charging times. As the pricing matrix shows below, the pricing for the 2016 Nissan LEAF really does depend on which choices you opt for (prices provided by Nissan GB include £5,000 UK Governmental plug-in car grant).

Unlike the U.S., the UK has a dizzying number of prices and options, depending on options chosen.

Due to the complexity of the route, a thorough review of the new Nissan Connect telematics system will have to wait until we have a 2016 model at our headquarters to put through it’s paces in a less intense environment. Sadly, there wasn’t an opportunity for a real in depth exploration of the system. But whilst it seems better, as with the whole car, it’s definitely a subtle evolution rather than a significant leap forward.

If you love the current generation of Nissan LEAF, the 2016 LEAF Acenta and Tekna (2016 Nissan LEAF SV and SL) will bring you much the same experience, albeit potentially in a new colour (“Bronze”) and you’ll be able to go that bit further. If the second generation LEAF’s milage was a little close to the bone for you, then the 30kWh LEAF should fit the bill nicely.

If you don’t love the current LEAF? Don’t expect the new one to change your mind.

As for the questions you asked us to ask Nissan? We’ll be covering those in another article shortly, so look out for part two of our 2016 Nissan LEAF first-drive report.

Nissan provided airfare, lodging and meals to enable us to bring you this first drive report.


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