The Nissan LEAF is the first mass produced full electric car: no gas tank, no tailpipe. But the LEAF is of course not the first electric car ever made. The EV1 from GM and the Tesla Roadster have been on the roads for years and technically speaking not much is new with the LEAF. However, the LEAF is the first electric car to be mass produced and this is significant. A major car manufacturer is finally making the bold move to manufacture a full electric car available to the masses with the hopes of selling more than any previous electric car.
The ordering process
You may wonder if the LEAF is a car for you. For me there was no doubt in my mind. I’ve always wanted an affordable and practical electric car and I didn’t hesitate to pre-order in April 2010 on Nissan’s website. Despite clicking as fast as I could, about 500 people in the US and thousands in Japan beat me to it. The first LEAF deliveries started in December 2010 and I got mine in March of 2011. This was almost a year of waiting and bearing with the jokes of my friends and colleagues about the mythical electric car that would never come. To add insult to injury, Nissan even invited the rest of us to witness the delivery of the first LEAF during a ceremony held in front of San Francisco city hall. I’m a good sport, I went.
So was the wait worth it? I think so and I may not be alone: The LEAF got the 2011 world best car award at the New York auto show. Apparently the electric car revolution has begun. But if you decide to join the revolution, be prepared to be very patient. Don’t run to your local dealer to buy a LEAF or even test drive one. The place to order is online and test drives happen by invitation in well organized events. Nissan already has enough reservations for the entire planned production of 2011 and they will resume taking new registrations on May 1st.
Revolutions at Nissan are well organized. After you register online you’ll eventually be given a target date at which you’ll be able to place your order from the dealer of your choice. Surprisingly, despite being in such short supply the LEAF has not been plagued by markups – at least in the US. I was more than happy when my local Nissan dealer was willing to accept the MSRP for my LEAF. That was last year so you shouldn’t hesitate to negotiate below MSRP if you are feeling lucky. But let’s face it, the LEAF is not cheap. The MSRP in the US is $32,780 for the base model. One of my friends jokingly told me: “You just paid the price of BMW 3 series for a Versa with a 3 gallon gas tank”. To be fair he’s mostly right. However Uncle Sam wants you to drive electric cars and will give you up to $7,500 tax credit if you do so. For California residents the deal is even sweeter. Before he left, Arnold had budgeted $8 million dollars to give $5,000 rebate checks to new LEAF owners. But as the LEAF deliveries are ramping up the money is running out. I’ve been following the fund status since early this year and I predict that it will be empty before the end of the summer. The bright side is that this may be a sign that the electric car revolution has indeed begun.
I’m no expert in car styling and beauty is a very subjective thing. What I can say to describe the LEAF is that it looks like the daughter of Versa and Juke. The LEAF got the eyes of the dad, the body of the mom and a few extra pounds when she ate all these batteries. Its “eyes” are what give the LEAF its unique look. Nissan claims that the extruding headlights were designed to reduce turbulences around the side rear view mirrors and hence wind noise in the cabin; not just to make it look weird. I can’t wait for the Mythbusters to put this one to the test like they tested the “golf ball dimpled car” myth.
The outside of the LEAF may be unique but the beige colored inside is as plain as it gets and you’ll have no other choice but to like it: it’s the only interior available for the 2011 model. I am sure Nissan will add more options in the coming years because this beige fabric look like it will get dirty easily and people are already demanding leather seats. On the bright side, the instrument panel and the center console are there to wake up the interior with shiny trims and multiple displays. The large touch screen in the center does scream “high tech”. Nice job there.
The LEAF looks a bit weird, but does it drive weird too? The answer is no. Driving electric doesn’t mean you’ll have to re-learn how to drive. The LEAF shares all the same controls and behaviors of the automatic transmission everybody is used to driving. From the way you start it to the way it accelerates and slows down, everything feels the same. So what’s special about that?
Well, the fact is the LEAF has neither an engine nor a transmission. All these behaviors we are so accustomed to are specific of the way internal combustion engines work. Electric cars don’t naturally behave like that and Nissan engineers had to specifically design the LEAF so that it simulates these behaviors. The reason they did this is so that new drivers would feel that driving the LEAF is very familiar and natural.
They did such a great job that I am willing to bet that by adding a fake engine noise Nissan would be able to fool quite a few people into believing the LEAF is just another gas powered car. Luckily Nissan doesn’t have this sense of humor and the first thing everybody notices when the LEAF starts moving is the silence. The absence of engine noise and vibration is striking. The LEAF is so quiet that my carpool buddy now hates her car because she finds it too noisy!
