Shooting Sparks: The Electric Leaf Plus and Kia Niro Head to Head

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 05, 2019

When I first started reviewing electric cars, they were thin on the ground. I might test one and then not see another for a year. Now they’re coming thick and fast, and I had two—the Nissan Leaf Plus and the Kia Niro EV EX Premium, within a couple of weeks of each other. As it happens, they’re pretty comparable, but I have a preference.

The Nissan Leaf Plus finally has range on its side: 215 miles on a charge. (Nissan photo)

Let’s start with the Leaf. I always liked the basic car, but felt it was a consistent loser in the range wars. The first iteration, introduced in 2011, was EPA-rated at just 73 miles. I liked a lot of things about the car, including its really great information screens, but when I test drove the vehicle, they did a great job of informing me I was running out of charge. To make matters worse, battery reserve declined in cold weather, and when traffic or other bad conditions popped up, you could watch your remaining miles decline. And this when the Tesla Model S (admittedly a much more expensive car) offered 250 miles on a charge.

The 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus can go 215 miles on a charge, compared to 150 for the standard version. It’s got a big 62 kilowatt-hour battery, which makes it comparable to the Kona and (64 kWh) and Chevrolet Bolt (60 kWh). There’s no additional space taken up by the bigger battery—it’s all under the floor. Buyers should really go for this version, which has a list price of $36,550 before income tax rebates ($29,050 with them). As tested in SL Plus form, the car was $43,920. The only options were splash guards ($200), carpeted floor mats and a cargo area mat ($195) and a first-aid kit ($80).

Charging choices include 110, 240 and . . . for fast charging . . . 480 volts. (Nissan photo)

About the only drawback of such a large pack is one actual owners probably won’t encounter—charging via the (provided) 110-volt cable takes forever. I got it back up to top over three days, and the cable itself is really heavy and awkward to use. Buy one of these, and you’re nuts if you don’t spring for the wall-mounted 240-volt charger. Even with one of those, we’re still talking about more than 11 hours for a recharge—a faster onboard charger is needed. So if you get home at 6 p.m. and have to leave the next day at 6 a.m., you’re golden. But keep in mind, that the battery is unlikely to be on zero charge on an average evening.

Performance is pretty darned good, for an econobox. The car is quiet, and without the squeaks and rattles that sometimes make themselves known with a silent power plant. Zero to 60 can be achieved in about 6.8 seconds. Previous Leafs could reach 92 mph, but this one will take your breath away to 106. Something I loved—and my wife hated—is the e-Pedal. It’s not just possible to do one-pedal driving, it’s almost a certainty. I kept it dialed to 11, which has the added benefit of also extending your range via regenerative braking.

The Leaf Plus is angular, in modern Japanese fashion, but I could get used to looking at it. And I’m certainly not adverse to having one around. But on my Car Talk salary, I’m more likely to acquire a 200,000-mile 2011. My neighbor paid something like $7,000 for his used Leaf—the resale value isn’t great. To tell the truth, the whole Leaf platform is getting a bit long in the tooth. A way forward was demonstrated at the Tokyo Motor Show on October 22, when Nissan debuted the Ariya Concept. It's a cool-looking crossover with twin electric motors for all-wheel drive.

Nissan's Ariya Concept may be the next step after the Leaf. (Nissan photo)

So on to the 2019 Niro EV. I liked everything about this car. As tested, this premium model was $47,155, with options (such as a cold weather package) taking it above the $44,000 list. It had such nice features as a furnace-hot heated steering wheel and LED headlights—part of a $1,000 launch edition package. Of course, both the heated wheel and the heated seats get their power from that 64-kWh battery pack, so you feel a little guilty using them.

Not the Leaf. The Niro, with leaves. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Niro isn’t much to look at, but it more than makes up for that with a nicely designed interior and 239 miles of range. It was delivered with about 225 remaining, and that was plenty for what I needed to do in a week. I did plug it in, using a much lighter and better-designed 110 charger than the Leaf’s, but after an overnight connection I had the same range as before—it disconnected for some unknown reason.

I loved the Kona’s intuitive and simple controls. Shifting is via a big, easy-to-use rotary knob. The infotainment was also straightforward, and easily interfaced with my phone. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both available.

The Niro isn't lovely, but it's highly functional. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The electric motor puts out 201 horsepower, which—I’m noting here—is more than my 1993 Saab Turbo. The regen braking in the Kona was less aggressive than in the Leaf, so one-pedal driving was still possible but required more planning.

There’s a Hyundai Kona electric too, with slightly specs and price. The Hyundai is $2,000 cheaper, and offers 258 miles of range. The Niro has more rear legroom, though. A big difference, though, is that the Hyundai is a 50-state car (like the Leaf) but the Niro is available in only 12—all the ZEV states (New England plus the west coast, though Vermont and Maine are excluded) plus Texas, Georgia, and Hawaii. And don’t forget the Kia Soul EV (starting at $36,495, with 243 miles of range), which is also 12-state limited.

Excellent dial shifter on the Niro. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’m not sure why Hyundai gets to go national—maybe because it’s the better-known brand—but I’m sold on the Niro.

I thought I’d add a bit of news here. On October 24, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced via the New York Times op-ed page a new proposal designed to “rapidly phase out gas-powered vehicles and replace them with zero-emission, or 'clean,' vehicles like electric cars.” The goal, he said, is no less than having all the cars on the road be “clean,” by which I presume he means some degree of electrification.

If passed (a huge if) the package of incentives for buyers of American-made EVs would result in 63 million fewer internal-combustion cars on U.S. roads by 2030 and “put America on a path to having 100 percent of new car sales be clean.” Schumer said the program would cost $454 billion over 10 years, but I’ve seen higher numbers. The op-ed closes with some scary stuff about the competition from China, which I’ve seen first-hand. “We have to move fast,” Schumer wrote. “China now accounts for more than half of the world’s electric vehicle market; it overtook the United States as the world leader in 2015. If we don’t match the level of China’s commitment, we will miss an enormous opportunity.”

Gratuitous photo of Donald Trump. (Wikipedia photo)

Let’s be honest, though, this legislation has zero chance of passage. Even if by some miracle it got through the Senate, President Trump’s veto pen would be waiting. Much more likely, actually, is a rollback of the current EV standards—also sought by the aforementioned Trump. That effort got a boost this week when General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, and Toyota sided with the President’s position, which would hold fuel economy standards to 37 mpg (instead of 54 mpg by 2025).

On the other hand, the states of Minnesota and New Mexico just said they are going to become California emissions states, and thus the coalition in defense of tougher standards just got bigger. If the Trump position prevails, according to a new Rhodium Group study, “Relative to Obama-era rules, we find that rolling back national fuel economy standards and revoking California’s waiver could reduce the share of ZEVs sold in 2035 by up to eight percentage points nationwide, which could mean up to 14 million fewer ZEVs on the road by that year.”

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