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Cars

Published on August 18th, 2018 | by Zachary Shahan

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2018 Nissan LEAF vs. Tesla Model 3 vs. Chevy Bolt

August 18th, 2018 by  


I drove a 2018 Nissan LEAF a few days ago, a few weeks after driving a Chevy Bolt and a Tesla Model 3. Today, I again drove a Tesla Model 3, this time an all-wheel drive version of the car. Aside from the significantly larger and more expensive Tesla Model S and Model X, the Model 3, LEAF, and Bolt are the three highest selling fully electric cars in the United States, so I figured it would be most useful and interesting to compare the three of them when writing up my 2018 LEAF review.

However, when I say that these are the three highest selling semi-affordable electric cars on the US market, I’m perhaps not providing enough perspective. The Model 3 sees something like 10–20 times more sales. Suffice it to say, there are some solid reasons why the Model 3 scores so many more sales. If you don’t want to understand why or think you’ve heard it all before and simply don’t want to read the comparisons again, this may not be the LEAF review for you and you might want to move on. That said, I do think the LEAF is a solid car and should get more love than it gets. I also think it could finally sell in high volumes if Nissan finds a way to make the base version $10,000 cheaper than the base Tesla Model 3. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Related: 7 Charts — Tesla Model 3 vs The Competition (US Sales)


Dealership experience: This is not really about “the car,” so I didn’t think to mention it until the last minute, but it’s interesting how much this simple, relatively short experience with other human beings frames your opinion of a company. And Lordy, it sure is a world of difference between the experiences!

As you may know, GM & Nissan are considered to be fairly good at selling electric cars. They have specialists on staff who know a bit about their electric cars and they typically don’t try to force you into a gasmobile. That said, this is basically how I’d summarize the customer service I’ve received on four visits to GM & Nissan dealerships (not direct quotes):

Sales dude: “Oh, you want to drive a car? Okay, I guess it’s my job to help you, hold on a minute.”

Me: Semi-excited comments about the car.

Sales dude (not semi-excited): “Yeah, these cars are cars we have. Some people buy them, most people don’t. We sell a couple electric cars a month. They’re nice, but not really for me. I like [fill in the blank with adjectives, nouns, cat stories, whatever you want].”

Me: Excited comments about the car while driving.

Sales dude: “Yeah, sort of a nice car, meh. I’d buy one, but … meh.”

Of course, back at the desk, they’re eager to find out if I’m going to buy, happy to get some paperwork started, happy to follow up with me later if I need a reminder to consider buying the car (or, rather than that car, some gasmobile they’re pushing).

At a Tesla store, it’s noticeably different. Staff are standing around to answer some questions if I or anyone else has any. On the test drive, the Tesla employee is happy to tell me a bit more about Tesla, ask me about the car I’m currently driving and how I like it (he, of course, doesn’t need to tell me the Model 3 is better), and explain all the features he loves in the Tesla Model 3. Not pushy, but excited. Sort of the opposite of the normal dealer experience, where salespeople are often not excited about the product or the company but are eager to get your paperwork started. The Tesla experience gets you more excited and eager to join the “Tesla family.” The other experience encourages you to stay away from another dealership as long as possible.

To be absolutely fair, all of the Nissan and GM salespeople I’ve ever had have been nice to me and have not really badmouthed the electric cars they sold. But I’ve been far more excited about their electric cars than they’ve been. At Tesla, the salespeople seem to feel lucky just to be there and have enthusiasm for the vehicles oozing out of their eyes — and yet, I don’t feel at all that they’re pushing a car on me.

By the way, completely aside from the salespeople themselves, in a Tesla store, other potential customers are constantly strolling in and out, seem to have a certain level of amazement or at least joy sparkling on their faces, and tend to share a healthy number of smiles. If you’ve been at a normal car dealership, you know that’s not how things roll there. Something new is afoot.

Aesthetics: Aesthetics are hugely subjective. That said, a large number of people think Brad Pitt is attractive. Me? Not so much. In my opinion, the 2018 Nissan LEAF is a good looking car. It also looks quite normal, but “new normal,” not “2010 normal.” I think Nissan has done well with this model and will benefit over time from the attractive, sporty, yet every-person’s-car look of the second-gen LEAF.

The Model 3 is just stunning. It’s a beautiful car. It’s a Brad Pitt or Emily Ratajkowski of cars, which probably makes uninitiate people on the side oft he street think it sells at Porsche or Aston Martin prices. I still remember the lady who was just in front of me in line to reserve a Model 3 at 6:00am in Santa Monica. She had simply seen a Model S on the highway, thought it was beautiful, googled “T car” when she got home, discovered the Model S was out of her price range, found out about the Model 3 a few months later on Facebook, and decided to go early on March 31 to reserve one. I’m curious what she thinks of the Model 3’s aesthetics, but I can only assume she immediately fell in love with the car.

The Bolt: Well, some people like it. And, to be honest, I think it looks much better in person than in pictures. But it’s sort of a chubby, bubbly car. It’s not as sleek and sporty as a Tesla Model 3 or Nissan LEAF. It’s a fade-into-the-crowd hatchback with a Chevy badge that will definitely turn heads — er, I mean, won’t turn heads. To be frank, though, that’s exactly what some people like. … Right?

The doors: The doors on the LEAF and the Bolt are normal. Nice. Normal. The doors on the Model 3 stand out, of course, with the handlebars looking a bit upside down and super sleek. I imagine some people love the door handles and some people hate them, but I have to assume that everyone notices they are different. When I first saw the door handles in pictures and videos online, I wasn’t sure how much I’d fancy them in person, but I’ve ended up very smitten with these little buggers. The handlebars on the LEAF and Bolt? Meh, they’re handlebars. Actually, I had to look at the photos again to remember anything about them.

