The electric Nissan Leaf has its work cut out competing with cheaper mainstream cars - but it does make a case for itself

Find Used Nissan Leaf 2011-2017 review deals
Offers from our trusted partners on this car and its predecessors...
Used car deals
From £2,500
Sell your car
In partnership with
Powered by

Long before the Nissan Leaf, electric cars were significant players until the 1920s, and again in Japan in the late 1940s.

But it was with the invention of the lithium ion battery that Nissan’s modern involvement began. In 1995 it launched the Prairie EV (and made 30), then the Altra EV (and made 200). It followed that with the compact Hypermini in 1999. The 2005 Pivo and Pivo2 concepts heralded the start of a development process that resulted in the Leaf.

Nissan claims the batteries will lose about 20 per cent of their efficiency over five years

The electric car has long been at the heart of the motoring industry’s future-proof plans, but its evolution has not been an easy one so far. Held back by battery technology, electric cars have failed to be a viable proposition for the masses due to a high price and a severe compromise in usability. Nissan hoped to change that with the Leaf, a five-door hatchback that runs on a 107bhp electric motor.

Claiming a range of up to 124 miles per charge (dependent on model, on individual use and the ambient temperature), Nissan is realistic about the target market. But that low-mileage market is still a broad one, and if the Leaf can prove that it offers the same ease of use as its conventional rivals, excepting the range, this could be the start of the electric car revolution that has been on the brink of happening for years.

In early 2016, Nissan launched a more powerful version of the Leaf otherwise known as the 30kWh - which it claims can achieve 155 miles between charges to ease range anxiety (although previous caveats needed to be taken into account to).

Back to top

The Leaf was originally introduced with retail prices starting from £30,000, though a government discount of £5000 helped, but that left a lot for Nissan’s electric family car to prove. Shifting production from Japan to the UK in early 2013 reduced retail prices, as did the new pricing scheme, which allows buyers to lease the car’s battery, with the pricing based on three different annual mileages.



Nissan Leaf rear

The Nissan Leaf is an intriguing mix of the revolutionary and the utterly conventional. Despite Nissan’s claims that the Leaf’s design “isn’t compromised by the need to house a traditional engine at the front”, were you not aware that the Leaf was electrically powered, there’d be no obvious reason to notice, save for the stand-out styling.

Its structure is fairly conventional, too – as, presumably, it needs to be to reduce costs, given the relative expense of the drivetrain. The Leaf’s is an all-new platform but is a straightforward steel monocoque, suspended by MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear. At 4445mm long, it’s more or less the same length as a Vauxhall Astra or Ford Focus.

If you didn't know the Leaf is electrically powered, there’d be no obvious reason to notice

The dramatically designed headlights aren’t just for styling effect. The LED cluster is shaped to direct airflow away from the door mirrors, reducing aerodynamic drag. The prominent rear lights and the rear spoiler help separate airflow around the rear of the car to reduce the drag coefficient.

Aware that charging points are more likely to be at the end of a parking space rather than in its middle, Nissan has placed the Leaf’s charging sockets in the car’s nose.

There may be no conventional engine, but there’s still one grille at the front, directing cooling air to the underbonnet systems. In spite of the Leaf’s frontal shape not being compromised by the need to have an engine, there’s still a nosy overhang so that it meets pedestrian impact regulations.

A flat floor and small diffuser are aimed at reducing drag (they’re not there to aid downforce). The resulting drag coefficient is 0.29, a respectable but not outstanding figure.

The 2016 update did very little to change what can only be described as a winning formula, with the most notable changes made to the battery pack. The increase in the Leaf's battery capacity is largely down to Nissan introducing new cathode and electrode materials and revising the battery's construction in order to increase density. Naturally, a penalty was incurred from all these changes as the 30kWh Leaf weighs 21kg more than its 24kWh stablemate.


Nissan Leaf interior

If electric power compels manufacturers to equip their cars with interiors like the Nissan Leaf’s, you will find absolutely no complaints from us.

Although relatively conventional in its layout, in light grey the Leaf’s cabin is bright, airy and cheerful. Perceived quality is high; the feel of the switchgear and materials is first rate at the Leaf’s money. It’s a large improvement on the 2013 models, with got an even tighter build and the option of a matt black interior finish.

The Leaf’s cabin is a pleasant place to be and, predictably, very refined

The driving position is set modestly high (those batteries are in the floor, after all) but ergonomically it is sound. The pedals are well spaced and, although the steering wheel wouldn’t suffer from a higher vertical range of movement, all of our testers easily found a comfortable driving position.

A split-level display, with speedo above the steering wheel and ancillary gauges behind, is clear. The depth and clarity of information just falls on the right, comprehensive side of fussy.

In the dashboard’s centre sits the rest of the IT systems, comprising 
sat-nav, entertainment and vehicle monitoring systems, which are as comprehensive as you’d want. They include the possibility of sending the car’s charging status remotely to an App on your mobile smartphone, which can also be used to, among other options, remotely engage the air conditioning. Most useful during driving, however, is the screen of gauges that display how much energy is being used by the drive motor, and ancillary power drains, separately.

The rest of the Leaf’s interior is as conventional as any small family car’s. Rear legroom is fine, headroom is tight only for those over six feet tall, and the boot is an average size. It’s also a very quiet cabin. Refinement levels from the motor are, as you’d expect, supremely quiet, but wind rush and road noise are also commendably subdued.

Aside from deciding whether you want the 120 mile range 24kWh or 155 mile range 30kWh Nissan Leaf in your life, there is also three trim levels to choose from too - Visia, Acenta and Tekna. Opting for the entry-level Visia model will comprehensively equip your car with luxuries such as - air conditioning, keyless entry and go, Bluetooth preparation and a USB port, while upgrading to the Acenta allows you to opt between both power outputs, but also comes with 16in alloy wheels, a reversing camera and NissanConnect, which includes an EV telematics system, info on the nearest charging systems and eco-routing.

