Leaf Update—I Cannot Lie

Leaf fall shot

Still my favorite car.

It’s fall, we’ve had the Leafs for six months, and Mr. X thinks I should write an unvarnished, completely-unbiased review of the Leaf and what it’s like to drive an electric vehicle. I agree. Unfortunately, it’s going to be really hard to distinguish this from a varnished, biased review, because I really LOVE this vehicle. Well, vehicles, plural, since we have two of them. In the six months since we leased them we’ve racked up almost 10,000 miles between them both. (Or, to put it another way, we haven’t burned about 350 gallons of gasoline. As in about seven 55-gallon drums’ worth…)

My shortest review—these cars are smooth, quick, and quiet. (Plagiarism alert—I actually saw something similar to this three-word description in another article about a Leaf, but I couldn’t agree more). They have no transmissions, and therefore, unlike ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars, no powerband to speak of. The power is there, any time, all the time, for as long as you want it. In “B-mode” (extra regenerative braking, available in the SL and SV trim levels) the braking begins as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator. It’s true one-footed driving, and it’s fantastic. In fact, the cars are so fun to drive that it’s hard to drive them around slowly in a fashion that saves energy. There’s enough power that if you accelerate hard they will almost break the tires loose, especially if you’re turning. (On one occasion I caught up with, and then stayed even with, a souped-up pickup whose driver had it floored, from dead stop to 86 mph, up a hill, at which point I slowed down; didn’t want a ticket going 90+).

And, all of this quietly. No noise, no rattles, just slight road noise and an occasional low whine from the motor or regenerative braking. Oh, and the “Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians”, or VSP, which is a speaker tone that emanates at low speeds. More on that in a bit.

The cars are efficient, too. Their range on the highway is respectable, averaging 80-100 miles per charge, but they go even farther in town, despite all the stop-and-go. When stuck in traffic they don’t use any power to speak of, likewise for, say, going through a drive-through lane. When coming down a mountain you can actually watch the “fuel” gauge fill up. They’ve both been absolutely, 100% reliable. Which, when you think about it, is probably easier to achieve in these cars, because they really only have a tiny fraction of the moving parts of a “normal” car. The shaft of the (brushless) AC electric motor connects directly to the drive axles on both ends—this motor really only has one moving part, vs. hundreds in an internal combustion engine. And, with no transmission, it has zero transmission parts, compared to the hundreds of moving parts in a typical automotive transmission. (Update— I just realized that the Leaf does have a single reduction gear at a ration of 7.9:1, but a fixed gear isn’t something that will normally ever wear out, so my basic point it still valid, I think.)

Adapting to an “EV lifestyle” hasn’t been difficult. Most days in the summer I was able to charge enough each day from our solar power at home to go 20 to 40 miles on that power alone, and my wife and I can both charge at work. Shopping hasn’t been a problem, though I see a shift in our shopping habits where we tend to frequent establishments that are within walking distance of public chargers. The cars do get noticeably less range from their batteries when the outside temperature drops into the low 30’s, and this did put me squeaking into work on an almost-empty battery on one morning the other week. Nissan Leafs have a “turtle mode” that they enter when they are almost completely out of battery power; in this mode motor power is limited and a turtle icon appears on the dash. This mode reportedly gives a half mile or so of range before the car turns off completely, but even on that morning I didn’t run it down quite that far. It’s difficult to know exactly how much you have left at the very bottom of the gauge, because when you have about 8 miles left the “Miles to Empty” display goes to “—“, and after the battery percent falls below 5%, it does the same. Here’s a slightly blurry picture of the dash—

Leaf dash

I think Nissan did this on purpose to get you to really pay attention to getting to a charger when the battery gets low, but I think I’ve figured out one way to tell how much battery is left. There are twelve battery bars in that right-hand gauge when the battery is full, and each one represents 8% of the battery. They each stay lit until that 8% is gone—so as the battery goes from 92% to 91%, the 12th bar turns off, then the 11th bar turns off as the battery goes from 85% to 84%, etc. But, what this means is that when the last bar turns off , the car still has about 4% of the battery left (12 bars x 8 percent = 96 percent of the battery), plus the 1/2 mile or so in turtle mode. Together this is probably about 4 or 5 miles of range if you were driving slowly, and maybe more. I haven’t had occasion to experiment with this, but I will sometime soon; I’m pretty curious about how far I can creep along at lower speeds after that last battery bar turns off. I’ll find that turtle pretty soon, but I need to be right close to a charger when I do, lest I embarrass myself by purposely running my EV “out of gas”. 

I’ve also noticed that when the weather is cooler the cars use the battery up quicker at first, but then after about 30 minutes they start getting more efficient again (to me, “really efficient” is one mile per percent of battery charge, or 100 miles to a full battery). My conjecture is that this is because the batteries work better when they’re warm, and the internal temperature of the batteries goes up, even on cold mornings, as you drive and use them.

Other things I really like—because the heater doesn’t depend on engine coolant getting warm, the heat is near-instantaneous (Leafs use a heat pump, as it is more efficient than resistive heat). This is fantastic on cold mornings—with the heat and defrost on, and the steering wheel and seat heat on, it only takes a minute or so to be completely comfortable, AND have an ice-free and defrosted windshield. Not so with my Subaru—I’d be sitting in the driveway for quite some time trying to get the windshield clear enough to drive. And, you can access the cars via the internet, and check on your state of charge, or to turn the heat or air-conditioning on. (This feature enables you to use wall power, instead of the battery, to get the car to a comfortable temperature, and to get it there before you even get to the car.)

charge screen

The on-line screen to remotely check on charging status and to control climate control settings.

There are a few tiny things I don’t like, but they’re really just quibbles. The doors lock automatically when you start driving, and the unlock button isn’t lit (unlike virtually all the other buttons), so it’s a pain to try to find the button to get the doors unlocked to let someone in if it’s dark out. Another complaint—the car doesn’t have a distinctive “look” that people recognize as an EV. Unlike the Prius or the Volt, the Leaf looks an awful lot like some other Nissan ICE models like the Versa. So, other than the little “Zero Emission” badge, no one who isn’t already familiar with them realizes that it’s an EV. And, quibble number three, I don’t like the VSP sounds. They aren’t loud, but I’d just as soon have a totally silent car. This might indeed be a danger to pedestrians; I’ve learned to really watch them even with the sounds, as they don’t tend to hear the car. It appears that I’m not the only only one who would rather not have the tones, though, there is quite a bit of material on the web about how to find and rewire the VSP module to either turn off the sounds permanently, or to add a button to temporarily disable them (earlier Leafs had this button, but it has been removed for the 2013 model year). Since we’re leasing the cars, I suppose I’ll just keep the sounds; Nissan probably doesn’t want me modifying the wiring harnesses of my leased cars.

Lastly, speaking of leasing—I’ve really become a convert to the paradigm of leasing these cars vs. my previous “buy and hold” strategy for keeping transportation expenses low. As I discussed in previous posts, it doesn’t cost much more to lease these new cars than it did to drive and maintain the much-older used vehicles. They’re covered under full-coverage insurance, they’re under warranty for the entire lease period, from all accounts they’re extra-ordinarily reliable, and the fuel savings alone virtually pays the monthly payment. It just makes the entire transportation effort and expense far easier, and much more predicable, all while doing less harm to the environment.

So, now when I get into “normal” vehicles they just seem loud, clunky, dirty, and inefficient. I’ll keep the Leafs.