Infotainment & controls: I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the LEAF’s or the Bolt’s infotainment systems, but the screens were tiny compared to the infotainment screen on a Tesla Model 3. They were better than screens put into such cars 5 years ago, but they still felt a generation or two out of date. Having a Tesla for a while can spoil you like that. In fact, of all the features of the Model 3 I’m itching for while we have a BMW i3 as our daily driver, the phenomenally better touchscreen in the Model 3 is perhaps the item that is most pulling me back to Tesla.

As far as the other cars, I found the backup camera display on the LEAF to be most disturbingly small. It’s freakin’ tiny! Moments after peering into that minuscule display, though, I noticed the 360° bird’s-eye view display — which is right next to the backup camera display. That feature is totally freakin’ awesome. I only used it once, but it made parking even easier and more fun than a backup camera display. The downside is that it is tiny.

All in all, I’d take the big screen of the Model 3 any day. As far as choosing between the Bolt or the LEAF on this front, I don’t currently have a strong preference (I need more time with both cars to decide), but I favor the LEAF at the moment because of that wicked 360° bird’s-eye view feature.

Drive quality: Based on reviews I had read, I have to admit that I expected quite a bit more fun out of the 2018 LEAF and Bolt. Perhaps I just developed overly inflated expectations, but there’s no doubt those expectations were related to time with a Tesla Model S in the garage and now a BMW i3 in the parking lot (no garage this time). The LEAF and the Bolt both have a soft kind of floaty feeling. I imagine some people like that — maybe it feels relaxing. It certainly doesn’t ask you to zip around the curves. The drive quality of both is smooth and quiet, but not sporty. The LEAF felt a little more nimble and natural to me — I think it may have had something to do with the dash and the hood, not the drivetrain, but I need more time with both vehicles to firm up an opinion on that — but the two cars were surprisingly similar in drive quality.

Neither car comes within a basketball court of the Model 3, which has the best drive quality of any car I’ve ever driven. I love our i3, but after driving a Model 3 again today, my mind keeps wandering over to the idea of switching to a Model 3 in a few months. I even planted the seed into my wife’s head. It would be cool to have both cars (plus a Model X), but our bank account doesn’t permit that. The i3 is a super fun little city car, but the solid skateboard base of the Model 3, the idyllic handling, the thick and sporty steering wheel, and the superbly powerful motors just put the Model 3 into too beautiful of a class, a class of its own.

Related: Sorry, Elon — Tesla Model 3 Much Better Than I Expected (#CleanTechnica Review)

Regen: The AWD Model 3 I drove today seemed to have better regenerative braking compared to the RWD Model 3 I reviewed previously (a review, by the way, that Elon Musk retweeted). Or perhaps I was just in a different mood today. Either way, I found the regen on the Model 3 to be slightly better than my i3’s superb regen, which I previously felt was the best I had experienced. Like Kyle Field has written, there’s just a kind of smooth, refined feel to the regen in these two cars. The Model 3’s regen adds in that solid Tesla feel that, again, just makes you feel like you’re in a whole ‘nother class of driving.

The regen on the LEAF is good, as is the regen on the Bolt. I would like a week with both cars to compare better with the i3, but my overall reaction from a couple of short test drives is that their regen is a generation beyond early electric car regen but not in the same league as the Model 3’s regen. When you consider how big a factor one-pedal driving is in EV ownership — and that it’s one of the top advantages of an electric car — having top-in-class regen makes a daily difference. Nonetheless, I imagine no one with a 2018 LEAF or Bolt feels like they got hoodwinked or snubbed. The regen on both cars is also great, and that means it’s 100× greater than the braking experience of any gasmobile.

Semi-autonomous driving: Yet again, my LEAF expectations were a bit too high based on previous content (mostly press releases and Nissan videos) about ProPILOT. My understanding was that it was going to be comparable to Tesla Autopilot. I’d say it is the best semi-autonomous driving suite I’ve experienced outside of Autopilot, but it’s definitely a step down from Autopilot.

Interestingly, you have to keep your hands on the wheel of the LEAF at all times or ProPILOT will shut off. It also can’t change lanes. From my brief drive, ProPILOT seemed to stay in the lane fine without ping ponging between the lines, but I admittedly had a hard time evaluating this since I had to keep my hands on the wheel at all times, since it got deactivated a bit too easily, and since I just couldn’t get a feel for the system to let it completely do its thing.

Like Autopilot, ProPILOT has several options for the traffic-aware cruise control distance (“traffic-aware cruise control” is cruise control that adapts to the car in front of you). The system seems to work well and I think gives plenty of choice regarding how closely you follow behind the car in front.

Charging: Well, I didn’t do any charging, but it’s obvious that the Model 3 wins due to much faster charging than the others when on a road trip. Regarding the LEAF versus Bolt, it depends on your region. In some places the CHAdeMO (Nissan) network is much better for fast charging, whereas in a number of others, CCS shines.

But, yeah — there’s nothing like Tesla Supercharging and the convenience it offers for long-distance trips.

That’s my overall rundown of these three cars and how they compare. I could go further into infotainment, semi-autonomous tech, and simply life with these cars if I had more time with them, but I don’t think that would substantially change any of my opinions. The LEAF and Bolt are solid electric cars for people who just want a “normal” car but one that has the beauty of an electric drivetrain. The Model 3 is in a totally different arena, and is playing to the big crowds. Spending more time in a Model 3 would probably just make me convince myself to buy one, so I’m going to try to stay away for a while. Wish me luck.


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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species). He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor. He's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.



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