- I drove the 2022 Nissan Leaf, the cheapest EV you can buy in the US.
- The latest Leaf starts at $US27,400 ($AU36,923). The one I drove came out to a bit over $US39,000 ($AU52,555).
- The 2022 Leaf is accessible, practical, and nice to drive, but other EVs have more range.
When Nissan first launched the Leaf hatchback in late 2010, electric cars weren’t really a thing.
Tesla had been selling its first model, the Roadster, for a couple of years. But it didn’t sell very many of them, and they were for rich people. If you were one of the few buyers who wanted a practical, economical, fully-electric ride in those early days, the Leaf was your best bet.
More than a decade later, the electric-vehicle landscape couldn’t be more different.
Tesla is the most valuable car company on Earth. The Hummer nameplate, which shut down mere months before the Leaf arrived, is being reborn under GMC with electric motors in place of a roaring engine. More battery-powered SUVs and pickups are on the horizon than I care to count.
Through all that change, the Leaf is still kicking. Moreover, a recent price cut to $US27,400 ($AU36,923) makes the 2022 Leaf the lowest-priced EV you can buy new in the US. That drops to just under $US20,000 ($AU26,951) if you redeem the full federal tax credit for plug-in purchases.
But can one of the OG EVs still deliver value in 2021, even at a budget price point?
A week with the 2022 Leaf told me the answer is: definitely, so long as you can look past the hatchback’s so-so range in certain trims, less common fast-charging plug, and analog interior relative to some of its newer rivals.
A solid EV at a bargain base price
Although I did test the cheapest EV you can buy in the US, the 2022 Leaf, I, unfortunately, didn’t get to drive the cheapest version of the Leaf. Nissan would only loan out an upper-trim SL Plus model, which came out to $US39,255 ($AU52,899), destination fees included. Still, the core of what the Leaf offers is shared across the lineup.
The 2022 Leaf comes in five trims and offers two battery sizes. The key difference between normal and Plus models is that the latter come with the bigger battery pack, which translates to more power and longer range.
Here’s how the trims break down by retail price and EPA range:
- Leaf S ($US27,400 ($AU36,923)): 149 miles (240km)
- Leaf SV ($US28,800 ($AU38,810)): 149 miles (240km)
- Leaf S Plus ($US32,400 ($AU43,661)): 226 miles (364km)
- Leaf SV Plus ($US35,400 ($AU47,704)): 215 miles (346km)
- Leaf SL Plus ($US37,400 ($AU50,399)): 215 miles (346km)
What stands out: EV practicality that won’t break the bank
The Leaf I tested was perfectly pleasant to drive and delivered lots of the pros you’d expect from any EV.
Without a rumbly gas engine up front, the Leaf was quiet. Although it didn’t deliver nearly the kind of lose-your-lunch acceleration you get in some higher-priced EVs, the Leaf was noticeably agile from a stop. Darting through city traffic or making short-notice highway merges was no problem, and the Leaf smoothly and eagerly got up to speed, which you can’t say of every gas-powered economy car.
Like most EVs, the Leaf offers one-pedal driving, which makes driving incrementally more convenient while boosting range. Switch on the e-Pedal function, and the Leaf doesn’t coast when you take your foot off of the accelerator. Instead, the motor starts slowing down to a stop while feeding that captured braking energy back into the battery pack. Once you master the timing, you practically never need to touch the brake.
Another plus: A bunch of advanced safety features come as standard. That includes blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and reverse automatic braking, but excludes ProPilot Assist, which steers for you on the highway and uses radar to match the speed of the car ahead.
Some may call the Leaf’s shape and look dorky compared with the swarm of high-riding little SUVs zooming about these days. But I ask you: Is a roomy, practical interior “dorky”? Are comfortable back seats with ample leg and headroom … “dorky”? How about a cavernous rear cargo area with the seats folded down? If that’s “dorky,” then maybe I don’t want to be cool.
What falls short: Range and charging, but not by much
In a job interview or college application, it’s cliché (and a terrible idea) to rattle off “weaknesses” like “caring too much” and “working too hard.” But in the case of the Nissan Leaf, what some call flaws, others may see as legitimate selling points.
Step inside the 2022 Leaf and you won’t find a minimal interior and a giant, iPad-style touchscreen like you’d see in the latest EVs from Volkswagen, Ford, or Tesla. Instead, there’s a modest, eight-inch display and buttons. Lots of them. There are buttons for the climate control. A button that turns on one-pedal driving. Switches for the heated seats.
This could repel EV shoppers looking to live on the bleeding edge. But for anyone put off by the screen-ification of new cars, the Leaf could be a breath of fresh air. Inside and out, the Leaf feels less like some futuristic piece of technology and more like an approachable, familiar vehicle with the small quirk of running on electricity instead of gas.
Range – or the lack of it – could be a real drawback for some. The base Leaf gets 149 miles (240km) on a charge, which isn’t much in today’s market, but it’s also tough to complain about given the hatchback’s low price. Only one person can decide whether 149 miles (240km) works for you.
Looking at the Leaf’s top trims, though, range feels like it’s lacking for the price. For just a bit more than the price of the SL Plus I tested, you could buy a Tesla Model 3 or Volkswagen ID.4, both of which offer at least 250 miles (402km) of driving on a full battery. For a bit less, you can get a Hyundai Kona EV with 258 miles (415km) of range.
The mid-range S Plus, which promises a healthy 226 miles (364km) of range and only costs $US5,000 ($AU6,738) more than the base model, feels like the best deal here.
Another knock to the Leaf: It uses a CHAdeMO port for fast-charging, an aging standard of charger that’s harder to come by in the US than newer CCS plugs. The Leaf is also equipped with a more common J1772 port, but that’s only good for slower charging. Fast-charging is the only way to add substantial amounts of range in minutes, rather than hours.
This all may not matter much if you plan to juice up at home, but it could pose a problem if you rely on public chargers.
Our impressions: Bring on the good, cheap EVs
The Nissan Leaf may be the cheapest new EV for sale in America, but you need to pay up for some of the things I experienced during testing: extended range, extra interior conveniences, features like adaptive cruise control, and more. But the core of what the Leaf offers – a pleasant driving experience, conscience-cleansing electric power, and hatchback utility – all can be had on the cheapest model.
Even after spending on the larger battery pack, the Leaf only retails for $US32,400 ($AU43,661). That’s all pretty remarkable in a world where sub-$US35,000 ($AU47,165) EVs are in short supply. Alongside the Leaf S, the only other EV you can buy new for less than $US30,000 ($AU40,427) is the Mini Electric, which only has 110 miles (177km) of range and isn’t really practical for a school run or Costco haul.
Amid all the flashy new startups and pricey flagship EVs, it’s nice to see that someone out there is dropping prices and making solid, accessible EVs for the masses.