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A Year and a Half With a Nissan Leaf (Part 4): Frills and Maintenance

Nissan Leaf with the hood up

Last week while relating the winter driving experience of the Nissan Leaf, I spent a lot of time discussing the way temperature impacts the range of the car, and two ways that the Leaf displays how much ground you can cover on the battery's charge. There are a couple other ways you can track the Leaf's energy consumption that I'll get into here, as well as a few other lingering techie frills that I haven't covered, yet.

I'll wrap up with an analysis of the maintenance that a Leaf needs, or rather the lack of maintenance. Basically, EVs don't need to deal with the extreme heat and friction that's generated from the rapid series of controlled explosions in an ICE (internal combustion engine). They don't need oil because there is so little friction in an electric motor. That's a little hard for some people to wrap their head around. There is no oil because there is no engine with super-hot pistons that need to be lubricated to prevent them from seizing up.

EVs sidestep that whole pit of design constraints, resulting in a system that needs much less maintenance. But before I get to far into that, let's talk about energy.

Energy, how do I measure thee? Let me count the ways...

With a relatively short range that can be as low as 50 miles in severe weather, keeping track of energy consumption is of critical importance in the Leaf. I've already talked about the GOM and the charge level meter as the two main ways that you can gauge how far you can go before you run out of juice. The Leaf also keeps track of how many miles per kWh you've driven on average. You can show this measurement on a monochrome LCD display that you can see right through the steering wheel, and it gives you the lifetime average for the car as well as a horizontal graph of the instantaneous value in the range of 0 to 8 miles/kWh. The average readout started off at 4.1 miles/kWh in January of 2012, if I remember correctly; crept up to 4.8 miles/kWh during last summer; and then leveled off at 4.5 miles/kWh by Christmas, where it has stayed ever since. I would imagine people further south would get substantially better averages because it doesn't get cut down by cold weather.

You can also see the average and instantaneous energy consumption on the color touchscreen display on the center console. I have to say, this touchscreen is really nice. I've used a couple other touchscreens in the Prius and the Ford C-Max, and those both suffer from some pretty small button touch areas. I would have to steady my my hand with some of my fingers resting on the edge of the display to use those screens, but not so with the Leaf's touchscreen. It has nice big button areas on all of the common screens that are easy to jab at while driving. I can easily hit any selection I need to, even when wearing gloves in the winter.

Getting back to the energy consumption display, the instantaneous readout is a vertical bar graph here, and unlike the monochrome display, the average can be cleared whenever you want to start a new averaging period. Each time you clear the average, it records the cleared value in a history bar graph so you can track how your energy consumption changes over time.

I clear the average at the beginning of each month, and from the history graph I found that my monthly average energy consumption varies from a low of 4.0 miles/kWh in the dead of winter to a high of 5.1 miles/kWh in the summer. If you figure in the 24 kWh battery, I should get a 96 mile range in the winter, but that 4.0 miles/kWh is a monthly average, and the battery isn't really a 24 kWh battery in the winter because cold temperatures reduce its maximum capacity. I suspect this measurement is a bit optimistic, too. According to it, I should have a range of about 122 miles in the summer, but I definitely do not. Maybe the useable capacity of the battery is more like 20 kWh, which would correlate much better with the 100-mile summer range I routinely see. If only I could always drive at 5.1 miles/kWh, right?

Another way to see the current energy consumption is with a set of radial gauges on another screen on the color display. This screen breaks out the energy consumption into the electric motor, the climate control, and all other accessories. The motor gauge has a section that goes negative for when the regenerative braking is recovering charge, and it's also the largest gauge with the largest range, of course. You can recover up to 30 kW when braking hard and burn up to 80 kW when accelerating hard. It's pretty easy to peg that gauge in either direction, but to really conserve energy, you obviously want to keep it as low as possible at all times.

Nissan Leaf Energy Usage display

The climate control gauge shows that it can consume up to 6 kW, but I've never seen it go that high. However, I don't spend a lot of time on this screen, so who knows. It could get there in the winter with the fan on high and all of the heated seats and steering wheel on high. Maybe I'll try it this winter. I did notice today, when I was experimenting a bit, that if you have the A/C on in ECO mode, switching to Drive mode gives the A/C quite a boost. It cools the cabin down significantly faster, but it more than doubles the energy consumption. If you can afford the energy, the A/C boost really works well. It's nice to have the choice.