Although very quiet the LEAF is not completely mute. Because the lack of engine noise is dangerous for unsuspecting pedestrians, cyclists and blind people the car emits a whirring noise when it goes below 16 mph. From inside the cabin this sound is so faint that it’s difficult to even hear it. At first I even though that it was missing on my car. But after turning it OFF and ON a few times thanks to a dedicated button I was able to distinctly hear what I would describe as a worn out ball bearing noise. Not necessarily the most pleasant sound but the good news is that it can still be turned OFF when it’s not needed, like in traffic jams.
But since this is a safety matter legislators will no doubt eventually make it mandatory to be always ON. Note that the same button also controls the annoying back-up warning beeping sound. But not all noises made by the LEAF are obnoxious: The high pitch noise of the electric motor when accelerating or at freeway speed does sound like a jet engine and it makes me feel like I am driving Luke’s X-Wing Starfighter down US 101. If you’re a Star Wars fan it’s pretty cool.
One important characteristic of a car is how well it handles and what makes the LEAF handling different from other similarly sized cars is its battery. Most people don’t realize how big the battery is. When I open the front compartment to show off the electric motor, after noticing that the electronic power controller looks very much like the valve cover of a combustion engine, someone invariably asks me “Where is the battery?” as if it were somewhere down there.
The battery couldn’t possibly fit in the front. It’s quite difficult to guess how big and where the battery is because you can’t see it. Nissan managed to fill the floor with 660 pounds of Lithium-Ion modules very similar to those found in cell phone and laptops. But the size and weight of the battery impacts the LEAF’s driving and handling in several ways. First, the seating is a few inches higher due to the added thickness of the battery. It helps the driver to better see what’s ahead but consequently it also puts the rear passenger knees up in the sky because the floor at the back is somewhat higher than on most cars. I rarely ride at the back of my own car so it’s not a problem for me.
The weight of the battery also puts the center of gravity of the car very close to the ground which is a very good thing. This allows the LEAF to take sharp corners and stay flat. My reference is the VW Golf and I find the LEAF is sensibly more responsive and stable in low speed turns than the Golf. However, when it comes to higher speed I feel more “in control” behind the wheel of the Golf. I especially noticed this in a long curved freeway connector ramp on my way to work which I can take at any speed with the Golf and feels as if it were on rails. In the same curve at the same speed the LEAF took me some work to maintain the trajectory.
It is not clear if this is because the LEAF has an unusual weight distribution, it’s is just heavier or if I simply don’t appreciate how good the Golf is. There could be some controversy surrounding this issue. In forums other LEAFs owners are raving about how “smooth and stable” the LEAF is at high speed. I guess we will need serious drivers to take a LEAF on a race track to get a definitive answer on this.
It’s when pressing on the accelerator that the LEAF has a surprise in store. In electric car geek lingo this is called “instant torque”. The full power of the motor is delivered instantly at zero speed. In real world terms it means the LEAF is zippy. This is the feature that makes the LEAF ideal to leave everyone behind at the traffic lights or merge in a lane when the other driver has decided not to let you in. By the time the poor fellow’s gas engine will have started to finally rev up the LEAF will have already jumped in front of him.
What I also love is because it’s so silent the LEAF seem like it’s not even trying hard. But if you’re a 350z driver don’t get too excited just yet. The LEAF may be zippy but it’s no sports car. Not only does it have a top speed of “mere” 93 mph but every mph above 65 is paid cash in electrons and a possible speeding ticket if CHP is around.
This is where ECO mode comes in. As the name suggests this mode is optimized for energy economy and getting the most number of miles from a battery charge. But it doesn’t come for free: forget the zippy accelerations. All LEAF owners seem to agree about ECO mode: “ECO mode feels like driving through molasses”. I rarely use ECO mode because it takes away all the fun of driving the LEAF and from my experience the energy savings it provides are not worth the frustration it causes. I’m able to get about the same mileage by simply avoiding speeding up and slowing down abruptly and by driving at the speed limit.
Even though the LEAF will recharge its battery while braking there is only so much energy it can get back. A quick acceleration (which is fun) doesn’t hurt the mileage as long as you don’t slam on the brakes immediately after. The LEAF always starts in “normal” mode and ECO mode must be activated for every trip by the driver. I don’t think anybody would like it the other way around.
The LEAF may drive like a regular car but how far it can go without recharging is where the new LEAF drivers are facing a real learning curve. In this department even the best electric cars still don’t measure up with traditional gas powered car: The LEAF’s nominal range is 100 miles on a full charge and the actual range may be as low as 62 miles depending on the driving conditions. If your destination is 80 miles away this is a good reason for worrying. There is even a new term for this: “range anxiety”.
