When I was a kid I was told that by the time I was 30 we would all be piloting nuclear powered flying cars. Reality, of course, has dictated that gasoline is still the most cost effective way of delivering what the average person considers a “normal driving experience.” In an attempt to change not just how we “fuel” a car, but the very way a car is integrated into our lives, Nissan has released the first volume produced electric car in North America. Yea, yea I know about the GM EV1, Toyota Rav4 EV and the Ford experiments, but let’s be real, Nissan has already sold more Leafs (Nissan tells me the plural is not Leaves) in the first few tsunami-effected months of this year than GM sold during the two years of EV1 production. How did they do it? We borrowed a white Leaf for just under three days to find out why 20,000 have already pre-ordered one of these pure-electric cars.
The first thing you need to learn about an electric car is the term “range anxiety.” First used to describe the 60-mile optimistic range of the EV1, it is something of a real concern with any vehicle that takes several hours to “refuel.” Before badgering Nissan ad nauseam to test the Leaf, my own research indicated that the 90-120 mile range should be sufficient for my 53-mile one-way commute assuming I was able to charge the car at both ends.
When the Leaf was delivered to me bright and early Tuesday morning, I have to admit that range anxiety was already setting in. I had prepared that morning by bringing with me two 50-foot and one 100-foot extension cords just in case (never mind that the car was only about 40 feet from an electrical outlet.) I spent my evening the day before researching charging stations only to find very few on my long trek home. I had already been warned that since a “portable” 240-volt charging station is not officially available (although plenty of forum guys have hacked one together successfully, only the 120V “Emergency” trickle charging cord is provided to the press. Knowing that using this cable would result in long charge times, I plugged the car in the second it arrived.
Of course since I work in an industrial area built in the 1960s when the only electric cars were either in The Jetsons or on the golf course, street parking is the name of the game. This meant I had to resort to running the cord out my office window, across the lawn, over the sidewalk and into the street to charge my parallel-parked Leaf. The beep indicated something was underway and I waited for something magic to happen (I’m not really sure what I expected). It didn’t. It was just an ordinary car refilling very slowly with its fuel of choice: electrons. Once plugged in –and trying very hard not to think of how many laws I was breaking by having a tripwire across the sidewalk– I took out the iPhone 4 that Nissan loaned us to see how the CarWings app works in person. One quick check revealed a range of 108 miles and a charging time of 3 hours on 120V to full.
Normally I take a press car out for an immediate spin, at least around the block to pair my phone to the Bluetooth, see where the iPod goes, check out any whiz-bang features and generally acquaint myself with the car. The Leaf was different however. My irrational fears made me believe that even opening the door would leave me without enough power to make it home, so I decided to wait until lunchtime to go run an errand at Lowe’s. Running a lunch-time errand has never given me chills before, but my 12-mile round trip to Lowes filled me with “range anxiety” as I could only have imagined.
Trying to calm my racing heart as I accelerated to 65MPH in about four-minutes (saving juice) I decided to explore the interior. The Leaf doesn’t come across as being “built to a price” like some of the interior plastics and hard seats I found in the Chevy Volt during a quick spin in November. Instead, the Leaf can be best described as “built to a weight.” That weight savings explains certain features that you would normally expect in a $35,000 car that are missing in the Leaf such as leather seats, lumbar support, squishy dashboard bits, dual zone climate control, or an up-level bazillion-speaker sound system. Fortunately for my six-foot frame, the driver’s seat is surprisingly comfortable, even sans lumbar support, and my six-foot-five partner was as comfortable as he is in any mid-size sedan on the market.
Back to that short trip; I arrived at Lowe’s only to find the doo-dad I was looking for was no longer stocked. It was at that moment I realized driving an electric car may take some adjustment to my usual routine. In truth however this adjustment could be made in any car to save gas, but in an electric car the charging time makes “calling ahead” all the more important. On my way back I visited my favorite private road for a bit of 0-60 testing during which the Leaf ran to 60 in a recorded and reasonable 10.2 seconds. (So much for those 7-second tumors floating around the web last year.) My desire to run to 60 from a stand-still thrice consumed 10-miles of conservative driving battery. Discouraged,(but thankful I had remembered to bag my lunch) I bypassed the fast-food joint and cruised slowly back to the office to resume my illegal trans-sidewalk charging.
Trip distance: 11.8
Average speed: 32.2
Travel Time: 0:26
Average Miles/kWh: 4.1
Range Left: 88mi
Outside Temperature: 58
After pugging my Leaf in, I was reminded I had to swing by Almaden for a meeting after work on my way home. This trip would put additional strain on my range because it involved a longer distance (15 additional miles) and more time on Santa Clara county expressways where high-speeds are mixed with frequent stoplights, a bad combo for efficiency. Fortunately the Leaf includes a standard navigation system to help limit your battery-draining wrong turns, however it lacks a feature which I would find handy: a mode to direct you the most efficient way rather than fastest or shortest distance.
After an additional three-hour 120V charge, the CarWings app said I had a range of 105 miles so I un-plugged, packed my extension cords and was off. The balmy weather of the San Francisco peninsula gradually gave way to the warmer valley temperatures of San Jose as I drove south. I’ll be the first to admit that I love my air conditioning, but I reminded myself that my trip home involved crossing a 2,000ft mountain pass in the dark, so I simmered quietly inside the Leaf.
Trip distance: 43 miles
Travel Time: 1:25
Average miles/kWh: 6.8
Range Left: 59 miles
After my meeting (and 3:30 minute 120V charge) I once again unplugged, packed my cords, and hopped in the car to head home. As it was now dark I discovered the other concept that was new to me: reduced range when using the headlamps. As we all know, it takes electricity to light a bulb and although the Leaf’s trendy LED lamps are much more efficient than your average halogen, they still took a slight but noticeable hit on estimated mileage.
One of the big benefits of the Leaf as a commuter car is the fact that it has none of the maintenance costs associated with a regular car. There is no engine oil or transmission fluid to change, there are no spark plugs, no air filter, nothing to tune-up or smog check, no muffler to rust. The only maintenances items according to Nissan are the brake pads, but as the Leaf does a large percentage of the braking task with the electric motor to re-charge the batteries, expect those pads to last many years without issue even in mountainous terrain.
Speaking of that terrain, my last trip of the day took me up a fairly steep 2,000ft mountain pass on my way home. The high torque from the electric motor and single-speed transmission make driving the Leaf in hilly terrain easier than the 106HP and 207 lb-ft of torque would seem to indicate. The way the motor in the Leaf delivers power is quite unlike anything you’ve ever driven before, so my recommendation would be to just take those performance numbers with a grain of salt until there are more pure electric vehicles on the market to compare against. With my first day drawing to a close and the Leaf giving me a 48-mile to empty indication, I plugged it in hoping that 8-hours of 120V charging might at least get me past the half-full mark. Good thing I put that electrical outlet next to our driveway.
Trip distance: 25.2 miles
Average speed: 46.2mph
Travel Time: 40 min
Average miles/kWh: 4
Range Left: 48 miles
Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance and one “tank of gas” for this review.