LEAF vs. Bolt Test Drive Comparison

by Ernie Hernandez on February 3, 2018

Totally redesigned 2018 Nissan LEAF

Totally redesigned 2018 Nissan LEAF

2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV

2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV

How do they stack up?

With the launch of the 2018 Nissan LEAF, I thought I’d provide a write-up of the two vehicles most likely to be duking it out for the affordable EV sales crown this year.

Chevrolet launched the 2017 Bolt in late 2016. Not all markets got the car at the same time, similar to when LEAF launched in 2010. Chevy rolled it out in California first, then proceeded across the rest of the country. Sales have steadily ramped up through 2017 with national sales achieving the 3,000 sales per month mark by the end of the year. LEAF achieved similar sales numbers at its peak in 2014.

Range – Bolt wins

Generally one of the first questions people (still…) ask about an EV is “How far will it go?” EPA says the Bolt will go 238 and the LEAF will go 151. But that’s the wrong question to ask. The better question to ask is (still…) “Will it cover my typical daily driving needs?”

To put that another way, if you drove the Bolt 200 miles every day, you would rack up 73,000 miles per year. Even in commute-intensive Southern California, most drivers don’t cover that much territory. The LEAF, on the other hand, if driven just 100 miles each day would cover 36,500 miles a year. This is well under the stated EPA range of the vehicle, and much farther than the average owner (EV or otherwise) drives each year.

If you truly need a long-range vehicle, I suggest you consider something other than an EV. If you only have one car and really do need to drive long distances on a semi-regular basis, a plug-in hybrid or conventional hybrid may be a better vehicle for you. Although studies have shown that most EV owners own multiple vehicles, and in that case, take the gas guzzler for longer trips.

Style – LEAF wins

I’ve owned three LEAFs, despite how they look. The first gen LEAF is not a pretty car. The same could be said of the first gen Bolt, with its stubby nose leaving much to be desired as there is very little overhang ahead of the front wheels. The Mini Cooper also has a short overhang, but the Mini’s short windshield is very upright, creating its signature boxy look. By contrast, the Bolt’s steeply raked windshield is taller than the hood is long, resulting in proportions that don’t fit within established norms of what a car should look like. The Bolt front end is more akin to a minivan.

Chevrolet Bolt EV with its short hood and long windshield

Chevrolet Bolt EV with its short hood and long windshield

LEAF's all-new look is longer and sleeker than before

LEAF’s all-new look is longer and sleeker than before

Another contributing factor to Bolt’s style, although many might miss it, is that it rides on a four inch shorter wheelbase than the LEAF. While you might think this would improve the maneuverability of the Bolt, the turning circles are almost identical.

Ride quality and comfort – LEAF wins

You’ve seen stretch limos running around town, right? You know why they’re stretched? In addition to offering more room for the party in back, they offer a better ride quality. The closer the rear wheels are to the front wheels, the choppier the ride. As the two axles move farther apart, the ride improves. This is one of the reasons that large cars generally offer a better ride than sub-compacts. On less than perfect city streets, there is a notable difference between the ride comfort of these two cars.

Bolt seats front and rear have less cushioning than LEAF causing some to complain

Bolt seats front and rear have less cushioning than LEAF causing some to complain

Seat design is another factor in the comfort equation. Here the comfort of the LEAF is easily seen as well as felt. The cushion thickness of the Chevrolet seats is significantly thinner than those found in the LEAF. Be sure to fold the back seat down of both vehicles for a clear comparison. Two of the most common complaints submitted from Bolt owners are the seats, and visibility. That long dash creates a big flat space where glare can become problematic.

LEAF rear seats have better side and seat bottom bolsters from improved comfort

LEAF rear seats have better side and seat bottom bolsters for improved comfort

Additionally, LEAF offers an acoustic glass windshield to reduce cabin noise.

LEAF has an acoustic glass windshield that reduces interior noise

LEAF has an acoustic glass windshield that reduces interior noise

Bolt has a long flat dash that can create glare

Bolt has a long flat dash that can create glare

I bring this up because one of the major auto publications has published a comparison test of the LEAF, Bolt, and Tesla Model 3. They acknowledged right up front that throwing the Tesla into the mix against these two wasn’t really fair, but they did it anyway. According to their instrumented testing (which I can’t afford to do), if you want a smooth, quiet ride, the LEAF is the EV you’re looking for. (BTW, the Model 3 they had was an early production run version with an MSRP of $60,500. So much for the affordable Tesla…)

Acceleration and Braking – Both have advantages

The Bolt has more power, and will accelerate more quickly. The LEAFs e-Pedal works more consistently.

