The Infotainment System
Nissan taps Clarion for the Leaf's infotainment system. The system is engineered exclusively for the Leaf, and resembles an aftermarket double-DIN head unit with physical buttons to fill the center stack. It’s powered by Windows Embedded Automotive, but isn’t as refined as Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch or even the first-generation Kia UVO system. The UI is Spartan, focusing strictly on function. There aren’t any eye-catching menus or colors, just a boring blue screen with elementary-looking buttons. The UI's lack of detail can probably be traced back to the seven-inch display, which Nissan specifies as having an insanely low 320x240 QVGA resolution.
At the heart of the Leaf’s infotainment system is a Renesas SH-NaviJ2 SoC engineered solely for use in vehicle navigation systems. The 32-bit RISC SoC features a single SH-4A core, which is dated compared to platforms powered by Nvidia's Tegra or Intel's Atom. For those unfamiliar with the Renesas SH-4 architecture, it powered the Sega Dreamcast that debuted nearly 15 years ago. We were unable to confirm the exact clock rate Nissan enables, but Renesas offers the SoC in 336 or 400MHz variants. Although the processor is ancient by modern standards, the UI responds quickly enough to keep us satisfied.
In terms of music functionality, the Nissan Leaf infotainment system has an auxiliary input, USB connectivity, SiriusXM and standard AM/FM radio. The USB port enables support for flash drives, though it bears noting that folder and album navigation is unrefined. The system immediately starts playback of whichever folder you select, rather than letting you browse the directory and select a song first. The Infiniti JX35 we evaluated a couple of years did the same thing. The radio is fairly vanilla, supporting playback-only. There is no time-shifting SiriusXM or support for HD Radio, unfortunately.
Nothing about the standard navigation system stands out in terms of map quality or usability. However, certain tweaks added exclusively for the Leaf do improve the EV experience. Nissan includes plenty of charging stations as points of interest, along with a range map.
The most useful function is the ability to locate POIs along the way to your destination, should you specify one. This simple feature ensures you don’t have to backtrack to find a charging station. There are also different routing modes to help you maximize range. Typically, this means using side streets. Unfortunately, the charging station POIs are a little outdated. You’re better off using PlugShare on Android or iOS to locate them.
Smartphone connectivity is enabled through Bluetooth. We didn’t have any problems pairing the Leaf and a Nexus 5; the car was able to download the phonebook and read text messages, even. One small nitpick that could be embarrassing to anyone stuck in traffic: everyone can hear what plays through the car speakers from outside. I stumbled upon this one when my wife pulled into the driveway and finished a phone conversation; I heard the person on the other end of the line over 20 feet away.
Nissan completes the Leaf infotainment system with a telematics system dubbed CarWings, which is complemented by an iOS or Android app that lets you view and control certain functions remotely, such as battery level, driving range and charge status. Additionally, you're able to turn on the climate control system to warm or cool the interior.
CarWings relies on data connectivity provided by AT&T. However, the telematics system operates on an ancient 2G network that AT&T plans to shutter by 2017. We reached out to Nissan for insight on its plans once AT&T's network is turned off, but the company isn't ready to say anything yet.
CarWings also delivers live updates to the navigation software. That subsystem is able to dial in and check the status of charging stations listed as POIs to inform the driver if they're available for charging. It can even download your favorite RSS feeds to the car and read them to you, which is pretty useless.
CarWings could be a fantastic feature. In practice, however, it's slow to respond. To be fair, you do receive text messages if someone unplugs your vehicle when it's charging or when the charging process finishes, and those go out fairly quickly.
Nissan gives all owners free access to CarWings, for now. The company originally promised three years of access before owners had to start paying, but has since extended the free subscription service and will provide a 90-day notice before switching to a paid model. CarWings is a nice value-added feature. However, it's not worth a subscription.
Although we dig integrated features, charging station status is easier to access through your smartphone and the mobile EV apps from ChargePoint, Plugshare and Blink. Nissan's CarWings functions are just too clunky and slow compared to third-party apps that get updated a lot more often.