The gauge for the rest of the system only has a range of 2 kW, and it has a baseline consumption of about 0.15 kW. The audio system barely registers on this gauge, even if I crank the radio much louder than I care to listen to it. The only think I've seen affect this gauge much is the headlights. Even though they're LED headlights, they add about 0.15 kW and the brights add another 0.15 kW for a grand total that's just under 0.5 kW. That's negligible compared to the electric motor consumption. Since the motor is the largest factor in energy usage by far and I can monitor its impact on other screens, I mostly ignore this screen. The 'Status' screen showing the current song playing along with smaller versions of the average and instantaneous energy consumption readouts is the one I use the most.

If that's not enough ways to measure the Leaf's range, here's another one. There's a button on the steering wheel with a blue circle and a dot in the middle that you can push to bring up a road map on the color display. The map shows your current location with a white circle marking the extent of the Leaf's range and a concentric grey circle marking the extreme limit of its range in ECO mode. These are, of course, the Leaf's GOM estimate translated into the circles' radii, but it is nice to see it visually on a map.

The map also shows electric plug icons wherever there is a charging station, and the station information can be updated at any time with a few menu selections. You can download new stations for where you are right now, where your home location is, or where the map is showing. If you're running low on charge, you can calculate a route to one of the stations closest to you. You can also sort the stations by those closest to the destination set in the navigation system or the center of the map, so you can easily plan for your charging needs.

Already in Madison, you're never more than a couple miles from a level 2 charging station, and the charging infrastructure is expanding rapidly. With the Leaf's navigation system, you never have to worry about running out of charge in any city that's well stocked with stations. You'll always have options, and you'll know exactly where they are.

The Tree Game

One last way to track your energy consumption is with the tree game. To the left of the speedometer, (which is an excellent digital readout, by the way; so much easier to read than an analog gauge) a pine tree will grow in five segments as you drive conservatively, as judged by the car. There is a partial halo of square segments over this growing tree that acts as an instantaneous level of energy economy that seems to be related to the other instantaneous miles/kWh meters. When you complete a tree, it will line up to the right as a smaller version, and with the larger original, you can complete five trees. Here's what a full set of trees looks like:

Nissan Leaf set of five tree icons

I completely grew five trees on my 72 mile drive back from the dealership when I bought the Leaf. The peak of the last tree popped up right as I was pulling into the driveway. Even though the route was not especially kind to my range and I was forced to drive less efficiently than I wanted to, the distance alone must have been enough to allow all five trees to grow. Since then I have rarely grown a full tree regardless of the fact that my commute to work is much better for energy usage. The route is too short and the history clears every time you turn off the car, so I don't get a chance to build up any trees.

The only other times I've completed a tree are when I'm stuck in a lot of traffic on the beltline so that I'm creeping along at 5 mph for 10 miles, or when I bail and drive through the city, which ends up being twice as many miles of stop-and-go traffic. In neither of those cases does it seem like I've saved energy. In fact, I most definitely wasted energy because those are the days that I end up with less charge left when I get home. But I grow full trees those days. Go figure.

You also have the option of having the car upload your completed trees to a database and competing on a leader-board for most efficient Leaf driver. You've probably already guessed that I don't see much point in doing this, and I find the whole tree-growing efficiency measurement a bit dubious. If I wanted to game the system, I could, but I have better things to do with my time. Besides, the car is so much fun to drive, and I'd rather enjoy it. I get good energy economy out of it anyway.

Allow Me to Gush for a Moment

I know that a lot of cars have this feature now, but the Leaf was the first car I've driven with it so I have to rave about it a bit. Keyless entry/start is the best invention since cruise control. Seriously. I never have to take the key out of my pocket. It's not even a key and a fob anymore. There's a pseudo-key in the fob that can be used in an emergency if the fob isn't working, but otherwise the fob sits at the bottom of my jeans pocket. There's a button on both the front driver and passenger door handles that you can push once to unlock that door or twice to unlock all doors. Push the button on your way out of the car to lock all of the doors. The hatch unlocks when you push a button under its handle. The doors will only unlock when the car senses the fob is within an arm's length of the door handle. This is so much better than fumbling for the fob with your arms full of groceries or small children.

Once you're in the car, you just plop down and push the power button - no contortions to extricate your keys because you forgot to get them out of your pocket before sitting down, no fiddling with the steering wheel and jiggling the key in the ignition because it won't turn, and no keys dangling from the steering wheel and whacking you in the knee while you drive. After getting the Leaf, I got used to this feature so fast that I forgot my keys in my pocket every time I sat down in our Corolla. What a relief it was when we replaced the Corolla with a Prius with keyless entry/start! You have no idea how much you hate using a key until you don't have to anymore.