Bolt offers 200 horsepower. LEAF gives you 147. That said, is anybody really buying either one of these for street racing? Sure, it’s fun to punch the throttle and blow away the unsuspecting Prius sitting next to you at the light, but that’s not really the demographic that either of these cars is going for.

Most people that have never driven an electric car will be more than pleased with the acceleration either provides. Both are quicker than any similarly sized 4-cylinder small hatch. Also, LEAF, with its horsepower and torque bump this year, offers significantly improved mid-range power over the 2017 model. In my view, this makes it much more fun to drive and can provide a margin of safety over the previous car.

Both Bolt and LEAF offer multiple drive modes with varying levels of regenerative braking. For those unfamiliar with the concept, think of engine braking, except in this case it’s provided by the electric motor. In addition to Drive mode, Bolt has a Low mode which enhances the regen, but it also has a paddle on the steering wheel, that when pulled increases it even more.

LEAF has a new feature called e-Pedal, which is presented as one pedal driving most of the time. In essence – step on the accelerator to go and lift your foot off the accelerator to slow and stop.  Nissan’s drive modes are Drive, Brake mode or B Mode for greater regen, and for the most regenerative braking, toggle the e-Pedal on. This is where Nissan’s engineering team took it to another level.

Regenerative Braking defined

Regen gets talked about a lot, but many people still don’t understand it well.

In a typical gas-powered car, you step on the gas pedal to go. Gasoline is pulled out of the tank, burned in the internal combustion engine which in turn spins the wheels. This is extremely simplified, but you get the idea. In the typical EV you step on the accelerator (it’s okay to still call it the gas pedal, although… you know…) Electricity is pulled out of the battery to turn the electric motor, which in turn spins the wheels. Same basic concept between the two, just a different source of fuel.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In your gas guzzler, when you lift off the throttle, you are no longer taking gas out of the tank, but you’re not putting any into it either. In an EV, when you lift off the throttle, you are putting “gas back into the tank” so to speak.

How?

Cars are now computers on wheels. The electric motor in an EV has only one moving part – the rotor. When it spins, the car moves. In an EV, when you lift your foot off the throttle, a computer tells the electric motor to spin in the opposite direction. The rotor doesn’t care which direction it’s spinning. Think of a jet plane, upon landing, reversing the thrust of the jet engines to slow the plane. The same power that had been pushing it forward is now being used to slow it down. But in the case of the EV, you just turned your electric motor into a generator which is now putting electricity back into the battery. Also, it’s called a regenerative braking system because not only is it putting electricity back into the battery, the effort it takes to do that also slows the car down. Pretty cool stuff!

The problem is this. If you just charged your battery to 100 percent, there is no place for this electricity to go, so regen can’t help slow you down. Nissan learned from their first-generation LEAF owners that they didn’t like it when their car’s driving behavior changed with a full battery. So they took one of those computers and told it to operate the friction brakes on lift throttle conditions when the battery is full. End result – even with a full battery, the e-Pedal will slow the car (using friction brakes) when the battery has a full charge. All without you touching the brake pedal in the LEAF. Oh… your brake lights are also on when you are slowing your LEAF with e-Pedal.

By contrast, the Bolt will only coast with a fully-charged battery when in Low mode because the regenerative braking system does not tie into the friction braking system the same way.

e-Pedal will bring the LEAF to a stop at a traffic light or stop sign, but it does take some getting used to. Learning to recalibrate the connection between your right foot and your brain is easier for some than it is for others. When stopped, the LEAF will not move again until you step on the accelerator. It clamps the brakes and keeps the brake lights illuminated. This is great for those that live in hilly cities like Seattle or San Francisco. The car won’t roll even on an incline. The Bolt doesn’t offer that feature.

Other differences

As with all similar cars, there will always be small differences. Some will be important to one person, but not another. LEAF has sun visors that extend, while Bolt does not. Bolt has a rear seat center arm rest, LEAF doesn’t. LEAF has adjustable seat belt shoulder anchors for different height drivers. Not available on the Bolt. Other differences are not quite as small.

