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Just as the Toyota Prius defined the hybrid vehicle for the American market, the Nissan Leaf shaped our idea of the electric vehicle (EV). Sure, electric cars have been around since the birth of the automobile, and they made a return in the 1990s with the General Motors EV1, but the Nissan Leaf, which debuted in 2010, was the first successful mass-produced EV.

The Leaf has many more competitors as it heads into the 2013 model year, but remains a leader in its class. Notable changes are a new 6.6 kW charging system that dramatically reduces the amount of time needed to charge batteries, and a new base model that drops the entry-level price of the Leaf by about $6,000. Also added for 2013 are optional leather seats and 17-inch wheels, a Bose audio system and new colors.

The Leaf comes in a trio of trim levels – S, SV and SL – and all three feature an 80 kW AC motor that produces 107 horsepower and 187 pound-feet of torque. A 24 kWh lithium-ion battery with 48 compact modules provides energy, and a single-speed reducer delivers power to the front wheels. The 2013 Leaf can now exceed the 73 miles that the 2012 model could drive on a single charge. Nissan estimates the Leaf will get 130 MPGe in the city and 102 MPGe on the highway, which clearly beats out its direct competitors – the Ford Focus Electric and Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

Leaf ownership presents some complications. Without gasoline backup, running out of power leaves you stranded. Also, charging stations are still few and far between, and longer trips require special planning. Lastly, the base model has the same internal charger as the 2012 model and requires its longer 4- to 8-hour charging time.

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