When the numbers on the display starts to plummet it’s true that it gets scary. That’s why the range estimator on the LEAF’s dashboard gets so much attention and is one of the main topics people are arguing and complaining about. Some owners have posted stories about of how their LEAFs have let them down by predicting longer ranges than they were actually able to drive. I do agree this is a pain point for LEAF drivers but I also experienced the opposite situation where the range estimator gave a much more pessimistic prediction than what I was actually able to drive.
The point here is that either under or over, the range estimate is just an estimate. What I found is that paying more attention to the battery remaining energy gauge to figure out if I’m going to make it rather that only relying on the range calculated by the car is more reassuring. The battery gauge is displayed with 12 large lit segments on the right side of the driver’s instrument panel. Each segment represents about 8% of charge. It may seem rudimentary compared to cell phones that have readings precise to the single percent but I found that it actually makes learning how to make estimations very easy: After a few weeks I learned that driving to work takes 5 segments down and that the round trip from my home to downtown San Francisco takes 2. I usually add one as a safety cushion and that’s how I know with confidence that I can make it.
The last 2 segments are marked in red because that’s the “reserve”. When that’s all there is left in the battery warning signs appear all over the dashboard. At that point the range is usually down between 10 and 14 miles. Hopefully that’s enough to reach a place where you can re-charge. But when the last 2 segments are gone, all bets are off. So far I’ve never pushed my LEAF to that extreme to find out what really happens. What’s supposed to happen is that the LEAF goes into “Turtle” mode where the max speed is 35 MPH but it doesn’t last very long before the car completely stops.
To be exhaustive on this topic I have to mention that Nissan has acknowledged that the battery range estimator could be improved. Last week they issued a recall for all the LEAF vehicles sold in the US to reprogram the onboard computers. Two problems are supposed to be addressed by this update: an AC diagnostic error that could cause the car to be unable to start and an improvement of the accuracy of the range prediction. My car’s update is scheduled for next week and I’ll make sure to post an update if I notice a breakthrough on the range estimation matter.
An obvious way to prevent range anxiety is to know that you’ll be able to recharge along the way or at your destination. This is apparently the way Nissan and the agencies promoting electric cars believe range anxiety will be eradicated. Charging an electric car is the same as filling a car with gas except that you want to top it off at every occasion rather than waiting for battery to go empty. It may sound a bit cumbersome but in fact it becomes very quickly a habit: park and plug. In fact no longer having to make a stop at the gas station when I realize my tank is empty the very morning I’m late to go to the office is rather nice.
Where it gets complicated is that there are several ways to recharge the LEAF. The normal way is at home and part of the LEAF’s ordering process involves getting your home ready for it. A special charger needs to be installed less than 15 feet away from where the car will be parked. This charger needs a dedicated 220V/40A electrical circuit. How extensive the electrical rework of your house is will depend on the way it’s wired. If your service panel is in the garage you’re in for an easy installation. But that wasn’t my case: My garage is detached and located at the opposite end of the property from the utility panel.
Luckily the city building department allowed me to do the work myself and the total cost was less than $2,500. For those of you who don’t feel like crawling under your house to pull wires the good news is that there are incentives and tax credits to help pay for the installation of electric car chargers. I just did it myself because as Hubert likes to say: “DIY rules”.
The LEAF charger uses a standard connector with the pretty name of J1772. This is the same for the GM Volt, the newer Teslas and many other electric or plug’ in hybrid cars to come. It means that the charging stations currently installed in public places are not manufacturer specific and it will help their rapid proliferation. But what can you do if there are no charging stations around? Simple: the LEAF comes with an adapter which allows recharging from a standard 110 outlet.
However this comes with 2 caveats: First the charger continuously draws the maximum power allowed (12A) which may overload the circuit. It’s true the plug does get quite warm. The second problem is that despite using a lot of juice this is still very small compared to what the battery needs and it will take more than 20 hours to fully charge it this way. In comparison, using the normal charger it only takes 7 hours. But I find that despite its drawbacks, slow charging of a regular outlet is a nice option to have. This is how I recharge at work since my company has not yet installed any J1772 chargers.
If you are stuck with an empty battery and are in a hurry there is a 3rd way to recharge the LEAF: an optional connector capable of charging from empty to 80% in 30 minutes is available. But this recharge is so brutal that the average house electric service can’t handle that much power. Also the maximum charge is limited to 80% because it would overheat and damage the battery. Therefore this method of recharging is only available in special public charging stations and it’s not recommended to be used more frequently than once per day by Nissan because it makes the battery age faster. It’s safe to say there is no risk of this happening anytime soon around here. I have never seen any of these chargers yet. Rumor has it that there is one along highway 80, somewhere half way between San Francisco and Sacramento.
