Could there be a more appropriate and topical subject for DRIVEN’s Used Car Guru series (check out previous instalments on the Suzuki Swift, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Ranger) right now than the Nissan Leaf?
It’s a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) only of course, and the Government’s Clean Car Discount scheme for 2021 means a $3450 rebate if the vehicle is ex-overseas but being registered in New Zealand for the first time.
Leaf is hugely popular as a used-import in NZ - and in fact has been primarily sold as a used-import. The first generation model was only sold briefly as a new car by Nissan NZ, eventually at a loss-leading price of $39,990 in 2014 (surplus stock from Australia), before it quietly went away. It returned to the new-vehicle market in 2019 in second-generation form.
The Leaf has been around for over a decade now, so it’s a known quantity and well-proven. Of the 14,339 used-import BEVs currently registered in NZ, most will be Leafs. A quick look at the listings on DRIVEN.co.nz will reveal hundreds for sale on any given day. Try it, it’s fun.
It’s also truly affordable, with examples for well under $10k (under $5k in rare cases). So if you’re looking to embrace the BEV future for the first time, it’s likely that a Leaf will be your starting point.
There’s a bit to cover, especially when you consider that even though there have only been two generations (2010-18, 2018-present), the Leaf’s battery capacity has increased by 160 per cent and its range by 120 per cent over that time. It's developed a lot.
So it’s important to know which model you’re looking at. The first-generation Leaf was sold with 24kWh and, from 2016, 30kWh battery packs. If you’re not sure what that means, think of the battery as the fuel tank of any BEV: it has a big impact on range and performance (because to some extent it also dictates how powerful the electric motor can be).
The range of the first-gen Leaf, with an 80kW motor, was between 175km and 250km (official NEDC figures) when new. The second-generation (current) model stepped up to 40kWh and 62kWh (also known as “Leaf+”) batteries, with a 100kW motor. They offer range of 243km and 364km.
BEV batteries degrade over time, which is why many first-time/used buyers are nervous about moving to zero-emissions technology. Carmakers are reducing this degradation significantly with each new iteration of BEV models, but it’s inevitable that it’s more of an issue for older cars.
Industry experts say it’s normal for a first-generation Leaf battery to degrade around three per cent per year (so 30 per cent for a decade-old car), but it really depends on how it’s been treated. Incessant use of fast-chargers will increase wear, for example.
So while it’s important to look out for all the usual stuff when buying a Leaf (general wear, handling), as with any BEV you could argue that battery health is more important than the kilometres travelled. A quite young car could have a very worn battery, while an older one might be in great form.
Luckily, battery health is measurable and it pays to get some expert help to assess the power unit of any prospective BEV purchase with a scanner. The dealer may be happy to do this and show you the results, or you can consult a BEV owners group for advice.
Many enthusiastic owners (yes, there are a lot of those) even scan their own batteries regularly, using inexpensive plug-in OBD2 devices and a smartphone app such as LeafSpy. Not suggesting you do that, just pointing out that it’s a relatively simple task.
The two terms you need to know are State of Charge (SoC) and State of Health (SoH). SoC measures a battery’s ability to store and deliver energy, while SoH indicates overall condition (rather than its current charge).
The Leaf does some of that evaluation work for you by providing a 12-bar readout on the instrument panel for SoH. A full 12 bars means 85 percent-plus, and every bar below that is a 6-8 per cent reduction. A poor SoH on an older car could have a huge impact on its ability to deliver your day-to-day travel, so be very aware of your mileage needs when choosing the car.
Be aware though that SoH data updates when the vehicle is driven, and it’s becoming more common for buyers to seek assurances about battery SoH from sellers. There’s a practice called “juicing” happening overseas whereby multiple rapid charges are applied to a battery in short succession, artificially inflating the SoH and therefore increasing the value of the BEV.
A vehicle can be shipped with a high SoH and the truth only becomes clear after a few weeks driving. All the more reason to only buy from a reputable dealer in NZ.
What else to look for? Check what cables are provided. All Leafs can be charged at public DC fast-charge stations using the CHAdeMo connector (so no additional hardware provided), but home charging will require a compatible plug. Best/safest practice is of course a wallbox-type "quick" AC charger, but that could cost several thousand dollars to install.
What else to look for? Incredibly, there’s only one recall listed on the Waka Kotahi database for Leaf and that’s for the new 2018-20 model – nothing to do with the BEV hardware, but rather the park lock actuator plate.
Globally the Leaf rates highly in customer satisfaction surveys and despite being the world’s first true mass-market BEV, seems to have been pretty well sorted right from the start.
Owner/special interest groups are a good source of information. The NZ Nissan Leaf Owners Group on Facebook is a good place to start for personalised buying advice; there are plenty of members there keen to help.
There are also more technically focused groups devoted to all things Leaf. For example, in 2018 Kiwi website Flip the Fleet identified possible failure of the electrically driven brake control unit in Leafs manufactured between November 2012 and February 2016, including five in New Zealand. It was down to a firmware issue.
The same organisation also identified a problem with the SoH figure being displayed on 30kWh Leaf models in 2018: an underestimation in this case, which mean the cars seemed to have a worse SoH than they did (by about 17 per cent). This was also corrected by a firmware update.
DRIVEN readers give positive feedback on their Leaf purchases. Yannick Devos has a 2014 24kWh X model, albeit as a second car (the main ride is a Kia Niro hybrid). The Nissan is used for the "commute/groceries/school run drives... which usually make up 90 per cent of most people's trips.
"It gives the feeling we're at least trying to do something against climate change, instead of just moaning about old days that are gone."
Roy Blissett has a 2014 Autech S model that's covered 60,000km in two years. While he says he can only squeeze out "just on 100km" on the open road (current SoH 77.5 per cent), it's still suitable for over 95 per cent of his driving.
Meanwhile, Gordon Barry has a 2018 Leaf (second generation) that's very much a daily driver, tackling an 80km commute up to six days a week. He's covered 25,000km in exactly a year since purchase: the trip takes about 55 per cent of the battery, which is recharged to full overnight via an eight-amp three-pin plug, "just like the TV".
He cheerfully admits he moved from a diesel Mini Countryman to the Leaf to save money more than the planet, but "as a one-car household, and rural, it works!". He says he'll never go back to fossil fuel.
Most used-import Leafs are sourced from Japan, but it was British-built from 2013 and some regard these as more desirable – because they are rarer and can feature different specification and trim. And everything's in English, of course. You may be able to identify these by Visia, Acenta and Tekna model names.
Beyond that, you’ll know a very early model by its famously overwhelming cream-coloured interior, which can be tricky to keep clean – although if it is, that’s a good indication of a car that’s really been looked after!