- I've driven the Tesla Model 3 in several different versions. I've also sampled an updated version of the Nissan Leaf.
- The Leaf has been in the electric-vehicle market for longer, but the Model 3 is among the best cars I've ever driven.
- Last year, I tested a new, longer-range version of the Leaf: the Leaf SL Plus.
- You can buy the Model 3 and the Leaf Plus for around $40,000 (the mid-range Leaf SV Plus starts at $39,750).
- The Tesla Model 3 is better, but the Leaf Plus has a lot going for it.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Nissan beat Tesla to market with a practical, all-electric vehicle when in 2010 it launched the Leaf.
Tesla caught up, but with the expensive Model S sedan.
The arrival of the Model 3 in 2017 signaled a new era. Now, consumers could choose between the proven Leaf and the stunning new Model 3; the Model 3 had better performance and longer range, but the Leaf was a known quantity.
I recently tested a longer-range version of the Leaf: the 2019 Leaf SL Plus — and was impressed. A 2020 Leaf SL Plus can be had for about $45,000 right now. So I thought I'd compare it with the Model 3. The version I drove was the cheapest; a single-motor rear-wheel-drive Model 3 that can now be had for about $40,000.
Here's how the cars match up:
Here's the Nissan Leaf SL Plus! Looking sharp in "Deep Pearl Blue."
Read our review from 2019.
Pretty much the same Deep Pearl Blue as the Leaf that was a Business Insider Car of the Year finalist in 2018. That car had a single electric motor, producing 147 horsepower, a 40-kWh battery pack, and delivered 151 miles of range on a full charge.
The SL Plus trim level has a 62 kilowatt-hour battery. The larger pack adds roughly 70 miles of range compared to the standard Leaf's 150-mile battery.
The Leaf is the top-selling EV globally, which makes sense as the car has been around since 2010. More than 400,000 have been sold.
The SL trim level is the top-of-the-line version. That's why my test car cost $44,000. The base Leaf, with a smaller battery and less range, starts at around $30,000.
The goal when the Leaf was launched was for the Japanese automaker to embrace a "zero emission" future. It hasn't quite worked out that way, but the company is making progress, and Leaf is still with us.
Hatchback silhouettes aren't typically associated with automotive aggression, and EVs tend to project a mostly virtuous vibe. But the Leaf's fascia is rather bold.
This second-generation Leaf is much sleeker than the first generation that was in production from 2010 to 2017. However, we're talking about a practical hatchback here, so let's not get too excited.
Aerodynamics play a role in increasing EV range, so while the hatch design favors utility, the Leaf's front end has been engineered for airflow: the car has a 0.28 drag coefficient.
The LED headlights are a standout feature.
Overall, the Leaf projects a fairly European identity. That perhaps has turned off some US customers, who have basically abandoned small vehicles in favor of large SUVs and pickups.
The Leaf's "Light Gray" interior was pleasant, if a bit shy of premium. The seats were comfy, and there was a reasonable amount of space to stow small items.
The back seat was about average, space-wise, for the segment.
The Leaf has always received criticism for its "tweener" nature. It's not a luxury car, but it's also not bare-bones. I've always thought it hits a sweet spot for customers who aren't wealthy but who have the means to invest in an EV.
The Leaf's eight-inch color infotainment display looks good, but we aren't the biggest fans of the system's layout. It is easy to use, and Bluetooth device-pairing is a snap. You also have available Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The toggle-button shifter has a slight learning curve. And storage could be better, although there's the usual pair of cupholders between the seats.
An unassuming rear hatch for the most part, but you're quickly informed of this EV's nonpolluting pedigree.
The Leaf's cargo area is an excellent 24 cubic feet, expandable to 30 with the rear seats dropped. The hatch's opening is a tad awkward, with a sort of oval shape.
Charging is unchanged from the Leaf we tested last year, at least as far as the ports go. There are two, one for 240V "Level 2" charging and one for fast DC charging.
Our Leaf SL Plus had a 160-kilowatt electric motor, making a juicy 214 horsepower with 250 pound-feet of torque.
The Leaf also has regenerative braking. And when the e-Pedal feature is engaged, it's possible to drive the car using motor braking almost alone, putting power back into the battery.
There's also an onboard charge cable for "trickle" top-offs using a regular wall outlet for 120V power. Using 240V, the Leaf Plus is back to 100% in 11.5 hours. Fast DC charging, however, can achieve 80% in 45 minutes.