Bolt offers a 10.2 inch dash mounted touch screen. LEAF’s is a puny seven inch screen by comparison. That said, LEAF offers a factory navigation system in addition to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which are also available on the Bolt. Bolt though, relies on the smartphone navigation. Broken phone, no USB cable, or bad cell service? No navigation.

For 2018, Nissan brings a power driver’s seat to the LEAF for the first time. You must get an upgraded trim level, but at least it’s available. Chevy misses out on that creature comfort. Even on the top trim level.

Finally, LEAF brings ProPILOT Assist to the fight. Since I’ve already written about that here, I won’t go over it again. Bolt offers nothing similar.

LEAF vs. Bolt

If you are considering a new EV, you should definitely look at both of these cars to decide for yourself. Some decisions are never easy. Others, the choice is more clear. Consider pricing – LEAF: roughly $30,000 to $39,000. Bolt: roughly $37,000 to $44,000. Getting back to that first question – is eighty eight miles more worth it?

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Real World Nissan ProPILOT Assist – Level One Autonomy

by Ernie Hernandez on October 31, 2017

Nissan ProPILOT AssistTrue driver assistance technology

Nissan’s ProPILOT Assist is a hands-on, driver assistance system. It is not an autopilot system. The technology basically incorporates two features – vehicle acceleration and braking assistance which Nissan calls Intelligent Cruise Control (ICC). ProPILOT Assist combines this with vehicle steering assistance. Nissan’s claim is that this system will reduce driver stress and fatigue in stop and go commute traffic and on long trips. I’ve been able to experience ProPILOT Assist for an extended period of time in both of these situations and have found that the system does pretty much what it says it does. Here are my observations.

Intelligent Cruise Control

ProPILOT Assist button

ProPILOT Assist button

Just like conventional cruise control, when the vehicle reaches your desired speed, the driver sets the target vehicle speed. Pressing the button with a blue icon on the steering wheel activates the system. Pressing the set button enters the desired speed. This activates the Intelligent Cruise Control, which will maintain the vehicle’s set speed. When approaching a vehicle moving slower than the vehicle set speed, a radar sensor in the grill detects the speed of the slower car, and will slow the vehicle speed to match that of the leading vehicle. When that car accelerates or moves out of the lane, Nissan’s ICC will accelerate back to the set speed.

I’ve experienced ICC on various Nissan products for quite some time now, and it works amazingly well. Many other manufacturers have a similar system, and it goes by many names, such as adaptive cruise control. Following distance can be set to long, medium, or short. This is done with the button with three lines on it. System activation defaults to the long following distance every time you turn it on. The following distance varies with the set speed of the vehicle. The faster the set speed, the more space is provided between the cars. This operates pretty much the way that you would normally allow some room between you and the car in front of you. You can tailor that following distance to your personal preference.

When driving in stop-and-go commute traffic, the system will adjust vehicle speed to maintain a safe distance to the car ahead. As freeway speeds vary, your vehicle speed will vary with the car in front of you. As commute congestion increases and speeds slow, your vehicle will pace the vehicle ahead. If traffic ultimately stops, you will come to a stop behind the car in front of you.  When traffic starts moving again, a press of the resume button will reengage ICC.

If you’ve never experienced an advanced cruise control system like this, I recommend that you start with the long following distance to acclimate yourself to its behavior. Once you get more familiar with it, you may be comfortable in reducing the following distance, which can be useful in more congested driving situations.

Steering assistance

Integrated steering assistance takes the system to the next level. Nissan positions a camera at the top center of the windshield, near the rear-view mirror. The camera is looking for the lane markers on each side of the lane that you’re driving in. If there are lane markers on only one side of the lane, the system will not work. Once it recognizes both sets of lane markers, your target path is the center of the lane.

New ProPILOT display - Non LEAF Image

New ProPILOT display – Non LEAF Image

Once you activate the set speed of the system, the camera will notify you when it acquires the lane markers. It does this with an audible tone and by changing the display on the instrument panel. You will see two green lines indicating the sides of your lane, and a green steering wheel just to the left of the lane marker indicators. Once the camera locates the lane markers, the steering wheel will also provide some resistance to your steering input. You still have steering control to override the system if needed, but there is a distinct firmness to the steering wheel response. You will also feel the steering wheel start to make minor adjustments, just as you would if you were steering the car. If the camera loses the lane markers, you will get a double chime and the green lane markers and steering wheel in the instrument cluster will turn gray. Also, the firmness of the steering wheel response is released, and the steering response will return to its typical light touch.

How does it work?

