I’m starting here, because the most significant difference between the Bolt and Leaf is arguably the battery. The Bolt starts at about $7,000 more than the Leaf, and that’s largely due to it’s larger, better battery. The Bolt’s 60kwh battery is rated for 238 miles of range, compared to the Leaf’s 40kwh battery, which is rated for 151 miles. Also important, the Bolt’s battery is liquid cooled, while the Leaf battery is only air-cooled. This may have a significant impact on battery degradation.
All batteries degrade (lose capacity) over time. However, heat is particularly bad for lithium ion batteries, and causes them to degrade faster. It’s been well documented that early Leafs suffered from higher-than-normal degradation areas with hotter climates, like Arizona. Perhaps even more concerning, some recent results show that the 2016 and 2017 Leafs with 30kwh batteries are degrading even faster than older models.
The 40kwh battery in the new Leaf does use a different battery chemistry, and it’s possible it will hold up better than previous batteries. It’s to soon to know for sure. But given Nissan’s track record, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Meanwhile, the Bolt’s liquid-cooled batteries should suffer from a lot less heat-related degradation, since the Bolt can reliably keep the battery from getting to hot. Early models of the Chevrolet Volt’s (also liquid-cooled) have shown little to no apparent degradation—but that’s partially due to way the Volt’s battery worked—there was significantly more battery capacity available in the pack than advertised, so as the battery degraded, the Volt would hold less in reserve, making capacity appear the same.
All that said, both cars have battery capacity warranties. Chevy offers an 8-year, 100,000 mile warranty that guarantees 60% capacity minimum remaining. A pretty steep drop, but even at 60% capacity, the Bolt’s range will still be about the same as a 2018 Leaf!
Nissan’s warranty says it kicks in when batteries drop below “9 bars” (out of a total of 12). That would appear suggest about 75%, but based on previous Leaf bars, it’s unlikely the bars are linear (in my first Leaf, a 2013, the it took about 15% capacity loss to lose 1 bar, then the next bar was lost after another 6% capacity loss).
Overall, the battery in the Bolt is absolutely superior, and if you care more about range than anything else, it’s likely to be your first choice.
In-Vehicle Range Estimation
Speaking of range, something that might not be apparent on a test drive is the different ways the vehicles handle range estimation.
In my experience, the Bolt is a bit more conservative than the Leaf. The Bolt seems to under-estimate range with city driving. The Leaf, by contrast, does the opposite—often giving overly optimistic estimates when starting after a full charge, then going down faster than expected.
A contributing factor to the over / under estimation difference is highway driving—the Leaf drops range quicker on the highway than the Bolt.
I prefer the Bolt’s under-estimation. I ended up trusting the Bolt’s range, while I always assume the Leaf’s real range is less than stated. The Bolt also has an optional range display that presents minimum and maximum range, as well as predicted range, based on your recent driving habits.
UPDATE: Addendum about the Leaf’s range: It appears that the Leaf holds back a significant portion of the battery in reserve compared to what’s displayed. That is, when the gauge says — miles and — percent remaining, there is actually about 10% left. So perhaps it’s range estimation is not as optimistic as I initially thought.
Real World Range
In my experience, in moderate weather when you don’t need to use the heat or AC, the Bolt can easily exceed it’s range, getting 250+ miles if you are driving mostly in the city.
Of course, this drops a fair bit in the winter. In winter (here, temps can get around freezing or a bit below), using only the seat & steering wheel heater, I could get close to 200 miles mostly city driving. If using the heater, this dropped even more, getting me closer to about 170 miles.
In the Leaf, I can get about 170 miles in moderate weather without climate control, with mostly city driving, but I have to be more careful about how I drive to get that high (driving in eco mode, accelerating slowly, etc). In winter, I get closer to 100 miles.
The difference in range really made a difference to me in how I felt about the battery. The Bolt completely eliminates range anxiety for me. I virtually never thought about range, and just plugged in every few days. I didn’t particularly try to drive efficiently to maximize range. Honestly just didn’t think about it.
While 150 miles is a very comfortable distance for my needs, with the Leaf, I still kept my eye on the battery percentage, thought about trying to drive efficiently, and kept in mind how far I would be driving and when I would be charging next.
The good news is that both cars really opened up a lot more flexibility than I had with my 2013 Leaf, but there’s no doubt the Bolt was the closest I’d been to not even having to think about it.
One final point. The Bolt & Leaf use different plugs for fast charging. If you plan on taking trips longer than your range, you really need to have fast charging along the route, to avoid having to stop and charge for 4-8 hours at a time.
The Leaf uses CHAdeMO. The good thing about that is you’ll find free ones at a lot of Nissan dealers. The bad thing is that CHAdeMO is the Japanese standard, and it doesn’t look like it will become the U.S. one.
In the U.S., it appears that CCS (which the Bolt uses), is more likely to become the fast charging standard.
Where I am, there are still more CHAdeMO chargers than CCS ones, and new installations mostly have both CHAdeMO and CCS. Since the Leaf is the best-selling electric car still, it’s likely that CHAdeMO won’t go away for a while, but still, CCS seems more likely to be future-proof, at least in the U.S.
UPDATE: There are some issues with the 2018 Leaf when taking very long trips, and using multiple rapid charges. See our blog post for details.