Maintenance? It don't need no stinkin' maintenance.

It's comical to think about the maintenance that does not have to be done to this car. After a year and a half, I've been to the dealership three times for maintenance. The first two times were for the 6-month and 12-month battery inspections. These are paid for and required by Nissan to make sure the battery is performing optimally in the first year, and it should continue to be checked once a year after that to maintain the battery warranty. At the 12-month battery inspection they also did a 5-point inspection for the brake lines, brake pads, charging port, drive shaft boots, and reduction gear oil.

The third time I went in for service, it was for a software upgrade, and while I was there, I decided I might as well have the tires rotated. I could have done it myself, but it was only 20 bucks and it would save me an hour. The software upgrade was a two part upgrade. The on-board charger was upgraded to interface with more types of charging stations, and the battery charge level measurement systems were upgraded to include the improvements that were made to the 2013 Leaf.

Now that's a nice gesture from Nissan. They're giving all of their 2011 and 2012 customers a free software upgrade so we can benefit from the improvements they've made to the 2013 Leaf. Granted, I don't get the improved regenerative braking, but that's a more significant hardware upgrade. I'm happy they're supporting the loyal early adopters wherever it's reasonable.

The upgrade made noticeable improvements, too. The GOM isn't nearly so jumpy anymore. It used to be overly sensitive to variations in driving conditions, like changes in acceleration getting on and off the freeway or when driving up and down hills, especially when there was a lot of charge left. Small variations in energy usage extrapolated over a large amount of charge resulted in the GOM dropping or adding 5-10 miles at predictable points during my commute. My best guess is that they're using an exponential averaging function with a smoothing factor that was too large, and the upgrade corrected that, making the GOM less sensitive. There were likely other optimizations as well, and it made a big difference in the apparent accuracy.

It also seems like the charge level meter is more linear. It used to be that the charge level would stay on certain bars for a relatively long time and then drop two bars in a correspondingly short time without any changes in driving conditions. Now the meter seems to drop bars at a much more consistent rate. I'm not completely sure on this observation, though. I never took accurate measurements of its behavior, and it could all be in my head.

Okay, back to maintenance. Basically, I have to take the Leaf in once a year for a battery check and a multi-point inspection. Every 30,000 miles the brake fluid should be replaced, but I'm not sure why because the ERB does a lot of the braking. At some point the brakes will have to be done, but I'm not sure I'll still have this car at 200,000 miles. That's when I figure they might need to be replaced, but I'm really not sure. It could be longer. Assuming it's 200,000 miles, at the rate I'm driving, I would reach that sometime in the year 2045. I'm likely to have a new car by then.

The one thing that will have to be replaced at a normal rate is the tires. The Leaf won't do anything to slow down tire wear. It's also possible that something could go wrong with the car mechanically. However, that's the beauty of EVs. There is so much less that can go wrong with them and so many less wear-out items. Think about what an ICE has that an EV doesn't:
  • Gas tank
  • Fuel lines
  • Fuel pump
  • Engine
  • Spark plugs
  • Air intake filter
  • Oil, lines, and filter
  • Catalytic converter
  • Exhaust pipe and muffler
  • Transmission
  • Timing belt
  • Alternator
Instead, the EV has an electric motor, replaces the transmission with a single reduction gear, and has some serious electronics: the charger, battery, and inverter. It ends up being a much simpler system with substantially less points of failure. Also, there's a lot less mechanical wear-and-tear and heat generation going on in an EV so maintenance is practically non-existent.

There is one major point of failure that a lot of people worry about, though - that ginormous battery. It's expensive, too. An estimate from 2010 put it at $18,000, which is half the price of the entire car, but it has certainly come down from that as production increases and manufacturing improvements are made. The price of a 2013 Leaf is almost $4,000 less than the same 2012 Leaf, and it has quite a few improvements that come with it. I'll bet most of that price drop was from reduced battery costs.

As a point of comparison, Nissan recently announced a battery leasing program where you can get a replacement battery for $100/month, and the program guarantees at least 70% capacity on that battery for the entire life of the car. If you assume, for the sake of argument, that the $100/month is paying off a new battery at a cost of $18,000 (with zero interest), it would take 15 years to pay it off. That's not even taking into account the replacement cells you could get during the program to maintain 70% capacity. I would bet that Nissan is really estimating a 5-year payoff, which would equate to $6,000 for the replacement battery. It's pretty clear that batteries will get a whole lot cheaper in the coming years, or Nissan wouldn't be offering a program like that.