The system works fine. Nissan benchmarked it against similar systems offered by luxury brands. In several weeks of driving in pretty much every imaginable scenario that the system was designed for, it worked great. So, what driving situations is it designed for? Single lane control on a freeway or major highway. It cannot change lanes. In other words, you can’t use it around town or just say “Home, James” and expect to arrive at home in an hour or so.

Long trips

Let’s start with the simplest scenario. Long distance freeway driving with minimal traffic. Once activated, the system easily maintains vehicle control and centers the vehicle in the lane. It works on concrete freeways with aged white lines which did not provide very good line visibility. It works extremely well on newer paved dark surfaces with freshly painted white lines. In a relatively challenging scenario, where the concrete freeway lanes do not coincide with the lane markers due to freeway expansion over time, the system easily tracked the lane markers rather than the contours of the actual concrete lanes.

One scenario that the system found challenging was a concrete freeway with only Botts dots as lane markers, and no painted white lines. While the system worked fine in good light, when passing through shadows (such as an overpass or trees), the camera would not always recognize the Botts dots. Interestingly, while writing this article I learned that Botts dots may be phased out due to this particular issue.

One other issue that I found was in construction zones. Where temporary K-rails or Jersey barriers were in use there were occasional issues. For instance, if there was no shoulder and the K-rail was adjacent to the lane. With one lane marker in shadow with the other in bright sunlight, sometimes the system could not detect both lane markers.

Finally, with the sun low in the horizon and in your eyes, it is also in the camera lens. In this instance, the system warned that it could not see the lane markers.

Commute traffic

Possibly a more typical scenario would be commute traffic. Stop-and-go traffic while tired at the end of a long day is never fun. Once the desired speed is set, the system once again works great most of the time. It will try to maintain your set speed, but if traffic moves more slowly, your pace will be matched to the car ahead of you. This is where shortening the following distance is sometimes helpful. Other drivers often squeeze into the space left by the system (at least in Southern California) if left in the default long following distance. If traffic creeps along at two miles per hour, you creep along at two miles per hour. When the guy in front of you slows to a stop, you will stop roughly a car-length behind him. The system will hold you in place and when the car in front of you starts moving, just tap the accelerator or hit the resume button on the steering wheel and you will continue with your set speed unchanged. Sometimes at extremely slow speeds, it took the camera a little longer to find the lane markers.

When do you need to take control?

The system is designed to work with gentle curves and relatively flat roads. Driving down a 4,000 foot mountain pass with few straights and many bends, the system just said no. I think there is probably a certain level of torque that the system is capable of providing to turn the wheel, and if this threshold is exceeded it can’t keep you centered in your lane.

Another variable is freeway construction zones. If there is a lot of jogging back and forth and changing lane widths, the system did not excel, although it tried hard to maintain its lane centering function.

Finally, if driving in a large city, it’s best not to be in the far right-hand lane. Frequent on-ramps and off-ramps will have the system losing its way if they have no lane markings. Some states use dashed lines where the on-ramp enters or off-ramp exits, and in these situations the system should work fine.

What happens if you take your hands off the wheel?

If you take your hands off the wheel, you will get a visual warning on the instrument panel. If you don’t put your hands back on the wheel, the warning starts flashing and is accompanied by increasingly annoying audible alarms. The system is designed as an assistant for the driver, not a replacement. The system is looking for the resistance that you provide when holding onto the wheel. There is not a grip sensor built into the rim of the steering wheel.

The verdict

ProPILOT Assist does exactly what Nissan says it will do – reduce stress and fatigue in commute traffic or on long drives. While the driver is still in control of the vehicle, and should be prepared to take full control at any time, it makes for much more relaxed driving experiences. Nissan has announced that ProPILOT Assist will be available on the 2018 Rogue and 2018 LEAF. You can likely look for it to make an appearance on future Nissan models as well.

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2018 Nissan LEAF Review

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What’s on your wheels? Not long ago I wrote an article about losing the fourth bar on my 2012 Nissan LEAF. When writing that article, I noticed that our fuel economy was 3.1 miles per kilowatt hour, which I had never really paid any attention to before. This is pretty low compared with many EV […]

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Battery degradation in a 2012 Nissan LEAF Battery degradation exists in electric cars, just as it does in mobile phones and laptops, but many people that are not familiar with electric cars have no idea what that is, or what it means. This article will help to fill in that knowledge gap. First, let’s provide you with […]

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