2019 Nissan Leaf Plus vs. 2011 Nissan Leaf: 5 takeaways over 8 years

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2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

When a completely new vehicle is introduced, it's generally around for five to seven years before an entirely redesigned generation of that vehicle is launched.

By that measure, the 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus we reviewed earlier this week is ancient, with a basic structure in its ninth model year—though it received a very thorough restyling for 2018.

In electric-car years, the Leaf is even older. But looking back at its humble beginnings underscores how fast battery-powered vehicles and our expectations for them have advanced.

2011 Leaf presentation deck

2011 Leaf presentation deck

We dug out the briefing book from our first-ever drive of a production 2011 Nissan Leaf. It was held in Nashville in October 2010.

The first Leaf was EPA-rated at 74 miles of range from a 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack, whereas last week’s 2019 Leaf Plus came in at 226 miles from 62 kwh. In other words, over little more than eight years, battery capacity and vehicle range have tripled.

CHECK OUT: 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus: first drive review

The 2010 briefing was held before the EPA rating was finalized, however. It gave the range as 100 miles, using the city-oriented LA4 test cycle.

The 2011 Leaf was the first volume-produced battery-electric car targeted at a mass market.

Nissan identified its competitive landscape as the Ford Focus Electric and Mitsubishi i-MiEV that would arrive a year hence, and the very limited-production fleet of Mini E cars already loaned to test drivers.

The first two were said to have 100 miles of range, while the latter was quoted at 150 miles. When EPA ranges for the first two were issued, they came in at 76 and 62 miles respectively.

FIRST TAKEAWAY: Wait for the EPA ratings before quoting range. Quoting 100 miles and coming in at 74 miles is no way to start.

2019 Nissan Leaf

2019 Nissan Leaf

2019 Nissan Leaf Plus, San Diego area, Feb 2019

2019 Nissan Leaf Plus, San Diego area, Feb 2019

2019 Nissan Leaf

2019 Nissan Leaf

2019 Nissan Leaf

2019 Nissan Leaf

The competitive landscape for the 2019 Leaf Plus includes the Chevrolet Bolt EV (238 miles), the Hyundai Kona Electric (258 miles), and the soon-to-come Kia Niro Electric (239 miles).

While the Kia hasn’t yet been priced, the Leaf Plus is expected to come in at about $37,500, right where the Bolt EV and the Kona Electric sit. That’s only a few thousand dollars more than the initial 2011 Leaf price.

SECOND TAKEAWAY: Range over 200 miles for a price in the mid-$30,000s feels like a much better deal to actual real-life drivers who aren’t EV early adopters or electric-car fanbois.

Lance Armstrong in an ad for the 2011 Nissan Leaf

Lance Armstrong in an ad for the 2011 Nissan Leaf

In 2010, Nissan had a slide that explained why 100 miles was the ideal range. Essentially, it said, 90 percent of the U.S. population drives than than 100 miles a day.

In fact, typical driving patterns showed 72 percent of drivers covered less than 50 miles each weekday—and 26.5 percent only covered 5 to 10 miles a day. On the weekend, 66 percent drove less than 50 miles a day, and 23.5 percent covered 20 to 29 miles.

READ THIS: 2011 Nissan Leaf electric car: first drive review (Oct 2010)

That was all well and good for Japan, where the car was designed, and even for Europe, where it was expected to do well. In both those places, mass transit between city pairs 75 to 300 miles apart is ubiquitous, fast, clean, reliable, and affordable.

Nissan planners admit it hadn’t planned to take the Leaf’s range increases above 150 miles from a 40-kwh battery—until, that is, the January 2015 reveal of the Chevy Bolt EV, with a promised range of more than 200 miles.

THIRD TAKEAWAY: North America is different. U.S. buyers go for vehicles based on their maximum needs, not their average needs. (Why else would so many people commute in three-ton full-size pickup trucks capable of towing 7,500 pounds or more?) Thus 200 miles may be the minimum necessary range for an electric car to be perceived as viable.

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

Several slides in the presentation deck cover the “unique driving experience” of an electric car. Among the benefits cited: instant acceleration, luxurious silence, and excellent handling and agility.

Sadly, Nissan’s marketing (represented by a few slides at the back of the book) didn’t touch on those issues.

Instead, the infamous grateful polar bear appeared, along with a Livestrong partnership with Lance Armstrong that has apparently long passed into marketing oblivion.

CONSIDER: 2018 Nissan Leaf: does it pioneer the 'mid-range' electric car?

To its credit, however, Nissan also mentioned its Drive Electric Tour, offering the first opportunity for test drives to consumers in 23 cities including the primary launch markets. The very first Leaf wouldn’t be delivered to a paying U.S. customer until two months later, in mid-December.

FOURTH TAKEAWAY: Marketing any electric car should underscore that it’s a better way to drive. (Getting butts in seats helps convey that message.)

Finally, after driving the 2019 Leaf Plus last week, we quickly concluded it was a Leaf that had essentially no compromises.

DON’T MISS: Ryan Reynolds gets funny with 2012 Nissan Leaf (Jan 2012)

It had all the range you could need to drive daily without worrying or even plugging in every night. Its performance was fully competitive even in fast commute traffic, including the 50-to-75-mph acceleration so necessary on highways.

And its price is likely to be competitive with competitors from Chevy, Hyundai, and Kia.

Nissan Leaf 'polar bear' ad

Nissan Leaf 'polar bear' ad

Looking back at that October 2010 presentation, we’re struck by how old it feels—and how many limitations it contains.

FIFTH AND FINAL TAKEAWAY: The Leaf has come a remarkable way in eight model years. Consider what its 2027 equivalent will be like—how much range might it offer at a much lower cost. Or will the obsession over range be obsolete?

As they say, stay tuned for the future. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Nissan has provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable Internet Brands Automotive to bring you first-person drive reports on several iterations of the Leaf over the years.

 
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