Our second day with the Leaf gave us a chance to really dive into the charging realities of driving an electric vehicle. Most of us are used to filling up our car when the tank is empty or well on the way to empty. If you are shopping for an electric car, throw this mentality out with the oil changes. Think of your car like a 1990s cell phone: plug it in often if you want to be able to use it later.
If you are considering buying a Leaf, you’ll need to buy a 240V charging station unless you can manage to drive under about 45 miles a day and spend a full 12-hours charging at home. The cost of the 240V home charging station is about $2,200 including “average installation costs.” Fortunately our tax dollars are hard at work, so Leaf buyers qualify for a 50% tax credit on the charger installation and Nissan is kind enough to roll the installation into your Leaf’s financing. If you live in an apartment, condo, or some other place where you don’t have the ability to install a dedicated charging station, you may want to campaign with your landlord or homeowner’s association to get charging stations installed before you jump on the bandwagon.
As I got home late the night before I was only able to charge the Leaf for 8-hours. As soon as I awoke I whipped out the iPhone to monitor the Leaf’s charge remotely. The car indicated it had gained 31-miles worth of charge overnight. Since I don’t have a garage out here in the woods, the low nighttime temperatures of 39-degrees made our 120V charging rate a bit slower than I had observed the day prior. To help conserve power on my commute I used the iPhone app to turn on the heater in the Leaf and get things warm before I got underway.
Since the Leaf contains no engine and the battery and motor generate relatively little heat, Nissan employs a 5kW resistive heating element instead of a heat pump like GM’s EV1. The decision to not use a more efficient heat pump probably lies in cost as Nissan would have had to include a resistive heating element anyway for buyers in northern climates where temperatures drop well below freezing. Fortunately this heater can be run directly off the power coming from the charger so that you can start heating the car before you get in, thereby extending your range. Nissan informs us that the heater consumes approximately 1,500-watts when running in this mode regardless of whether it is plugged into a 120V (Level 1) or 240V (Level 2) charger.
Once underway it was obvious I had some tough decisions to make. My preferred freeway (I-280) to work goes thru hill and dale and is more roller-coaster than highway; this constant hill climbing has an adverse effect on range so I opted for the flat route along the bay. Having successfully lasted 20 hours without becoming stranded, my range anxiety was starting to wane, but only slightly through no fault of the Leaf. The problem was that I could not charge the car completely the night before. If I had a 240V charger in my driveway, 8 hours would have given me 120+ miles based on the way I had driven the Leaf up to that point. My local Nissan dealer informs me that essentially every Leaf they have sold has gone out the door with the 240V charger, so it would seem this is not an issue for most buyers. Let me say this now, the Leaf is not for everyone. If you live somewhere that you can’t charge it at home, or at work, buy something else.
I drove to work using ECO mode to conserve power which the Leaf primarily does through dialing back on the heater performance, dulling the accelerator pedal input and cranking up regenerative braking when you lift off the accelerator pedal. The effect is different than I had expected, but it was not as obtrusive to me as some reviews would make it seem and it improves range by a supposed 10%. I had initially thought I would drive to work sans-heater but 8-miles into my journey I realized my jacket was not in the car and I decided being warm for a while was worth the risk. As I rolled into Burlingame, it became obvious that my moderate use of the heater had taken a toll on battery life as the car indicated only 32 miles left.
Trip distance: 53.6
Average speed: 47.9
Travel Time: 40 min
Average miles/kWh: 5.8
Range Left: 32
Temp: 42-53 degrees
Once at work, the charging cable came out again for another day of across-the-sidewalk-charging. Anyone know what the fine for that is in California? Let us know in the comment section.
Today everyone at work had figured out that I was the one driving the odd little car with the extension cord coming out its nose. I was anticipating that my co-workers would be intrigued, want to look it over, play with the knobs, and in general treat it like the release of a trendy new Apple product. I was wrong. Actually, the vitriol was kind of surprising, and perhaps indicated a hurdle that manufacturers will need to overcome before EVs gain widespread adoption. The most common complaint among passengers was “what if I needed to stop somewhere after work” and secondarily “what if I decided to take a road trip on the way home.” I suppose they are valid points for some, but if your daily commute is 30-miles, and you had a 240V charger at home, you could run all manner of errands on your way home without issue. And really, who actually decides to take a road-trip on the spur of the moment on your way home from work on a Wednesday afternoon? If you do, correct us in the comment section.
