The Nissan Leaf makes some significant strides in semi-autonomous driving technologies for 2018.
The automaker unveiled the redesigned version of its best-selling electric car last Tuesday, touting a new 40kWh battery that gives the Leaf about 290km of range on a full charge, and a host of driver tech that pushes the Leaf closer, at least incrementally, toward being a strong contender in the mass-market EV segment.
We drove the Leaf last week, and straightaway, the new car seems to match tech offerings found in the Chevy Bolt, which currently sells for about $US7,500 more than a Leaf, before US federal tax incentives. Expect it to come in around the $52,000 mark in Australia.
Nissan's semi-autonomous driving feature is an intelligent cruise-control system, but it is not as advanced as Tesla's Autopilot system, which has some semi-autonomous features. ProPilot Assist will help steer the Leaf and modulate acceleration and braking in traffic, but its usefulness in real-world driving was mixed, at best.
The Leaf performed reasonably well while driving with ProPilot Assist activated on the roads of Las Vegas. It required minimal effort from me behind the wheel. The Leaf seemed to recognise lane markings on the road fairly well, helping keep the car centered within its own lane, but the system deactivated itself when those markings became unclear, like when the lane to the right briefly opened up as an exit lane for traffic pulling off the freeway.
The system executes the basic tasks -- keeping a comfortable distance between cars, accelerating, decelerating, and braking -- fairly competently. When the system is unable to decipher lane markings, it deactivates itself.
The experience is not entirely seamless, and you can never really take your hands off the wheel, but Nissan was forthcoming about Propilot Assist's limitations, clarifying that the system in its current iteration was not meant to drive the car by itself. Business Insider's Danielle Muoio has a more comprehensive review of ProPilot Assist here.
The standout feature in the Leaf is the ePedal. Nissan bills it as a way for drivers to accelerate and brake using only their right foot. The concept is fairly simple. With ePedal activated, you can accelerate as you would normally in a conventional vehicle. When it's time to slow down, lifting off the accelerator activates engine braking and the car's real, friction brakes. The system was engineered with smoothness in mind. The stops in ePedal mode seemed to be deliberately gradual; slowing the Leaf to a gentle crawl and then to a complete stop without any fuss.
The ePedal can hold the car motionless while sitting at a traffic light or a stop sign, and even on a hill. The Leaf proved as much while I sat on the downhill portion of an overpass near the Las Vegas Strip.
The ePedal was effective, but there will no doubt be a learning curve for most drivers. Defeating the muscle memory that automatically prompts you to move to the brake when you want to slow down will be hard to defeat for some drivers.
It will take some time to gauge exactly how much you need to lift off the pedal to activate the right amount of regenerative braking. My first couple of tries at this caused the Leaf to shave off way too much speed at inopportune times, like when I took my foot off the accelerator as a Honda CR-V merged in front of me on the freeway. Instead of gradually coasting to a slower speed like a traditional car would, the Leaf slowed way down -- more than I would under the same conditions. It did the same sort of dramatic slow-down when I lifted my foot off the accelerator while making a U-turn.
The Chevy Bolt has a similar feature, except that instead of a pedal, drivers can control the brake-pedal-less braking using a set of paddles attached to the steering wheel. The Bolt's system has a learning curve as well, because it requires you to get used to slowing the car down with your hands instead of your feet. Business Insider's Matt DeBord has a great explainer on the Bolt's system here.
While some manufacturers are replacing analogue gauges with with full digital displays, Nissan is going half-and-half with the Leaf. There's a 7-inch configurable display where a tachometer would normally go, and there's a traditional speedometer beside it.
In the center stack, you will find another screen where you can control audio and navigation, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Chevy Bolt's massive 10.2-inch center display dwarfs it, almost embarrassingly, but Nissan's system is functional and intuitive.
Driving the Leaf is very similar to driving practically every other current electric vehicle on the road right now: instant torque from the moment you hit the accelerator and a quiet ride.
The car handled mild midday Las Vegas traffic well -- with and without ProPilot Assist and the ePedal activated. A couple hard turns under acceleration caused our test car's tiny 16-inch tires to squeal a little, but the Leaf was relatively composed in the straights and on the curves.
The build quality in the prototypes we drove was solid. Interior surfaces were made up of the standard plastics you would typically find in an entry level hatchback. Buttons and knobs were just weighty enough, and the seats, which looked like they were lifted from the Altima, felt substantial.