2013 Nissan Leaf at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show

Competes with: Chevrolet Volt, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Toyota Prius Plug-In
Looks like: A lot of small — but important — improvements could lift the Leaf's dismal sales
Drivetrain: 107-hp, 80-kWh electric motor with electrically variable transmission; front-wheel drive
Hits dealerships: February

Time will tell if a less-expensive trim level plus improved range and available faster charging can help the Nissan Leaf, which has struggled on the sales front since it arrived in late 2010. But that's what Nissan is hoping for with the 2013 version. There is a new Leaf S trim level, which slots below the SV and SL. Pricing is still pending, but it should start well below the 2012 Leaf SV's $27,700 (after a $7,500 federal tax credit) thanks to a number of equipment deletions: alloy wheels, a 7-inch dashboard display, cruise control, a navigation system and two of the six stereo speakers.

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The bigger news is a new 6.6-kilowatt onboard charger that comes with the SV and SL. It reduces charging times on a 220-volt (Level 2) outlet to just four hours versus the earlier seven. The faster charger is optional on the Leaf S, which otherwise gets a 3.6-kW charger to accept a 220-volt charge in last year's seven-hour span. All trims also accept a 110-volt trickle charger that plugs into a standard household outlet; a Level 3 DC quick charger is standard on the SL and optional on lesser trims.

The onboard charger now sits in the front of the Leaf, rather than the rear, which improves cargo room to 24 cubic feet — a huge improvement of 9.5 cubic feet over the 2012 Leaf. With the seats folded, cargo room increases to 30 cubic feet from last year's 24.

Nissan says range improvements come courtesy of better aerodynamics and a wider range of regenerative braking. We hope the braking changes don't compromise the Leaf's brake-pedal feel, which is excellent as regenerative brakes go. SL and SV grades get a "B" drive mode that increases regenerative braking during deceleration, as well as a more efficient hybrid heating system. The EPA rated the 2012 Leaf’s range at 73 miles on a full charge, but the agency has yet to rate the 2013 model.

Additional features on the Leaf SL include leather seats and 17-inch alloy wheels (versus the prior 16s); Nissan's Around View Monitor and a Bose stereo are now optional. The available navigation system adds Eco routes that maximize efficiency, as well as Google Places searching and Pandora functionality. All Leaf models get heated front and rear seats.

For 2013, Nissan moved Leaf production from overseas to Smyrna, Tenn., alongside half-dozen other Nissan and Infiniti products. The automaker also produces the Leaf's lithium-ion battery in Smyrna. After two dismal sales years, things can only improve. Nissan sold just 9,819 Leafs in 2012 — about even with 2011 and well short of the automaker's goal of 20,000 sales for the year. The rival Chevrolet Volt sold more than double that figure (23,461) in 2012, and even Toyota sold more Prius Plug-In hybrids (12,750).

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