Opt for the range-topping Tekna trim and the Leaf gets heated seats all round, a heated steering wheel, Bose sound system, 360-degree camera and a leather interior.


Nissan Leaf side profile

As a result of its ranks of lithium ion batteries, the Nissan Leaf is heavier than its combustion-engined equivalents by some 200kg.

But in reality this doesn’t hamper the Leaf’s ability to work as comfortable and pleasant transport. Having the batteries mounted under the boot floor hasn’t eradicated the sense of weight, but in general use the soft suspension isolates occupants well. There is more body roll than you get in most conventional hatches, but that roll is quite progressive.

The immediate torque and predictable power delivery makes the Leaf one of the best urban commuters around

Handling is similarly decent, but the defining characteristic is the steering. Very light and linear, it suits urban use perfectly, but it is devoid of feel and, with 3.3 turns lock to lock, a touch more steering input is needed at higher speeds than most would want.



Nissan Leaf cornering

But few cars need to provide a feelsome drive less than the Leaf, and it is a pleasant car in which to cover miles. Turn-in is sharp enough, there’s ample grip and the Leaf is wholly safe, predictable and not unsatisfying to drive.

The original version of the Leaf had an uncannily fluid urban ride, smoothing away even the worst of the UK’s roads. The downside to this was a lack of body control at motorway speeds, which could become slightly alarming floating at speeds above 70mph.

Once settled on its dampers, the Leaf is quite stable and will hold a line reasonably well

2013’s revamped Leaf is a much-improved motorway car, with a far more tied-down feel at higher speeds. The steering is also weighter at all speeds. The downside is that the uncanny urban progress has been sacrificed. Even though it still rides very well compared to rival, conventionally engineered cars.

Autocar’s original tests showed the Leaf can return 75 to 80 real-world miles on a single charge, with that falling to as little as 45 miles in the depths of a snow-bound winter day. However, the Acenta and Tekna versions of the 2013 Leaf use a new heat pump-based heating system which is claimed use much less battery power. (The entry-level Visia has the same system as the original Leaf).

Early tests show that the new heater does indeed allow a more impressive range, with 70 miles a likely minimum in sub-zero winter conditions and over 100 miles in warmer temperatures. While in real-world tests the 30kWh Leaf is capable of averaging 120 miles per charge.

Even so, these are still comparatively small distances and it would be easy to view this as a very limiting factor, but considering that the vast majority of Leafs will be second cars, it’s also clear that this will be fairly irrelevant for many, especially if the car can be recharged when it is parked at the owner’s home.


Nissan Leaf

We’d hope it’s safe to say that, if you’re in the market for a Nissan Leaf, you’ll be confident that you can deal with its shortcomings as a conventional family car. In effect, it has to be a second car.

Relative to its conventionally engined opposition – and if you opt to buy the car and its battery pack outright, it is a little pricey for a Focus-sized car, regardless of the fact that it is well equipped. The cheapest Leaf worth considering is probably the mid-range Acenta model with a limited mileage battery lease, which costs around the same price as 10 gallons of fuel.

It’s not so hard to make a financial case for the Leaf

Moreover, the Leaf costs only a few pounds to charge (Nissan estimates £2 on a cheap tariff) and nothing in road tax. As a company car, it currently exempts its driver entirely from benefit-in-kind tax, although the are government plans afoot to change that.

Throw in conventional servicing costs and acceptable residuals, and ultimately it’s not so hard to make a financial case for the Leaf.  Beneath a flap on the Leaf’s nose lie two charging sockets. One is for charging from a domestic supply, which takes seven or eight hours for a full charge. From a designated quick-charging point, an 80 per cent charge can take half an hour, Nissan claims.

The Leaf offers a limited number of factory-fit options. Apart from metallic paint, buyers can choose a 6.6kW on-board charger and a Rapid Charge Port that allows 50kW DC charging. The Visia has the option of a reversing camera, the Acenta headed seats and steering wheel and the Tekna a solar panel on the roof spoiler, which helps to charge the 12-volt battery (for powering accessories), not the main drive batteries.



Nissan Leaf rear quarter

This is a difficult verdict to give. The Nissan Leaf is a family car, priced well ahead of its similarly sized opposition and that cannot travel much more than 120 miles before it needs to be stationary for hours. That ought to make it absurdly easy to dismiss, but it doesn’t.

Despite its limited range, the Leaf is a thoroughly excellent town car and quite able family transport, with appealing levels of refinement and comfort. There’s ample room for a family of four (five at a push), while the boot is a decent size, especially since the battery charger electronics were relocated from behind the rear seats.

The lack of local emissions and low running costs will no doubt prove appealing to some

Nissan has given the car a fair sense of style, too, while resisting the temptation to be too outlandish (inside and out) in the quest to boast about the car’s advanced technology.

Compared with similarly-priced rivals, it’s also exceptionally well equipped with a clever sat-nav system that will also detail how far you can go before recharging and tell you where recharging points are. That it emits absolutely nothing (either CO2 or pollutants) from the tailpipe will be of huge value to some buyers, too. 

Those in the market for an electric car like the Leaf will be quite aware of its limitations although the 30kWh version limits some of the anxiety. As an active family’s only car, the Leaf is a faintly ludicrous prospect. Think of it, though, as a practical, usable second car that allows a family to own just one internally combusted vehicle, rather than two, and it becomes a proposition that is absolutely viable, and unique.


Nissan Leaf 2011-2017 First drives