At the same time, these batteries are much more reliable that a lot of people think. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Nissan is guaranteeing their batteries to a 70% charge capacity for 6 years/60,000 miles. They are pretty confident that most of the batteries out there in Leafs are going to last at least that long. If you actually do have to replace the battery after 6 years, it will likely be much cheaper. How much cheaper? I don't think anyone can really say, but you could always enter the battery leasing program at that point for $100/month.

I don't think the program will still cost that much by the time most people would need it, though. And most people aren't going to need it for quite a long time. I know I won't. Even if my battery is near 70% capacity in 5 years, that will be enough to get me to and from work twice on a charge in the summer, and more than enough for one commute in the winter. But I seriously doubt the capacity loss will be that bad.

Next week I'll have a better idea of how much capacity I've lost over the last year and a half, and thus, what I can expect for the years to come. I've kept track of the mileage I've driven for every charge, and I plan to try to make some sense of it for my next post. It should be interesting.

The Rest of the Leaf Series:
Part 1: The Acquisition 
Part 2: The Summer Drive 
Part 3: The Winter Drive
Part 4: Frills and Maintenance
Part 5: The Data
Part 6: The Future
Part 7: The Energy Efficiency Meter

A Year and a Half With a Nissan Leaf (Part 3): The Winter Drive

Nissan Leaf driving in the snow

You may have noticed one obvious question about the Nissan Leaf that I did not address directly last week: How far can you drive this car on a full charge? Well, the truthful answer is, it depends. A lot. On everything. I've brought up a number of issues that affect the range: air conditioning, hilly terrain, high-speed stop-and-go traffic, and aggressive driving. There are others, like rain, that have a fairly minor impact on range, and then there is the main determinant of range - the temperature. I'll get into that in more detail in a minute, but first, I'd like to vent for a moment about one aspect of the Leaf that surprised me when I was first looking at it - its color choices.

I know, this is vain and superfluous and all of that, but the Leaf only comes in six colors and none of them are green. My wife noticed it first. It's a green car - a LEAF - that does not come in the color green. The way we figure it, there should be at least two shades of green available: a darker forest green and a lighter green, maybe neon, that would really make a statement. While I'm being hypercritical, why are the other color names so boring? Why not mix things up a bit and make it more fun for your primary market segment by renaming the colors for the environmental fanatics that are going to buy this car? Blue Ocean is okay, but how about Silver Maple or Arctic Snow or Autumnal Fire for some of the other colors. I'm sure Nissan marketing could have come up with some better color names if they gave it even a moment's thought, and why not? This is a fun new car that is blatantly Eco-friendly. Nissan should add to that experience every way they can.

Playing the 'Guess How Many Miles are Left in the Battery' Game

Returning to the matter at hand, the range of the Leaf is significantly impacted by the ambient temperature. Up here in Madison, WI, the winters can get pretty cold and stormy. They don't get nearly as bad as further north in the U.P. or Minneapolis or Canada, but we'll still get an occasional 20-inch snowstorm and at least a handful of days below zero each year. However, the first winter with my Leaf in 2012 was uncharacteristically warm. (We planted part of our vegetable garden in late February, and it survived, which is quite unusual for a 5a climate zone.) Driving the Leaf was fairly uneventful, and it was quite nice to see the range creep up from 75 miles reported on an 80% charge to 85+ miles as the weather warmed up.

At first I charged everyday to play it safe while driving in the semi-cold winter months, but as I gained confidence and a bit of reported range, I started charging every other day. As long as I had 40 miles left on the GOM in the morning, I found that I could easily get home from my 23 mile round-trip commute with at least one full bar of charge left.

Let me explain that a bit more. Like most modern cars, the Leaf has two ways of reporting the range, although it's for the battery instead of a gas tank. The battery charge level is shown as a set of twelve bars, so one bar equates to approximately 6-9 miles, depending on conditions. Not the best resolution, but it's a fairly accurate measure of the charge left. The estimated range is shown as miles-to-empty, and is commonly referred to as the Guess-O-Meter or GOM. It has better resolution, but it bounces around depending on immediate driving conditions and seems to be eternally optimistic at full charge. The GOM gets more accurate the closer you get to reality, a.k.a. zero miles left.

