Nissan Leaf: The Snow and Ice Report

Leaf in snow cropped

For those of you that have been following along, in the past year I’ve posted a number of times about owning the Nissan Leafs, and I’m pretty sure that an objective person would have to characterize them as glowingly positive reports. If you happen to be new to the blog, here are some links–

Turning Over a New Leaf” — My first ideas about possibly getting a Leaf.
Leaf Economics” — The test drive, and thoughts on the economics of driving an EV.
Leaf Charging” — Figuring out how EV charging systems work.
Leaf Day One Top-Ten List” — Our first day with the car.
We’re Not Actually Rich” — Leasing the second Leaf, and my first real review of the cars.
and, “Leaf Update: I Cannot Lie” — My unvarnished reflection after six months.

So, now it’s almost March, and we’ve had a fair amount of snow, a fair amount of ice, and we’ve had many, many nights that were well below zero, including one night approaching 20 below. But, though winter isn’t over by any means, we probably are on the slow and gradual warmup that leads to spring, so I feel confident in issuing my wintertime report. I’m still extremely happy with the cars, but for the first time, I do have some caveats. This isn’t a “good news / bad news” report, but perhaps a “good news / things-to-keep-in-mind” report.

On the good side, it’s the same great car in the winter that it is in the summer. In some ways, better—while the two gas-mobiles both failed to start multiple times at 15 below, the Leafs (obviously) have no engines to crank, just a button to push. The car makes a little chime, and away you go. In that sense, the car doesn’t care whether it’s 15 below or not.

In terms of handling on snow and ice, we need to back up a hair here. My previous daily driver was an all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza with studded Hakkapelitta snow tires. In terms of winter driving, this is just about as good as it gets—the Suby could go virtually anywhere, and chew through 12 inches or more of snow. So, compared to that, the Leafs are front-wheel-drive only, and, as a cost savings and curiosity experiment, I decided to see how they would do in the winter without the expense and effort of buying and switching to snow tires twice a year. (Why add maintenance to a maintenance-free car if you don’t have to? Snow tires for two cars would have been well over $1,000, plus $60 per car per change to put them on and take them off). One Leaf, the red SL, came with all-season tires. The black SV model came with “summer tires”. I was really curious, first of all, about the difference between the two. My verdict—as best I can tell, absolutely no difference, even in below-zero temps. Both cars are amazingly “grippy”; I think it’s due to their slightly-heavier-than-normal weight, and perhaps modern tires do better in cold weather than they did decades ago. Even on solid ice covered with water, the cars do better than I would have expected. In the very worst of conditions (during heavy snow, before roads were plowed), I’ve found hills that I barely made it up. But, in these same conditions other vehicles were having trouble, too, and tractor trailers were jack-knifing. All told, I’d put the Leafs on par with other front-wheel-drive vehicles, or even slightly better. If I had put studded snow tires on, I think they would have rivaled the Suby.

Charging at the first Level 3 charger in Vermont, at Freedom Nissan in Burlington. Level 3 chargers will fill a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes, though it was taking a few minutes longer in near-zero temps.

Charging at the first Level 3 charger in Vermont, at Freedom Nissan in Burlington. Level 3 chargers will fill a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes, though it was taking a few minutes longer than that in near-zero temps.

Related to traction, the cars also have computerized traction control. It kicks in at the obvious times, on ice or snow when accelerating, whereupon it limits motor power until the tires grip. This is really effective, and I think it’s part of what enables the cars to climb hills fairly well in the snow even without studded tires. But, here’s the part that surprised me—when driving fast down our ice-slick and curvy driveway, I purposely put the car into a drift/slide. In a split second, the traction-control somehow activated the anti-lock brakes on select wheels to immediately jerk the car back into a non-sliding orientation. I’ve played with it multiple times since then, and it nearly always fixes the skid. In fact, between the ABS brakes and the traction-control, it really feels like the computer is working with me to drive the car, like we’re double-teaming it. Or, like I have an R2-D2 in the copilot’s seat. It’s really impressive; and a glimpse of self-driving cars in the future.

And, also related to traction, the “B-mode”, which is enhanced regenerative braking, works fantastic when going down icy hills. It puts a nice steady drag on the car when you take your foot off of the accelerator, without the traction-breaking effect of actually applying the brakes. In fact, not once all winter have I slid going down a hill. Comforting, as it’s one thing to not make it up a hill, and an entirely other thing to start sliding whle going down.

