Face-Off: 2015 Nissan LEAF S vs. 2018 Tesla Model 3 LR

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Last week, Arthur Driessen — the intrepid Tesla Model 3 explorer crisscrossing the United States in his Tesla Model 3 — brought his 2018 Model 3 LR to CleanTechnica’s sumptuous New England regional offices, otherwise known as Blueberry Pointe, my home in Rhode Island. Since picking up up his car in April, 2018, Arthur has put almost 90,000 miles on the car in his quest to visit every Supercharger location in the US.

Tesla Model 3
Image via Tesla.com

Styling: Just over a year ago, I purchased a used Nissan LEAF S. Seeing the two cars side by side was interesting. The Model 3 is sleek and futuristic. It is about as handsome as any mass produced vehicle available. The LEAF? In comparison to the Model 3, it is a bit frumpy looking, a little dated in appearance. Put both cars in a parking lot and people will be drawn to the Tesla. Most would ignore the LEAF. Score one for the Model 3.

Ride: I had never ridden in a Model 3 until Arthur took me for a drive through the countryside. The car’s suspension is firm but comfortable. It swallows bumps and dips with ease. Nothing seems to upset its poise. The LEAF also has a well controlled ride but the Tesla is just that bit more stable and predictable. Score two for the Model 3.

Acceleration: The only street car I have ever ridden in that was as quick as the Model 3 LR was my neighbor’s Mustang Boss 302 back in the ’70s. The single-motor Model 3 LR does not have the eyeball squashing pickup of a Model S P100D with Ludicrous Mode, but it is more than adequate for 99.997% of all driving situations. Especially from a standing start, the acceleration is just stunning. It flattens out a bit as the car gathers speed, but it’s still delightful. The LEAF has good acceleration, but nothing like the Tesla. Score three for the Model 3.

Interior: Let’s face it. The Model 3 interior is light years ahead of the LEAF’s interior. That minimalist dash with the single touchscreen makes the LEAF dash look like a steampunk-inspired throwback. The LEAF interior is fine. The Tesla interior is brilliant. Score four for the Model 3.

Audio: The sound system in the Model 3 is fantastic — clearly the best I have ever heard in any car or home environment. The three-part harmonies of Crosby, Stills, & Nash never sounded so good. The LEAF audio system is OK but nothing special. Score five for the Model 3.

Steering: The steering wheel in the Model 3 feels like a scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon. The car carves smooth, consistent arcs through linked S turns and imparts a sense of confidence and control that is a step up from any other vehicle I have experienced. The steering in the LEAF is good. I can strafe the apex of my favorite off-ramp at 70 mph just the way I did with my Mazda RX7. But the Model 3 is more accurate, more precise. Score six for the Model 3.

Passenger Space: This one is a bit of tossup. The Model 3 has a little more leg room front and rear, but the LEAF has a hatchback, which means bulky items fit more easily in the LEAF than in the Tesla. But the Model 3 has that awesome glass roof that further expands the sense of space for those inside. Score seven for the Model 3.

Navigation: The Model 3 has a superb navigation system that now features Google Maps. The LEAF has no navigation capability. Although, anyone with a smartphone can use the Google Maps app and mount their phone on the dashboard. But the small phone screen cannot compare with the enormous Model 3 screen for clarity and ease of use. Score eight for the Model 3.

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Driving Assistance: This one is no contest. The Model 3 has the full suite of driver-assist functions — adaptive cruise control, forward emergency braking, and lane centering. It also has Tesla’s much ballyhooed Autopilot. The LEAF has none of those things. Score nine for the Model 3.

A note about Autopilot: I had never experienced Autopilot before and I was underwhelmed by it. I live in an area that has many two lane roads that occasionally widen out into passing lanes on one side or the other. The Model 3 always sought the double yellow center stripe even when driving at or below the speed limit, whereas a human driver would tend to stay to the right in the passing areas unless overtaking a slower vehicle.

For some reason, every time a passing lane occurred on the roads we were driving on, a large truck was approaching from the opposite direction. The impression was, at least for a brief moment, that the Tesla was steering directly into the path of the oncoming truck. It was very unsettling, although I grant that more familiarity with the system would probably alleviate some of my initial apprehension.

Also, the self steering around curves felt clunky. A human driver tends to anticipate a turn, turn in a bit early, hold the line through the turn, then unwind the wheel gradually upon exit. The Tesla waited too long to initiate the turn, seemed to make a number of mid-corner corrections, and waited too long to finish the turning maneuver. The Honda Clarity I test drove last year did a better job of taking turns the way a human driver would, but it was unable to cope with sharper turns at all.

I found this behavior disconcerting and not confidence inspiring. I was always hyper vigilant during turns because the system left me doubting it would follow the correct path. As a result, I was never able to relax behind the wheel and enjoy the ride. I probably would not use Autopilot nearly as much as my host did on anything but controlled access highways with nothing but gentle turns.

Nissan LEAF
Photo by the author.

Price: The Model 3 LR single motor car is not available at this time on the Tesla website. The Standard Range Plus lists for $38,990, while the Long Range version with dual motors lists for $47,990. Let’s split the difference and say a LR single motor car would cost about $43,000 if you could still order one.

I paid $10,000 for my used Nissan LEAF. It is suitable for 90% of my driving needs in terms of how far it can go on a single charge. I enjoy driving it, especially knowing I am not using a drop of gasoline along the way. Score one for the LEAF.

Years ago, Road & Track liked to do comparison tests between three or more similar cars. They put each of them through a battery of tests, totaled up the scores, and declared a winner. But then they followed up by asking each member of the team, “If it was your money, which car would you buy?” Those results often differed significantly from the official results.

Some people feel they need a 4 bedroom house with 3 bathrooms, a 3 car garage, and a “media room.” Others are content with a traditional Cape or ranch house. The rest of this analysis is strictly subjective and many of you will disagree with my conclusion.

One of the basic principles of economics is that every dollar you spend on one thing is a dollar you cannot spend on something else. We have to make choices and it is those choices that make the study of economics so interesting.

My choice is the used Nissan LEAF. It does 90% of what I need a car to do, but costs about 20% of what I would spend to drive a new Tesla. Since this category is worth 10 points, I hereby declare the 2015 LEAF the official winner! Your mileage may vary. See dealer for details. And if you would come to a different conclusion, good on you and drive happy. May the EV force be with you!

Editor’s note: As usual, I love and appreciate Steve’s honesty and his special way with words and full stories. There is no secret that we at CleanTechnica have been fans of the Tesla Model 3 and have cheerfully reported on its sales success. However, we have also routinely highlighted the amazing deals you can get on used electric vehicles. Basically, in my point of view, the two options provide the best offers for shoppers of two main types: 1) the type that wants the newest tech and best performance for a survivable price, and 2) the type that wants the best, most economical deal on a solid, good, everything-you-really-need vehicle. Steve’s analysis here expresses this pair of complementary options superbly, and I think deserves some extra thanks for somehow threading the needle on a topic that so quickly and so easily turns into one hot mess of EV fan debate. He presented both points in lucid, convincing, uncontroversial, and non-tribalistic ways. Yes, a Model 3 is a wonderful vehicle and it’s clear why it sells so well. On the other hand, yes, you can get used electric vehicles for a lot less money that could, depending on your preferences and needs, offer more value for the dollar. Both choices are great choices. Both lead to very happy owners and reduced vehicle emissions. Steve said it all better, but I thought I should emphasize the clever literary needle threading he did there. He is now permitted to return to the beach for relaxed excessive lounging and philosophizing, or whatever he does there. —Zach

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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