The Nissan LEAF certainly doesn’t have a reputation as a serious performance car. With far less power than any Tesla, “semi-independent” rear suspension like you’d find under a Chevy Cavalier, and many similarities with the Versa, the LEAF is widely regarded as an economy car, not a luxury or sports car. It certainly isn’t seen as a real competitor to a Tesla, even an older Model S.
On the other hand, it’s generally a good vehicle, despite my frequent criticism of the unsolved #Rapidgate problem that plagues my 2018 LEAF. Other than that issue, the car has been extremely reliable and cheap to operate over the last 50,000 miles. Despite the lack of power compared to a Tesla, the LEAF can be a very fun car, albeit in different ways than the Teslas I have had the pleasure of driving. For reasons I’ll discuss more below, the LEAF is a surprisingly nimble vehicle and does have a few good cards up its sleeve.
For that reason, I wasn’t that surprised to see how this race, part of the All Japan EV GP, turned out:
I know that not everybody has the time to watch an entire 30-minute video, so I’ll give a quick summary and tell you some key points in the video to skip to.
The video shows a new Nissan LEAF Plus, with the 62 kWh battery pack and a more powerful drive system than any previous LEAF. Over the course of 14 laps, it stays pretty close to last year’s winner: an older pre-facelift Tesla Model S with dual motors. Toward the end, the LEAF manages to pass the Model S and ends up winning the race.
Some of the key points to watch:
- 2:11 — The race begins.
- 4:10 — End of first lap.
- 5:49 — LEAF starts riding the Tesla’s bumper, but loses ground in the straights.
- 10:28 — Lead cars start lapping slowest cars.
- 23:30 — the LEAF passes the Model S.
- 30:00 — Race results.
How did the LEAF beat the Tesla?
There are two things that led to the LEAF beating the Model S: handling advantages and thermal issues on older Teslas.
Even before modifications, the LEAF has some distinct handling advantages. First, the car is much lighter. Like the Tesla, the battery pack’s weight is slung low, and that gives the same handling advantage you get from a lower center of gravity. Unlike the Tesla, the LEAF has a much lighter battery. Not only is it lighter because its capacity is smaller (62 kWh vs 85 kWh), but because the LEAF is much newer. The Tesla appears to be a much older model, probably 2014–2015 P85D. The newest LEAF’s battery cells are much more energy dense than a Tesla a few years older, leading to further weight advantages.
Or, in short, the LEAF’s battery weighs less per kWh than the Tesla’s, and it has fewer kWh.
The second advantage the LEAF has is its Active Trace Control system. For 2018 and 2019 models, even the lowly S package, the LEAF can apply the brakes on one side of the car during turns to help provide some yaw control, allowing the car to handle much better than it naturally would. The Tesla, like many other vehicles, can do this in a limited fashion through its traction control systems, but the LEAF’s system is tuned much more for handling corners and not just for preventing accidents or loss of control. In my own experience, the LEAF is one of the best cornering vehicles I’ve driven, even with stock low rolling resistance tires and the relatively cheap suspension Nissan installs at the factory.
Finally, this particular LEAF has some modifications to improve handling. The video’s description says the vehicle has an aftermarket coilover suspension from SANKO Works, Yokohama ADVAN A052 tires, and upgraded brake pads. I don’t know much about SANKO’s suspensions, but it clearly is reducing body roll and other undesirable effects compared to the stock suspension. Sticky tires are also a big help, and the A052’s water channeling clearly helped him do better in the somewhat wet conditions. Finally, the Nissan LEAF comes from the factory with the same brakes installed on the larger Nissan Rogue. By upgrading the pads, he could stay at speed for longer and brake harder entering the corners.
It’s well known that older Tesla vehicles couldn’t stay cool long enough for good performance in long races. In some cases, the cars have been known to start having power reductions before completing even one lap.
We can see this in this race. In the beginning, the Tesla was not only walking away from the LEAF on straight portions of the track, but running away hard. In the first lap, the Tesla initially almost disappears from view. As the race progressed, the Tesla slowly lost its straight-line acceleration advantage. Between around 5:40 and the end of the race, the LEAF continued to dominate the turns while the Tesla had a harder and harder time escaping again in the straights. Finally, after 23 minutes, the LEAF managed to pass around the starting line, and the Tesla couldn’t catch up for the rest of the race.
While the LEAF is known for not having any battery cooling, the driver’s display was set to monitor battery temperatures for the whole race. Clearly, he was keeping an eye on the temperatures and adjusting driving accordingly to finish the race before power loss occurred. Also, the cloudy, wet, and cool conditions are ideal for the LEAF’s passive air cooling to work best. This allowed the car to avoid power reductions and the dreaded “turtle mode” from rearing their ugly heads.
This Race Shows How Far Ahead Tesla Is
Before any fanboys start crying in the comments, I want to point something important out. This is a race between a 2019 Nissan EV and a 2014 or 2015 Tesla. Obviously, it wasn’t a fair fight at all from the standpoint of comparing the manufacturers.
In 2014, Nissan was still struggling with defective batteries that would lose capacity far faster than they should. The LEAFs of those years had HALF the power of the 2019 LEAF and less than half the range. When Tesla built the Model S in this race, the LEAF was so far behind that it took the company another 4–5 years to catch up.
But then again, they didn’t catch up at all. A 2019 Model S or Model 3 probably wouldn’t suffer the same fate in this race. Better cooling systems, better motors, and better handling all would make this a much harder challenge. If the other manufacturers can’t work a little harder on their EVs, Tesla will continue to be the car from their future indefinitely.
Editor’s note: A Model S is also a much more expensive vehicle than a LEAF. Though, as Jennifer notes, a 2019 Model 3 (similar pricing to a LEAF) would surely crush a 2019 LEAF. —Zach