The LEAF’s onboard navigation system has been specifically optimized to help drivers manage recharging while on the road. It’s also full of handy options such as GPS based alerts and trip calculations to make life easier when it comes to recharging. It’s a nice effort on Nissan’s part but the number of charging station listed in the system is still very low and it doesn’t seem to get updated very quickly: the dealer I got my car from has had 3 chargers installed for more than a month and it’s still not listed.
This is why I mostly rely on 3rd party phone apps to find where charging stations are located. To name a few I’ve tried EV Charger Finger and ChargePoint but there are many more. The one I do find interesting is called “PlugShare”. It connects people willing to let other recharge at their house with electric car drivers in need of juice. Of course most people who share are expecting the drivers to ask for permission but I find it rather neat that such altruism actually exists.
Managing the LEAF’s battery charge is an important feature and Nissan couldn’t do without providing an App for it. At this point it’s only available for the iPhone but it’s such an enhancement of the owner experience that I can’t imagine Nissan won’t provide an Android version for it soon. I’m lucky to have an iPhone and I love this App.
The car uses 3G to connect with the phone so it works regardless of where you are. The App allows checking the status of the charge and can start charging assuming the car is plugged. You may wonder why the LEAF won’t start charging as soon as it’s plugged in. The reason is that in many places electricity is cheaper at night and most people program their LEAF so that it automatically starts charging at a certain time at night rather than when they pull in their garage and plug. Charging during the day is probably something you want to do only if you need to or if you don’t pay for electricity. Another neat feature of the LEAF iPhone app is that you can remotely start the climate control so that your LEAF will be warm or cool when you get in.
This is not just for comfort: Heating and AC take power and running them while the car is connected to the grid can save a few miles of range. Heating is especially power hungry. In a regular car heat comes “for free” as a byproduct of burning gasoline (80% of it goes into heat rather than motion). In an electric car heat has to be generated from power drawn from the battery at the detriment of the motor. On top of this the Lithium-Ion batteries lose power when they are too cold. This is something you’ll have to seriously consider if you live in a place where it gets cold.
Aging of the battery and its loss of capacity is also a major concern people typically have about electric cars. Nissan is aware of this and they are offering an 8 years or 100’000 miles warranty for the battery. But this warranty does not cover the normal and gradual capacity loss all Lithium-Ion battery experience over time. It also comes with a long list of exclusions such as exposure to extreme temperature for extended periods of time. It will be interesting to know how the LEAF’s onboard computer actually keeps track of this and how the “infractions” get reported to Nissan. What is murky about this warranty is what constitutes a normal loss of capacity. Nissan expect the battery to retain 70 to 80% of its capacity for 8 years but they don’t guarantee it. Will someone whose battery gets down to 50% of its original capacity qualify? Only time will tell. But what is sure is that Nissan is keeping a very close eye on those batteries: The main purpose of most of the scheduled services of the LEAF is to run diagnostic tests of the battery.
I tend not to worry too much about this. I will try to follow some of the advices on how to keep the battery in good shape and I’ll see what happens. Hopefully in 8 years battery technology will have evolved and replacement batteries will be cheaper and have more capacity. Also with the increase of energy production from wind and solar comes a need for electricity storage: the wind doesn’t always blow when we need the most electricity. Used car batteries, even with half of their remaining capacity could be used to store this electricity. I expect this will create a market for used batteries that will help offset the cost of the new batteries. Even if they won’t pay much this will at least help take care of the recycling problem.
The LEAF is the first model of its kind and Nissan couldn’t possibly get everything right the first time. But don’t get me wrong: they did a lot of stuff right and the LEAF is packed with so many cool features that I couldn’t mention them all here. Remember the first iPhone? I sure hope the LEAF will be as successful but that won’t prevent me from complaining about what I think Nissan missed the mark on. First is the lack of electric seats and rain sensor. Come on Nissan! No electric seats in an electric car.
You can’t imagine how many bad jokes I’ve heard about that. And what happened to the rain sensor? This car is packed with computers and sensors and I still have to manually change the speed of the windshield wipers… sigh. Also, the flooring carpet doesn’t seem very durable. I overlooked ordering the optional floor mats and after just one week I could already see wear in the floor where I rest my right heel. The floor mats are the best $100 I’ve spent to improve my LEAF. The stereo sound also has room for improvement. It comes fully loaded with Bluetooth, MP3, iPod and XM but I haven’t been able to adjust it so that the music sounds good for both FM and satellite. I’ve also noticed that the speakers seem to be weak in the mid-range. A premium stereo system, at least in option, would be nice.
Hopefully the 2012 Nissan LEAF will have some of these improvements and it will be a car even more people will want to drive, including you. I’ll surely look at you with envy when you pass me on the freeway in a brand new shiny LEAF 2.0.