Ten Things I Thought I Loved & Hated About the LEAF
By Len Beck
I started this report planning to list the top ten things I like about the Leaf and the top ten reasons to dislike the Leaf. As I began listing topics, I quickly learned that I had many more ‘likes’ than ten and far fewer ‘dislikes’. What I like most about the Leaf is its efficiency. It is rated at about 100 miles per gallon equivalent. I have been averaging 3.7 miles per kilowatt hour (kWh), which, calculated at the local residential electric rate in Delaware, equates to about 4 cents per mile for fuel cost. With a 24 kWh battery capacity, and a range of about 70 highway miles (averaging 55 MPH at 95 degrees), it is impressive. DOE calculates that a gallon of gasoline contains the energy equivalent of 36.3 kWh. So, the Leaf drives these 70 miles on the equivalent of about 2/3 of a gallon of gas! People often ask me about how much my electric bill increased due to recharging the Leaf. I advise that my electric bill went up about $35 per month, but my VISA bill (gasoline purchases) decreased $135 per month!
It is amazing how quickly one gets accustomed to the new traits of all-electric drive. For example, when I start my Leaf in the garage before leaving for work, I leave no fumes that eventually dissipate, some to the yard, and some into the home. Zero-emissions drive is wonderful!
The quiet nature of electric drive is also welcome. One evening we were driving in the Leaf shortly after purchasing the vehicle and a heavy downpour began. The pounding on the roof focused our attention on the loud noise. At first we were feeling the ceiling in the car and wondering why the sound-deadening materials were so inferior. Then we realized it was normal quality and it was the lack of engine noise that caused the raindrop noise to be amplified. To further prove the point of quiet drive, I have noticed that the volume of the stereo need not be adjusted as often as in my gas-powered car.
As far as the safety factor of quiet drive, I can report that it is an issue. While the Leaf does alert when backing with a beeping sound, there is little noise to signal to pedestrians that a vehicle is moving toward them. Once, when leaving my work location, a gentleman walking ahead of me began to cross the street. He crossed on a 45 degree angle so he was facing away from me. He began to cross the road and I automatically steered to the left anticipating he would react to the sound of my approaching car and I would pass him. He did not hear me and did not react and continued to cross the road. I continued to steer left until I was driving in the oncoming lane and was able to pass him. A line from the old Dudley Moore movie “Crazy People” came to mind as I returned to the proper side of the road. I thought, “I am going to run down some Caucasians today!” Fortunately, I have had only that one close call in four months.
As you know, I drove the AC Propulsion eBox for a couple thousand miles. That was the fastest car I ever drove, with a zero to 60 miles per hour rating of about 8 seconds. While the Leaf is not that fast, it is rated for 10.3 seconds zero to 60. Anyone who has driven my Leaf or has taken a ride experienced the speed of acceleration and was impressed. The car is fast in both normal drive or in the economy “ECO” mode.
The Leaf is computer-restricted to a top speed of 95 MPH. Once while driving on the local interstate, I-95, cruising at about 65 MPH, I decided to push on the pedal to see if I could reach the top limit. In a few seconds I looked at the speedometer and saw a speed of 92 MPH! I quickly decelerated, but noticed that the smoothness of the ride and speedy acceleration were maintained at all speed levels. On the topic of smooth ride and speed, I must also credit Nissan with a very easy-to-use cruise control system. Since the Leaf has a one-gear transmission, the driver does not feel the sensation of gears changing, particularly during acceleration. The cruise control maintains that smoothness in acceleration and deceleration and is the smoothest I have ever experienced!
As mentioned earlier, the driver may select standard drive or “ECO” mode. My efficient side appreciates this mode of operation. In ECO mode, the car’s programming shaves a little off performance during acceleration and shaves a little off the heating or cooling system power draw. Lastly, the regenerative braking system performs in a more aggressive mode, capturing more power during deceleration and braking. These efficiencies usually give the driver an additional 10% in estimated range miles. (Of course, brake life is extended by the regenerative braking.)
A concern I had in advance of buying the Leaf was the time commitment needed and the inconvenience of plugging and unplugging before and after each trip. What I learned is that the recharge process requires very little time. I have my 120 volt power cord suspended from the garage ceiling, allowing easy overhead storage when not in use. In the time it takes my garage door opener to either open or close the door, I can plug in or unplug. It takes only about 15 seconds.
On the topic of recharging, I will note that Nissan required a pre-inspection at my home to evaluate the installation of a level II charger (240 volt). This inspection carried a fee of $100. The result was a quote of $3,000 for the cost of the charger and installation in my attached garage. Since the Leaf came equipped with a level I charger (120 volt) for use in opportunity or emergency charging, I decided to decline the level II charger and installation and opt to start out only using the 120 volt outlet in my garage. Besides the cost, there were other reasons why I declined the level II charger: 1) It did not offer the latest technology available, called inductive charging (a non-plug-in system that requires the car to park over a pad on the garage floor for recharging), 2) the recharge system did not allow the car to power the home in the event of a power outage, and 3) The charger did not perform vehicle-to-grid technology. I did not want to spend $3,000 now and then spend that much again to replace the charger in a matter of months when these important technologies become available.