In the end, the try-to-avoid-winter-tires experiment has been a success, I think (though not particularly related to Leafs, specifically). Here in Vermont they’re Johnny-on-the-spot in terms of plowing the roads, so if you can’t quite make it on unplowed roads, you can just wait an hour or so and then go, or take a route that avoids steep uphills. It’s not quite like having studded tires on, but hey, I didn’t have to spend the $1,000. Even my wife, who was pretty leery of the no-snow-tires plan, seems to have gotten completely used to driving the Leafs without them. I might buy some quicky strap-on “emergency” single-loop tire chains, they can be put on in minutes, and at $50 a set they would enable the car to handle just about anything. Peace of mind for way, way less money than snow tires, in case we absolutely had to get to the hospital in the middle of a blizzard (though in reality, if that happened I’d just take the four-wheel-drive pickup with the plow). Mr. X has some of these chains, and likes them.


The Level 3 CHAdeMO connector. Currently there is a bit of a standards war going on with Level 3 chargers, with some manufacturers using a modified Level 2 fitting called a "Combi" plug.

The Level 3 CHAdeMO connector. Currently there is a bit of a standards war going on with Level 3 chargers, with some manufacturers using a modified Level 2 fitting called a SAE “Combo” plug.

So, I’m sure you’re impatiently reading along here to find out what it is that I don’t like about the Leafs in the winter. In short, just like I’d been told, the range really is reduced in really cold weather. Between the battery holding less total power in cold weather, and the added loads of the heater, in the very worst case the range on a full charge was only about 45 miles; less than half of the pleasant-dry-70-degree weather range. Now, I say “very worst case”, which only happened once—15 below zero, windows iced up and requiring defrost, car sitting for 24-hours-plus without being driven or charged (both charging and discharging the batteries is slightly less than 100% efficient, and the difference manifests itself as heat, warming the batteries to some degree), and taking multiple short trips. Other trips in similar conditions were better, with a wintertime very-cold-weather average of perhaps 60 miles to a charge. If one had a heated garage, I think wintertime range could still be quite high (and the Fleetcarma results show that, too, with some users reporting more than 80 miles of range even at near-zero temps. See graph below.) For us, with no garage, we saw similar range improvements when we departed from the Level 2 charger at my wife’s place of work, with the cabin preheated while the car was still plugged in (which can be done from home via the cars’ internet links). I’ve driven to work every workday all winter, a 45-mile trip each way if I leave from the Level 2 charger, and the most I’ve used was 82% of the battery (long single trips result in better range than multiple short trips, as the batteries warm as you use them). I only use Level 1 to charge once I’m at work, and in temps near zero this has meant that on the way home I need to stop in Middlebury at the Level 2 chargers for about 10 or 15 minutes and get a bit of a boost to make it back. Not perfect, but not a horrible inconvenience, either.

Fleetcarma's Leaf winter range test results.

Fleetcarma’s Leaf winter range test results. Note the wide range between the best and worst test result for any given temperature—quite a few variables affect range, and fortunately, some of these are within a driver’s control.

The other factor that affects range is how you use the cars’ heaters. The 2012 and newer Leafs use a heat pump for cabin heat, and they are really quite efficient. But, in temps near zero using the heater with abandon does use battery power at a noticeably higher rate (4,000 watts or more on the energy readouts). What works better for me is to set the fan manually to “low” (as opposed to using the “auto” button), and the heater temp to 60 degrees (which is as low as it will go). With the mode button set to deliver some of the air to the defrost vents, it keeps the windshield clear and only uses about 1,500 watts; far less than it would on “auto”. I keep my gloves on when I drive, but I’ve always done that in the winter, so it’s pretty normal, and I seem to stay comfortable on my way to work. In non-commuting situations, where I know I’ll soon be to a charger, I just crank the heat right up like I was in a gas-mobile. And it works great—you don’t have to wait for the engine to warm up to get heat; it’s almost instant.

A few other points—freezing precipitation can freeze the charge door shut. Now, freezing precipitation can also freeze gas-mobile’s gas-filler doors shut, too, but the Leaf’s charge door is fairly horizontal on the front of the car, which makes it a bit worse. The times this has happened, a glass or two of warm water poured over the charge door frees it right up. Another point—if the cars are kept overnight outside without being plugged in, they will turn on an internal battery heater to keep the batteries from going below 14 degrees. This has only happened when the ambient temperatures were below zero overnight. The times I’ve checked, it has used about 6% of the battery over the course of the night, with one case (the day one of the cars didn’t get driven for over 36 hours) where it used 12%. Not too bad, but something to keep in mind if you’re going to park a Leaf in an airport parking lot in below-zero weather without it being plugged in for a week. Again, for most people not living in our unusual off-grid situation, I think this would only rarely be an issue.

So, there you have it. I still love the cars, I really enjoy the paradigm of leasing instead of buying (no maintenance, no repairs! (all under warranty if needed)). They’re still quick and fun and better for the environment. But, if you live someplace fairly cold like we do, just remember that in those few weeks of bitter cold each year, that your really fun car isn’t going to go quite as far between charges. All told, for me, it’s been a small price to pay.

Photo credits: Me.
Range graph: Fleetcarma.