You can imagine the pleasant experience of starting off with a new Leaf at a certain range and then getting more range as the summer gets warmer. If you recall, last summer was hot and long. My GOM peaked at 90 miles on an 80% charge for May through July. By the time the weather started to get cool enough to fall back to charging everyday, it was mid November. The Leaf could still do two 23 mile trips on an 80% charge in temperatures as low as 40℉. I thought that was pretty good, but below that temperature the range dropped enough that I didn't think I could make a second trip.

There were other reasons to charge everyday at that point. We have a saying in Wisconsin. If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute. I didn't want to take the chance that the next day was going to be so much colder that I'd come up short on my drive home. I also figured charging everyday was better for the battery than charging to 100% to allow me to get two commutes in on a charge. Finally, the battery has a heater that kicks in if it gets too cold so it doesn't freeze up. I didn't want the battery heater draining too much charge, and the manual recommends plugging in when the Leaf is parked in cold weather because the heater will run off the plug's power instead of the battery. To play it safe, I charged every night once the daytime temperature dropped below 40℉.

The Iceman Cometh

This last winter was a much more normal Wisconsin winter with a handful of days going below zero and most of January through March spent below freezing. Consequently, my GOM spent most of its time below 75 miles on an 80% charge, and after an entire day and night stuck at 0℉ and waking up the next day to -4℉, it hit a low of 62 miles. Those are the moments that bring truth to the quip that to drive the Nissan Leaf, you have to get used to driving as if you're always almost out of gas.

The initial shock wore off fairly quickly, though. My commute is short enough, and I made it to work and back without any issues. I even had 32 miles left on the GOM when I pulled into my garage, which was a pretty normal 30-mile round-trip difference for my 23 mile commute. One thing that becomes quite obvious in the winter is that the temperature is so important to the Leaf's range that it is built into the GOM algorithm for estimation. My garage can be 10-20 degrees warmer than it is outside, and as the car gets colder for the first few miles of driving in the morning, the GOM miles go down noticeably faster than normal as it adjusts to the outside temperature.

Another thing the GOM does to try to get the range right is use the previous trip's miles/kWh measurement to estimate the new range after charging. It was really the previous day spent at 0℉ that resulted in that 62 mile estimated range. The day warmed up a bit and, consequently, the mileage was a bit better, so the next day's GOM estimation was 64 miles. This behavior is fine when the weather is warming up, because you'll have a bit more range than you think, taking into account the GOM's optimism. But you definitely have to watch it when the weather is cooling down, or you could come up short.

You Can Have Heat, But It'll Cost You

The heater will also impact the range, of course, and a bit more strongly than the air conditioner in the summer. That's partly because an electric heater is less efficient than an electric air conditioner, and partly because the battery is already at a disadvantage from being cold. Whereas the A/C would take about 10% off of the range, the heater would take off more like 15-20%. Come to think of it, the heater also has to work harder because the A/C only had to cool down the cabin 10-20 degrees in the summer, but the heater has to bridge a gap of 40-60 degrees in the winter.

At any rate, I ended up not using the heater much, except for defrosting. Before getting the Leaf, I spent six years trudging through 12-inch snowstorms and freezing cold when I used to walk over a mile to get to work, so sitting in a cold car doesn't really bother me. I put on my wool socks, ski jacket, and ski gloves, and I'm fine. But I'm a crazy person. Even though the Leaf has plenty of range in cold weather for my commute, I forgo the heat to save the energy. That's just me, though. I know normal people will want to be more comfortable than that, and for them, I'd say go ahead and use the heater. As long as you take the range reduction into account, there's no problem. The Leaf also has a heated steering wheel and heated seats, and they're much more efficient than the forced air heater. That should keep your most important parts warmed up. Also, the 2013 Leaf has a more efficient heat pump instead of the resistive heater on my 2012, so the range reduction shouldn't be so bad on newer models.

As for the climate controls themselves, they are just as easy to work as in the summer. When you switch from A/C to heat, all you need to do is adjust the temperature once, and then you can hit the 'Auto' button when you want to use it. When you need to defrost, there are dedicated buttons for that. One for the front windshield, and one for the rear windshield. When you hit the front defrost, it automatically adjusts the temperature and fan and redirects to the windshield vents, so there's no fiddling with multiple knobs and buttons. The Leaf is the first car I've had with these kinds of features, and I have to say, they are really nice. That's one less thing to think about.

Does Your Car Have an App?

