Nissan Leaf Review (2011-2018)
The first-generation Nissan Leaf is one of the most affordable electric cars you can get and it’s a good choice if you’re looking for a zero-emissions runaround.
Published: 6 February 2023
If you want a cost-effective and family-friendly electric car, the first-generation Nissan Leaf (sold new from 2011-2018) could fit the bill. It has loads of passenger space, is pleasant to drive and offers you great value for money. The battery range is quite short, however, which won’t suit everyone.
- Low running costs
- Spacious interior
- Great value for money
- Short range
- Boot shape is awkward
- Not as fast as some EVs
Dashboard & tech
When it was introduced in 2011 the Leaf’s interior looked quite futuristic. It still stands out more than a decade later, and the bold design doesn’t make it any less user-friendly.
One of its quirks is a two-part driver display, with a conventional-looking information display behind the steering wheel and a separate slim digital screen above it. The lower one shows how much charge is in the battery and how efficiently you’re driving, while the upper one shows your speed and the time. Another unusual touch is the ball-shaped gear selector and there’s distinctive bright-blue backlighting for the switches and displays.
Through the central display you can access the infotainment system with features including DAB radio and Bluetooth. Most Leafs of this era have sat nav, too. It takes a bit of time to learn your way around the menus, but there are shortcut buttons at the side of the screen to go directly to the feature you want.
The Leaf is a comfortable car. The seats are soft and provide support where you want it and the interior is generally very quiet. The driver’s seat is height-adjustable, as is the steering wheel. But the wheel doesn’t adjust in and out so, if you have short arms, you’ll need to move your seat closer. Still, most people should be able to find a driving position that suits them.
You can basically just step into the Leaf without having to bend down much – the seats are mounted quite high up and it’s a relatively tall car with big door openings.
The Leaf’s interior feels well built and has proven to be very robust. Its quirky design and high-tech features (for the era) give it a more upmarket ambience than many rival (non-electric) hatchbacks, although some of the materials don’t have the premium feel you find in cars such as the Volkswagen Golf or the Audi A3.
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Practicality & boot space
Because of the way its batteries and electric motor are laid out, the Leaf has a more spacious interior than most petrol or diesel hatchbacks of similar size. Indeed, it’s one of a very few that can accommodate five adults reasonably comfortably.
The Leaf is quite tall so headroom is particularly good and there’s loads of legroom. A typical family of four should have all the space they need. Large back-door openings make it easy to install a child seat and to get kids in and out of the car.
Storage spaces include door bins for your phone and wallet, a large glovebox, two cupholders in front of the gear selector and a small tray behind it.
Leaf models sold new from 2015 have 370 litres of boot space, which is similar to a Volkswagen Golf. Weekly food shopping, school bags or luggage for a weekend away slot in easily. Just remember to leave space for the rather bulky charging cable bag. Top-of-the-range Tekna models lose a bit of space to the Bose stereo’s subwoofer and amplifier, mounted on the boot floor against the back seat. Models sold new before 2015 have a slightly smaller boot, but the difference amounts to a single shopping bag.
Although it’s a decent size, the Leaf’s boot is a bit of an odd shape. The space is unusually high yet narrow, which works well for some loads but not so well for others.
The Leaf’s back seats fold down for those occasions when you need to cram in loads of stuff – tip runs, house moves and so on. They fold more-or-less flat in a two-piece, 60/40 split, though you have to heave things over a large ledge down to the boot floor.
Driving the Leaf couldn’t be any easier: just put it in ‘Drive’ and away you go, the low whirr of the electric motor being the only sound you hear. The steering feels nice and light and you have a near-panoramic view out through big windows, which makes nipping around town and darting into parking spaces really easy. You don’t even have to use the brakes that much.
Like all electric cars, the Leaf has a regenerative braking system which spins the electric motor in reverse when you lift off the throttle or press on the brake pedal. That turns the motor into a generator to recharge the battery pack. It also has the effect of slowing down the car, sometimes pretty forcefully. You quickly learn how to work with it and use the brakes just to bring the car to a complete stop, rather than to slow it down.
Out on the open road, the Leaf feels pretty good. You have confidence it’ll go where you point the steering: there’s a bit of lean in corners but it feels controlled. The car’s suspension was upgraded in 2015 to give you a smoother ride; older models can be a bit bouncy on rough roads.
The Leaf’s electric motor produces a relatively modest 108bhp. However, it does feel pretty nippy around town. An electric motor can give all the power it has instantly – it doesn’t build up in the way that a petrol or diesel engine’s power does. So you can make a pretty quick getaway in the Leaf when setting off from a standstill.
Ultimately, though, the Leaf is designed for efficiency rather than speed, so acceleration at motorway speeds can feel a bit leisurely.
Fuel economy & CO2 emissions
The original version of the Leaf, sold new from 2011, can give a range of 109 miles, according to official figures. The car was upgraded in 2013 with a slightly bigger 24kWh battery with the potential to give 124 miles of range. It was upgraded again in 2015 with a 30kWh battery, increasing its range to 155 miles. Those numbers look low compared with the latest electric cars, and what you get in the real world with a used Leaf could be significantly less depending on the weather conditions and the age and driving history of the car in question.
The Leaf recharges pretty quickly, though. Use a 50kW public rapid charger and you can get a 0-80% top-up in around half an hour. Fully recharging at home using a 7kW wallbox takes up to eight hours. Models with a 6.6kW on-board charger (sold new from 2015), which can accept a higher rate of charge, can fully charge in just four hours from a 7kW wallbox.
How much it costs to charge a Leaf depends on whether you use a home or public charger, and which domestic electricity tariff you’re on. Depending on your circumstances, it could cost less than filling a car with petrol or diesel. The Leaf emits no carbon dioxide (CO2) on the move and you’ll have no car tax to pay until 2025.
Value for money
The Leaf is one of the most affordable used electric cars you can get. You’ll struggle to find another family-friendly electric car available for anything like the same money. Throw in a fairly generous quantity of features as standard and the Leaf is excellent value.
Reliability & Warranty
The Leaf has proven to be very reliable in general. The battery’s capacity can reduce with age and mileage, though not to a huge extent. The most recent models date from 2018 and their three-year manufacturer’s warranty ran out in 2021.
Safety organisation Euro NCAP awarded a full five-star safety rating to the Leaf when it was assessed in 2012, scoring high marks for protecting both adults and children in a crash. Standard safety features include six airbags, electronic stability control and a speed limiter.
Trims & Engines
Nissan changed the trim levels available on the Leaf a couple of times during the car’s life. From 2011 to 2013, the Leaf came with a single package of standard features including sat nav, Bluetooth, cruise control, climate control and rear parking sensors. That package was renamed Visia+ in 2013.
When the Leaf was updated in 2015, a wider range of five trim levels was made available – Visia, Visia+, Acenta, Acenta+ and Tekna. They all have air con, DAB radio and Bluetooth; Visia+ adds sat nav and a reversing camera; Acenta has cruise control; Acenta+ has bigger 17-inch alloy wheels; and Tekna has leather upholstery, heated seats and steering wheel, and a Bose stereo.
Being an electric car, the Leaf has an electric motor rather than an engine. Every first-generation Leaf has the same motor, which produces 108bhp.
The Leaf is classed as an automatic because it doesn’t have a clutch pedal. However, being an electric car, it doesn’t actually have a gearbox. It’s much simpler than that. Select ‘Drive’ and the electric motor spins forwards, select ‘Reverse’ and it spins backwards.
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