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2019 Nissan Leaf Plus First Drive: Is It Plus Enough?

Nissan’s top-range Leaf finally has battery range on par with other affordable EVs

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Remember the horsepower wars of the 1960s?

In yet another twist on Mark Twain’s saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” the car industry is humming its 50-year-old, horsepower one-upmanship tune once again. But now there’s a new verse, with the lyrics “miles of battery range” instead of “plain ol’ horsepower.”

A right-now snapshot of the current BEV-range leader board of affordable EV offerings, with more than 200 miles of range, looks like this:

1: Hyundai Kona Electric – 258 miles

2: Kia Soul EV (just announced) – 243 miles

3: Kia e-Niro – 239

4: Chevrolet Bolt EV – 238 miles

Where, pray tell, is the biggest-selling affordable EV of them all, the Nissan Leaf? When its second-generation version was introduced two years ago in Japan, the Bolt’s then-staggering 238 number had already been announced. Needless to say, that cast a pall over the Tokyo proceedings as Nissan struggled to justify the new Leaf’s 150-mile range. Sure, sure, we all nodded in agreement; of course it’s way better than the first gen’s 107 miles. But it was as if Ford pulled the sheet off a Mustang with 37 percent fewer ponies than the existing Camaro. The guys in Yokohama had miscalculated. They knew it. And Scouts’ honor, they promised a bigger-battery fix, ASAP.

True to its word, here’s the car Nissan wishes it had actually introduced: the descriptively named Leaf Plus.

Though here, ‘Plus’ doesn’t just mean more: It signals better, too, in multiple ways. Foremost, of course, is its higher-capacity battery, which rises from 40 kW-hr to 62. It delivers 76 more miles of range—now stretching to 226—which finally gets its ticket stamped into the 200-plus club. How’d they do it? I wouldn’t call it lithium-ion sausage-making, but stuffing in those additional 22 kW-hr wasn’t by the elegant, anticipatory architecture of having reserved an empty portion of the rectangular below-floor battery box for its inevitable enlargement.

No. With the battery’s footprint dimensionally landlocked in the floorpan, and its profile an irregular mountain range of lumps, the only direction to go was down. That meant dropping the battery’s belly by 40mm (1.6 inches). To make the most of that newfound space, the infusion of new cells (if you’re keeping score, it goes from 192 to 288, all of them 3 percent more energy-dense) are Lego’d together in more complicated arrangements and more closely packed via space-saving laser-welding.

Through some pretty smart electrical architecting, the battery’s cells are mapped into three (serial) strings of cells instead of two (each one adding up to the required voltage). Two sweet things emerge from this: The system’s internal resistance is lower, so Nissan’s peculiar, stirred-air cooling system can better handle the charging and discharging heat. The other is—whoo-hoo!—more power.

Sitting at a table during a lunch stop on our drive of the Leaf Plus near San Diego, a Nissan representative explained it in terms of eating utensils. If the original 40-kW-hr battery has two straws for drinking electricity, the new one has three. You can drink your Diet Coke 50 percent faster (what a time-saver!).

Not only does the Leaf Plus charge faster (and fast-charge quicker—its standard 100-kW system replenishes it to 80 percent in 45 minutes, merely 5 minutes more than the base battery takes at its 50-kW rate), but the Leaf Plus is 46 percent more powerful, too. A win-win. The jump from 147 to 214 hp entirely reflects the battery’s new discharge rate, the motor itself being fundamentally the same, simply ruggedized with tougher gears. (The car’s CHAdeMO fast charging and battery air-cooling are a couple of legacy technologies we’d welcome jettisoning.)

Nissan says the new power drops its 0–62 mph (100 kph) time from 8 to 7 seconds (though we measured the 40-kW-hr/147-hp Leaf at 7.5 seconds). On the road, the difference feels a little dulled by the battery’s 290 pounds of extra weight (though it completely goes to lowering the center of gravity). I also detected a touch of pitchy-ness, possibly an artifact of the firmer suspension needed to cope with the weight gain and to preserve enough ground clearance. But don’t misunderstand. It drives very nicely, with an oily polish and mini-limousine-like grace the edgier Bolt and Kona Electric lack; it strikes me as maybe more Infiniti-premium than Nissan proletariat.

A little over a year ago, we compared the 40-kW-hr Leaf to a Bolt and a Tesla Model 3. One of our evaluators, Patrick Hong, said of the Leaf: “Good exterior styling but an outdated, if well-finished, interior. They seemed to be cramming a new, smallish screen into a traditional instrument panel.”

The Plus addresses that with a screen that not only expands from 7.0 up to 8.0 inches, but it’s Wi-Fi updateable, multi-touch, and replete with an intuitive, customizable icon menu. It’s an integral piece of Nissan’s Door-to-Door Navigation, which seamlessly carries your route guidance from your phone, into the car on that 8.0-inch screen, and then back to your phone as you walk to a destination.

 

Depending on which of its trio of trim levels we’re talking about—S Plus, SV Plus, or SL Plus (reflecting the base Leaf’s trim nomenclature)—there’s some notably great features to be had. My favorite is Pro Pilot Assist (adaptive cruise control and lane-centering) and also emergency braking (which I abruptly experienced behind a car at a stoplight when the Leaf—Bam!—hit its brakes for me). There’s also a great, L1/L2 portable charger; with it, most people can forget about installing a traditional garage wall unit.

Pricing? Nissan hasn’t yet tapped the “enter” button on its pricing spreadsheets, but hinted that it would very competitive, meaning blanketing the Bolt’s and Kona Electric’s window stickers.

What does this mean for the standard-range Leaf? It’ll be soldiering on, but frankly, I don’t see the point. The Range War has left BEVs with fewer than 150 miles in the dust. Our other EV comparison test evaluator, Dr. Alec Brooks said, “When [the Leaf] gets the bigger 60-kW-hr battery pack, it will be a credible Bolt alternative. But for many people, having only two-thirds of the Bolt’s range may not cut it.”

I’d now replace the word “many” with “all.” Our expectations of cars like this has permanently shifted from second-car, city-commuter status to being an actual choice as our primary vehicle, with competitive ranges and rapid recharge rates.

The training-wheels era of the electric vehicle is over, and it’s time for them to act like real, grown-up cars now. A 220-mile-range, base-battery Model 3 may even be obsolete before Tesla is able to affordably mass-produce it, and this Leaf Plus’s 226 miles is already achingly close to the new minimum cutoff. Fortunately, the Nissan’s other attributes go a long way in distracting you from that Darwinian math equation.

 

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