Out on the highway the Leaf drives like any other economical mid-size sedan. The steering is fairly lifeless and handling is unspectacular due entirely to the low-rolling resistance tires essential for long range. The suspension is tuned for a moderate ride, neither floaty, nor stiff and the chassis remains composed over a variety of road surfaces from gravel to pot-holed-asphalt. The relatively high curb weight (for an efficient vehicle) of 3,400lbs no doubt aids in the Leaf feeling more substantial than you would assume. The low positioning of the battery in the car makes moderate corner carving possible, but it is unlikely that most drivers will treat their Leaf in this fashion. Eco hoons however will be strangely amused that the eco tires allow for a decent amount of front-wheel-peel on their way to an observed 17.7-second (77MPH) quarter mile.
Range anxiety had by this point turned into “charge anxiety.” At noon a quick check of the battery via the CarWings iPhone app showed I had a range of 42 miles. Since my 53-mile trip home consumes 68-miles worth of electrons due to the climb up the hill, it was looking like I’d be stuck at work for a long while, so I started hunting for the often touted free charging stations.
If you’re lucky enough to live around a 440-volt “Quick Charge” or “CHAdeMO station, then the Leaf will charge from essentially empty to around 80-percent (56-102 miles depending on your driving style) in 30 minutes. Unfortunately when I used all the online charging station tools at my disposal, I was able to find only 539 CHAdeMO charging stations in the world, 532 of which are in Japan and none in California at the moment. I am told however that there are quick charge stations being planned. Currently the quick-charge port is only available as a ($700) special-order option on the Leaf SL.
With a federal tax credit for companies to install charging stations for use by employees and customers of 50% of the installation cost up to $2,000 per charging station along with other state and local benefits and utility rebates, expect to see stations cropping up at a workplace near you. Since this was not an option, I decided to lunch in South San Francisco where I found a free charging station. This turned out to be a dubious exercise because although the 240V (Level 2) charger charges faster, the 11 mile round trip cancelled out the faster charge leaving me back at square one. However, it did prove to me that if your destinations have level 2 chargers, then you’ll be no worse off for your errand running.
Trip distance: 11.1
Average speed: 24.3
Travel Time: 23min
Average miles/kWh: 4.9
Range Left: 42 (1:10 of 240V charging)
Temp: 55 degrees
Worried about making it home, I again resorted to a public 240V charging station, this time I sensibly chose one that was only a 1 mile detour off the way home. After almost two hours of hanging out in Cost Plus and watching DVDs on my laptop in the back seat of the car, the ChargePoint kiosk showed a 4kW charge had been transferred to my battery. Driving the Leaf gently this meant an additional range of 20 miles. The cost: $156 of shopping at Cost Plus, $1 parking fee, $0 for the electricity.
About those costs: at the moment electric cars are something of a novelty, and with political pressure to do “something green” many municipalities and businesses provide free charging meaning if you were willing to play your cards right, you might only rarely pay for electricity. Even at California’s high electricity rates a quick scan of my bill shows that the 260 miles we put on the leaf over 3 days cost $8.52 of which I only bore $3.20 of (54kWh total). Put in perspective, at 4.50 a gallon for regular, a Prius would have cost me $26 for the same three days. If I were able to commute daily in the Leaf I estimate my yearly energy costs would reach $886 per year of which I could manage to only pay half if my employer picked up part of the tab. The Prius would consume $2704 and I’d be hard pressed to find a free gasoline pump while I shop. Because the EPA is insane and feels the need to give the Leaf an MPG number, its 106 city, 92 highway and 99 combined. Should that mean anything to you? Nope.
As I pulled out of the parking garage I realized that my two hours of free charging would now mean I would have to use my headlamps on my way home for at least part of the journey. It also meant that instead of spending an extra two hours at work charging at 120V I should have hopped down to the free 240V station earlier to suck off the public teat. Since I had carpooled to work, I had a slight detour to pick up my fairly unhappy carpool mate who was not all that amused with my “I had to charge” excuse. With the car showing 70 miles to empty, I was concerned because my gentle driving habits had caused the car to believe a less-than-half-full battery could propel me farther than half the Leaf’s quoted range. Ginger driving and climate control off were the order of the evening.
As I crested the top of Highway 17, the Leaf estimated our range at 5 miles. This was pucker time. 5-miles of level driving remained before we could pick up some charge on the down-hill run. As we rounded the corner onto Old San Jose Rd the Leaf announced the battery was “very low.” As the last 6 miles of my journey involved loosing 1,000ft of elevation the battery had recovered to a 12-mile range by the time I hit the gravel road and cruised home parking-lamp-only. Thankfully my arrival home was early enough to book a solid 9 hours of charging if I could convince my boss to let me arrive late the next day. Had this been my Leaf I would have let it lick its wounded battery in peace for 24 hours and driven another car, but since Nissan wanted their car back the next day I just had to wait until it would make it back to Nissan’s fleet company.
Average speed: 32.6 mph
Travel Time: 1:50
Average miles/kWh: 4.9
Range Left: 12
Temp: 65-52 degrees
Nissan provided the vehicle and insurance for this review.