We used the ChargePoint network and did fine with two rounds of 240V charging over the course of a week. It's also possible to install your own 240V ChargePoint unit at home; one can be purchased for about $500, with installation handled by a qualified electrician.
We also used the Nissan Connect iPhone app to monitor charging and to manage climate control and vehicle diagnostics.
So how does the Nissan Leaf Plus stack up?
If you can afford the payments — which come in at about $670 a month, on a 72-month loan — you'll spend around $54 a month on electricity, according to Nissan, the US Department of Transportation, and the EPA (the cost is based on 15,000 miles of annual driving). Gas could cost you more than twice as much for a comparable petrol-burning machine.
The Leaf Plus is also still eligible for the $7,500 federal tax credit, as well as various state incentives.
And you don't have to buy the top-spec SL trim, like our tester — you could opt for the $38,200 Leaf Plus and still get a 62-kilowatt-hour battery pack.
OK, you won't feel compelled to buy the Leaf Plus if your budget is more Nissan Versa, a $14,730 sedan that runs on gas (but not much gas) and could be had for less than $260 a month.
Electric cars, of course, aren't cheap (although you can pick up a used Leaf from the previous generation for around $10,000). But if you have the means and are serious about making the transition from fossil fuels to EEE-lec-tricity for propulsion, the Leaf Plus' 215 miles of range could flip your switch.
The 6.5-second 0-to-60 mph should also flip your switch. That's darn quick, for a car that outwardly resembles something you'd find parked on the streets of Paris and used mainly for baguette runs. My beef with the Leaf, compared to other EVs is that it felt solid yet sluggish. Against the Bolt, the shorter-range Leaf seemed to lack snap.
Not so anymore. The larger battery and more peppy motors have made the Leaf Plus feel downright sporty. My test car also included a suite of driver-assistance features (Nissan's ProPilot, for example, which can handle steering assist), so the Leaf has become a rather complete package that, for $45,000 as tested, was genuinely packed with content.
Now let's check out the Model 3!
I drove what was at the time a $57,500 Model 3 and raved about it in my review.
We also named it a runner-up for Business Insider's 2018 Car of the Year.
The Model 3 in "Standard Range Plus" trim with rear-wheel-drive and the "Partial Premium Interior" is the least expensive version available on Tesla configurator. It's about $40,000.
I also briefly sampled the $78,000 Performance version of the Model 3 when it first came out. The white interior is really something special — I can see why it's popular.
I spent a week with my test car, running it through its paces.
Read the review.
The Model 3 is a sharp set of wheels, designed by Tesla's Franz von Holzhausen to embody forward thinking without taking any wild and crazy chances.
The Model 3 is sleek, not overly curvaceous, and something of a hybrid of midsize and full-size sedan. No grille because … there's no gas engine to feed air!
The roof is a continuous curve of glass, with a fastback rear hatch/trunk culminating in a crisp spoiler. The recessed door handles and the window trim are the only significant chrome on the Model 3.
The Model 3 is unadorned except for the Tesla badge. By the way, fit and finish on my test car were superb.
The Model 3 has plenty of trunk space — and an offbeat hatch design to enable that continuous glass roof.
With its "frunk," the Model 3 offers an ample 15 cubic feet of space. This gives the Model 3, a sedan, versatility on par with SUVs.
You have to be a minimalist to love the Model 3's interior. The leatherette upholstery is animal-free, and the flash is … well, there isn't any.
Tesla makes its own seats. The Model 3's are quite comfy and supportive for more spirited driving, and the front seats are heated. There was decent legroom in back.
The Model 3 has no key fob. Instead, that duty is handled by a Tesla smartphone app …
With a credit-card-size valet key as a backup.
In this configuration, the Model 3 can dash from 0 to 60 mph in about five seconds.
That's speedy enough for anybody, and the quality of that speed is very Tesla and very electric-car. EVs have 100% of their torque available immediately, which means potentially neck-snapping velocity.
A Model S P100D with Ludicrous Mode engaged can do zero to 60 mph in less than 2.3 seconds. That's jarring acceleration. The Model 3 is calmer. But not too calm. You are rewarded when you punch it.
The Model 3 also has regenerative braking, which can be customized to be heavy or light. Heavy acts almost like an engine brake and permits the driver to actively brake much less frequently than with a gas vehicle, while recharging the battery. Light mitigates the sense that the Model 3 is tugging when coasting.
