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2018 Nissan Leaf first drive: better without branching out

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An EV pioneer gets a sharper suit and more range, but doesn’t try to be a leader

2018 Nissan Leaf.

The 2018 Nissan Leaf was never likely to be a scene-stealer the way the Chevrolet Bolt was last year or the Tesla Model 3 is this year.

After all, Nissan already had the show to itself when the first Leaf went on sale nearly seven years ago. There was no Tesla Model S back in 2010, and its only significant competition was the Chevrolet Volt, which still used gasoline. Those days are gone, though. Nissan left the Leaf to wilt a bit with a range of around 100 miles when Chevy and Tesla start to offer ranges with 200-plus miles, and now there are a number of other new EVs well past that 100-mile mark.

Still, more than 113,000 Leafs have been sold in the US since it was launched, with more than 283,000 around the world. That’s not exactly as many as Nissan may have hoped for (and they’re being quiet on projections for this new one), but it’s far from a drop in the EV bucket. Leaf is synonymous with “electric car,” and therefore this new one has a reputation to uphold.

The 2018 Leaf’s mission is to be different from other EVs by being strikingly normal, and that’s a fine line it might be able to navigate. For a while, at least.

2018 Nissan Leaf.

At least the old Leaf’s dumpy styling has been sharpened for 2018. Compared to Nissan’s US lineup, the Leaf comes across as fresh and somewhat interesting. But some quick research into what the automaker offers in other countries revealed it has a similar profile to the Honda Civic-sized Pulsar hatchback that’s offered in Europe.

What’s more disappointing, however, is that the interior looks and feels like your average new Nissan. Most buttons are lifted out of models such as the Rogue and Sentra, apart from the round shifter rocker that looks and feels like the mouse from a 20-year-old iMac. Where Chevrolet and, of course, Tesla have made the center touchscreen a dominant part of the interior, Nissan chose a 7-inch display that looks to be shared with basically every other car they make. And even their more mainstream cars, the display is starting to fall behind the pack. Apple CarPlay isn’t standard on the base model and Android Auto isn’t available at all yet. At least you can get a 360-degree camera on the top Leaf SL model.

Nissan reverted to an analogue speedometer because its research found customers preferred to see a physical dial at a glance rather than the digital numbers. That’s fine, but the dial itself could’ve been ripped off of a rental Altima, and it clashes badly with the LCD display next to it that shows all of the other vehicle status updates, such as range and battery life. It sort of sums up the entire interior: it gets the job done, nothing more.

2018 Nissan Leaf.

At least interior space is much improved. Four adults can sit comfortably, and the rear seat has good headroom and a comfortable cushion. The driver sits a little bit higher than they would in a conventional hatchback, but shorter people might appreciate that, and it gives everyone who gets behind the wheel a good view out.

Getting onto the freeway is not memorable anymore. The 2018 Leaf benefits from a 40 percent bump in power, with 147 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, with a 40kWh battery that the cars arriving early next year will all get. Nissan has already announced an upcoming 60kWh battery that should offer more performance as well as a range greater than the EPA-estimated 150 miles, and there are rumors of a more performance-oriented model. For now, though, the Leaf is fine to drive, rides smoothly, and is mostly quiet. But this isn’t the fun-to-drive EV you might be seeking.

2018 Nissan Leaf.

The Leaf is also the first Nissan to get the ProPilot driver assistance technology that will, one day, allow Nissans to be self-driving. For now, it’s primarily a device that keeps you in your lane and works with the adaptive cruise control to maintain a comfortable distance from the car in front of you. I’ll go more in depth with this technology in a separate piece, but the system on the Leaf I drove on a Las Vegas highway had issues with the lane markings, which may be attributed to the fact that this was one of the first Leafs built with the system, and the technology may be refined more before the first models are delivered early next year.

What the Leaf should continue to do is ease wary consumers into EV ownership. Nissan invited a few loyal customers to Las Vegas, along with some of their most EV-centric dealers and some journalists, to see the new iteration. I sat in the back of a new Leaf with a woman from Nashville, whose husband was a devout Leaf-er. She immediately said it was roomier and heard the motor strain less as we merged onto the highway than the 2013 model her husband bought. Another Leaf couple told me they were the second in Virginia to get one. The new one, possibly the longer-range model coming next year, would make them an all-Leaf household. They were wary of what kind of Model 3 they might get for the same money and liked that the Leaf looked like, well, a Leaf.

To these consumers: the price has to be right, too. The 2018 Leaf S starts at $29,600 before a $7,500 federal tax credit and other state and local incentives. Most consumers will likely go for the better-equipped SV or SL models. An SL with every option (including the two-tone white and black paint job) is $37,495 — or just less than $30,000 with the tax credit. That’s likely to give the Leaf a favorable 36-month lease offer, which is how most people get into an EV in the US. A loaded Leaf, therefore, will be in the ballpark of a basic Bolt or Model 3.

2018 Nissan Leaf.

Until that longer-range, 60kWh model arrives, the 2018 Leaf doesn’t seem to target the Bolt or any Tesla. Its prime rivals will likely be the Hyundai Ioniq Electric and Volkswagen e-Golf, both of which are compact hatchbacks with about 125 miles of range. The Leaf’s comfortably greater range and 50-state availability may be enough to sway potential buyers, even if both the Hyundai and the VW are significantly nicer to sit in and, to my eye, more attractive on the outside.

The 2018 Leaf obviously caters first and foremost to current Leaf owners. It fixes mostly everything that was lacking in the old car without getting too different all of a sudden.

Photography by Zac Estrada / The Verge