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Nissan Leaf charges through mid-life

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Making adjustments and compromises is part and parcel of electric-vehicle ownership.

Nearly three years into the life cycle of the Leaf hatchback, the first truly global mass-produced electric vehicle, Nissan has made adjustments of its own, kowtowing to the critiques of owners while addressing EV skeptics – which remain legion.

A key weapon for 2013 is a no-frills Leaf S trim, which is designed to lower the barrier of entry to EV ownership. While the S does without a whiz-bang infotainment screen and alloy wheels, it retains the hatch’s distinctive profile and, most importantly, has a base price in the US – $29,650 before tax incentives – to match or beat its competitors, hybrid and pure EV alike.

To further tamp down costs, Nissan recently shifted production of the Leaf and its battery pack from Japan to Smyrna, Tennessee, where the car is assembled alongside the non-EV Altima and Maxima sedans.

The updated Leaf also reflects keen attention paid to the driving habits and behaviours of current owners, one of the most vocal and dedicated car tribes in the world. Top-line SL and mid-level SV models benefit from the addition of a higher-capacity charger, which reduces depleted-to-full recharging time to approximately four hours when using an optional 220v Level II charger. And a new quick-charge port , standard on SL and optional on S and SV models as part of a $1650 package that includes automatic LED headlamps and fog lamps, allows an owner to bump the charge to 80% within 30 minutes using a public charging station. No changes have been made to Leaf’s 80kW electric motor, which produces 107 horsepower and an EV’s trademark frisson of instantaneous torque.

Along the arrhythmic arteries and back roads of southern California, the Leaf returned a battery range of approximately 75 miles per full charge – in line with manufacturer estimates, but below the projected range of over 90 miles provided by the on-board range calculator when the vehicle started up under full charge. Best results, not surprisingly, were achieved by resisting the temptation to mash the accelerator, along with frequent use of the single-speed transmission’s new B-Mode, which augments regenerative braking during deceleration, throwing a charge back to the battery pack and improving range.

Thanks to its cadre of overbearing electronic nannies, the Leaf inspired cautious and thoughtful driving. Not that the outside world announced itself much; steering feel is set to “absent” and the suspension tuned for floating over pavement rather than engaging it. A forest of digital trees grows on the two-tier dashboard readout to express gratitude for gentler driving ― the end game, after all, of EV ownership. The seven-speaker Bose audio system, as fitted to the tested SL, provided the bluster that the car did not.

Combined with rebates and tax credits that can total $10,000 in some US states, this latest round of updates positions the Leaf well to retain market share. Whether it is enough to spur growth is another matter, especially given the market’s still-wan embrace of pure EVs.

And against new plug-in hybrid entries like the Toyota Prius PH-V and Ford C-Max Energi, Nissan must stay on message about the benefits of absolutely zero trips to the gas station. A finite range may give drivers trepidation about pure EVs, but savvy manufacturers of hydrocarbon-combusting hybrids should be keeping Nissan awake at night.

Vital Stats – 2013 Nissan Leaf SL

  • Base price: $29,650, inclusive of $850 destination charge
  • As tested: $36,910, excluding applicable tax rebates
  • EPA fuel economy: 130 MPGe city, 102 MPGe highway
  • Drivetrain:  80kW, 107hp, AC synchronous electric motor; single-speed transmission
  • Major options:  Premium package (Around View monitor, Bose audio system), $1,050

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