For what it's worth, the Model 3 I tested lacked a Ludicrous or Insane mode — the default is quick acceleration. But you can switch that to Chill Mode, which dials it back. And I did. Chill is considerably easier to live with.
The showstopper for the Model 3 has always been the dashboard, beginning with the steering wheel. Unlike nearly every other steering wheel on the planet, the Model 3's has almost no knobs or buttons.
The large, central touchscreen handles almost all vehicle functions. The left side is reserved for the readouts you'd normally find on an instrument cluster.
Navigation is the standout feature, but the voice-recognition system is about the best I've ever used in a modern vehicle. The Tesla-designed audio system is superb, and connectivity with devices is a breeze.
I recharged my tester Model 3 at a Supercharger location near my home. But most owners will charge overnight using a "Level 2" setup at 240 volts. It's also possible to trickle charge using the onboard cable and a standard wall outlet.
Free supercharging for life used to be a great perk of Tesla ownership. But as ownership has grown, Tesla has adjusted the deal.
The company also discourages owners from using Superchargers for casual daily fill-ups, preferring they plug into slower charging options at home and save supercharging for longer trips.
A Supercharger will recharge a Model 3 Long Range from zero to full in about an hour. Using 240-volt power will get the job done overnight, and a basic wall outlet will get you a mile an hour in an emergency.
Unlike a quick gas-n-go, you do have to cultivate some patience with Tesla's recharging process.
In case you're wondering about Autopilot: I've reviewed the technology before and consider it very advanced cruise control. I strongly recommend against ever going hands-free with it.
The Model 3 is engineered to someday have full self-driving capability. That day hasn't come yet. But it will surely add value if it does.
I used Autopilot with the Model 3 during my longest test, and it performed as it always has for me in other Tesla vehicles. But the truth is that I liked driving the Model 3 so darn much that I didn't flip Autopilot on very often. I can't be the only person who feels this way.
Teslas are a blast to drive — that ever-present temptation, to be honest, undermines Autopilot. I enjoy driving. For what it is, Autopilot is an excellent technology.
So what's the verdict?
The Model 3 takes it!
But it was closer that you might think. The Model 3 has longer range, is faster from 0 to 60 mph, has a cooler infotainment system and more forward-thinking interior design, exudes exterior styling mojo, offers better recharging options, and is reasonably well put together.
The Leaf Plus comes in second in all of those areas except build quality. But the Leaf Plus is certainly the nicest EV that Nissan has thus far created, and it's much easier to simply go down to your local Nissan dealership, pick one up, and drive it home.
In fact, the closeness of the Leaf to the Model 3 is a somewhat uncomfortable reminder than the Model 3, while impressive, is more of a high-mid-market to low-end-premium vehicle. The Leaf is electric motoring for the masses, more or less, and so is the Model 3. But the Model 3's current customer set is being asked to accept a more bare-bones car than they'd get from, say, Jaguar with the I-Pace or Audi with its e-Tron.
If I had to choose, I'd buy the Tesla. But I could also easily be happy with the Leaf. And if I bought the Leaf, I wouldn't be eyeing allegedly nicer vehicles from luxury brands, whereas with the Model 3 I might not.
That all said, this comparison did make me recollect the Model 3's general brilliance. It genuinely is a staggering achievement. While the Leaf Plus definitely gets the job done, the Model 3 demonstrates why Tesla is investing in making electrified transportation more than an A-to-B proposition, powered by something that isn't a fossil fuel. As I've said before, the Model 3 appeals to the automotive philosopher in me: It's crammed with ideas.
And the Model 3 by its nature makes you feel better about yourself. It is intellectually stimulating, a mood-improvement machine. I perked up every time I slipped behind the wheel, and most days I had to deal with rainy Northeast gloom. Gray skies weren't going to clear up, but it didn't matter, because the Model 3 helped me put on a happy face.
It can blast to 60 mph in five seconds, it can drive itself with your supervision under some conditions, and it has a five-star safety rating from the government. What's more, it's a California-made, all-electric car from the first new American car company in decades.
But the truly astounding thing is that Tesla, in only about five years of seriously manufacturing automobiles, could build a car this good.
If you're debating between the roughly $40,000 Nissan Leaf SL Plus or a slightly cheaper Leaf trim level and the approximately $40,000 base Tesla Model 3, the decision isn't hard. You won't be unhappy with the Leaf, but with the Model 3, you will follow some serious bliss.
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