If you are considering buying a Leaf, take into account the value of the level II charger with these factors in mind. In most instances, I return home from work at 5 PM and plug in for recharge. With the 120 volt charger, it takes about one hour for each five miles driven. So if I drive 50 miles, it will take about 10 hours to recharge. Most times, the car is completely recharged by 7 AM. By recharging with the expensive level II charger, the car will recharge about twice as fast. So your Leaf will be fully charged at midnight. I think most Leaf owners will not be willing to pay $1,500 to $3,000 extra to have the car ready to drive at midnight!
My Leaf is equipped with a level III, 480 volt charge port which allows a 30 minute quick recharge (to 80% capacity). I have not used this type of recharge yet as there are none available near my home. Two years ago, level III chargers were said to cost about $50,000 plus an installation fee. This type of recharge would typically be installed at a turnpike rest stop or at a corner gas station, not for residential use (due to the high cost and power requirements). Today, Nissan has communicated that the cost is nearer $15,000 per unit (plus installation) so more should be popping up around town soon.
In case I was not perfectly clear on this point, the Leaf is a very comfortable, smooth and well-appointed car. Included inside are hands-free phone, iPod connection, a nice music system, GPS and maps. It is the first car I have owned with a back-up camera and a solar panel in the roof! All very cool!
Little touches also impress me. There are the very bright headlights, an eyeglasses holder at the rear view mirror, built-in programmable garage door opener, heated steering wheel, heated seats (both front and rear, which is said to be more efficient than heating air). My 10-year-old son loves this feature on cold days! The keyless ignition takes a little time to get used to. New Leaf owners will likely do as I did and take some time to learn to NOT remove keys from your pocket as you approach your car in the parking lot!
To keep this review from running on too long, I will not discuss additional options from the three-inch thick operator manual (4 books). Needless to say, I am still reviewing the books and learning about new and interesting things the car can do. The following two quick examples are what I have recently learned to use. There is programming to allow the owner to set the start time, end time and level of the recharge. This is particularly useful if the driver has time-of-use electric rates at home. (I will have this rate option when I add solar panels to my roof one day). This timer allows the owner to take advantage of the lower electric rates later in the evening.
I also recently learned how to program preheating and precooling the car when parked and plugged in. This is a nice touch on cold mornings or hot afternoons when you find the interior of your car has plummeted to near freezing or risen to 140 degrees. (I still need to learn how to program the car to call my cell when I forget to plug in for recharge at the end of the day.)
Now for the not-so-favorable issues: As we all know, pioneers like myself get to experience some hardships that others buying the product later in the life cycle will not experience. My rudest awakening was the highway range limitation. I had heard early on in Nissan advertisements that the range was 100 highway miles on a charge. I may have been spoiled by the eBox, which could be driven over 100 miles on a charge. I had driven from Newark, Delaware to Washington, D.C. (105 miles one way) a few times without issue. My round trip between work (Delmarva Power) and home is only 18 miles, so my daily commute was no problem. I do, however travel to Commission meetings in Dover and sometimes drive to destinations in north Philadelphia. A 100 mile highway range would have covered these destinations without requiring a recharge along the way. To work with the range, I have learned to reduce speed and take alternate routes that allow slower driving. Here is an example which is my longest drive on a charge to date: on May 11, 2012, I drove from my home in Newark, Delaware to the Commission Offices in Dover, DE and returned home. Then my wife drove the Leaf an additional 5 miles to our son’s school and back home. The one-way trip to Dover was 38 miles and a 1 hour drive. The total miles driven on the charge was 81 miles, with about 10 miles range remaining. I accomplished reaching the destination and returning on a single charge at the cost of averaging 38 miles an hour. Had the range been 100 miles at highway speeds, I would have taken the Route 1 highway, driving 65 + miles an hour and saved 20 minutes each way.
I am not unhappy with the Leaf, I just wish the range was greater so I could use the EV for more trips. My alternative for longer trips is to return to the 20th century style Toyota Yaris that I once loved for its super efficiency and comfort, a car I now hate to drive after experiencing the Leaf for four months! This vehicle became my wife’s car, and I continue to refuel it for her. Due to the low use, that means a trip to the gas station about once a month. Again, after experiencing no weekly refills as in the past and then returning to a gas station, I see what I did not notice then; how bad the fuel smells at the pumps, the oily substance on my shoes, standing like a dumb cow watching the dials spin as the tank fills.
There are no high speed rechargers located in my vicinity (yet). I look forward to seeing these installed at rest stops along highways in Delaware, Maryland and nearby Pennsylvania. It is important to note that Nissan recommends only one high speed recharge per day to maintain a healthy battery pack. Also recommended is keeping the batteries charged to 80% of charge, not 100%. This lengthens the life of the pack, but obviously shortens the range for the driver. I anticipated driving the car on 500 mile trips by stopping every 100 miles for a 30 minute quick recharge. This will likely never happen with the current battery technology.
Last, I will relate that Nissan recommends Leaf owners unplug the charger when a thunderstorm occurs. This can be inconvenient for me since they typically occur in the middle of the night. Again, not a big deal, but a negative of early EV ownership.
I will end by encouraging your readers to test drive a Leaf when they can and be prepared for a change in attitude on electric transportation. It not only affords Americans freedom from imported fuels, It IS the future of transportation.
Len Beck is the author of V2G 101 and is happy to answer any questions regarding the Leaf at Len.Beck@V2G-101.Com.
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