That's right, the Leaf has its own smart phone app. With it I can check the charge level and range left on the battery, and if it is plugged in, I can start the charger and monitor how long it will take to charge. Normally, that's not terribly useful because I use the charging timer and the car charges for a specific time during the night whenever I have it plugged in.

What can be useful is the ability to turn on the climate control about five minutes before I leave for work in the morning. Then the car runs off of the charger power to warm up the cabin without using any battery power, and I have a nice head start on my drive to work with a warm car.

On top of that, I can setup the Leaf to send me various email or text messages telling me when charging has started and finished, telling me when the climate control has turned on if I'm using the climate timer, reminding me to plug it in if I forgot, and notifying me if the car was unplugged while charging and I haven't driven off within five minutes. I bet you can guess what that last one is for. Suppose I'm at a public charging station and someone comes along and decides to unplug my car before it's done charging. I'll get an email letting me know, so I can go see what happened instead of coming back in an hour to an uncharged car. I've never had this happen, partly because I hardly ever have the need to charge at public stations. But having the feature is nice, and it probably helps curtail bad behavior as long as people know that if they unplug someone's Leaf, it won't go unnoticed.

Playing in the Snow

Okay, getting back to the main topic, winter isn't only about the cold. Wisconsin also gets a decent amount of snow. Last winter we had a couple of storms that dumped over six inches of snow, and one that unloaded 20 inches on us over the course of 24 hours. I didn't actually drive that day because I spent the entire day shoveling to keep up with the storm. Most of the city was pretty much shut down anyway. But when I did drive in snow, the Leaf performed admirably. It has ABS, traction control, and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), which really help when driving in slippery conditions. The VDC applies the brakes and varies the speed of the motor to maintain traction when the car senses the wheels slipping, and I've had it engage a few times when driving in the snow. It's always done a good job of assisting in maintaining control of the car.

Additionally, the Leaf is no lightweight, coming in at 3300 pounds, even though Nissan did everything they could to reduce its weight. A lot of those pounds are in the battery, which is mounted in the center of the car under the seats. This placement gives the Leaf a nice low, balanced center of gravity, resulting in less body roll when turning and making it less likely for the rear end to slide out. Between the weight and control systems, I've never gotten close to losing control or getting stuck in the snow.

Capable, Within Limits

I knew going in to this experiment that the Leaf would suffer in cold weather. I'm not at all surprised by how much range it loses from cold weather and heating the cabin. In fact, I'm pleased that it handles the cold weather as well as it does, and it does an excellent job of driving in the snow. The range in the winter is more than enough for my commute, but I'm sure it won't be enough for everyone. If you have to drive near the Leaf's summer limits with a range of 85-90 miles, then winter will pose a significant challenge with a range that can go down to 50 miles in severe weather. Being able to charge at your destination will greatly extend its range, and you'll be able to preheat the car at both ends of your trip, giving it a bit more of a boost.

Looking a little farther into the future, if the Leaf's range was double what it is now, winter driving wouldn't be an issue for almost anyone. I'm sure that will happen. It's only a matter of time before battery technology advances enough to put a 50kWh battery in a car that's less than US$35k, and motor, braking, and climate control efficiency are improving at a rapid pace. When that happens, one major shortcoming of EVs will have been eliminated, and they become much more viable for many more people.

That's all for this week. I've yet to cover a couple other features of the Leaf, like energy monitoring and the tree-building game. I'll talk about that next week along with maintenance. Oh come on, I'll think of something to say about it.

The Rest of the Leaf Series:
Part 1: The Acquisition 
Part 2: The Summer Drive 
Part 3: The Winter Drive
Part 4: Frills and Maintenance
Part 5: The Data
Part 6: The Future
Part 7: The Energy Efficiency Meter

A Year and a Half With a Nissan Leaf (Part 2): The Summer Drive

The Nissan Leaf profile

Last week I told the story of my buying experience and the first drive home in my new Nissan Leaf. It was a trial-by-fire, and the Leaf came through in the end. Not as much could be said for the dealership, and to a lesser extent, Nissan. You see, Nissan should have had a contingency plan in place for the passionate early adopters that live in green cities - like Madison, WI - that were barely outside the initial roll-out states. I'm sure there were other cities like Madison with a strong market for EVs (electric vehicles) that were left stranded at first. I'm also sure that Nissan would have done themselves a big favor by catering to these markets earlier than they did.

They certainly shouldn't have worried that Madison wasn't prepared for EVs. I checked the navigation system for charging stations as soon as I got within range on my trip home, and it came up with over a dozen stations, one within a couple miles of my house. The Chevy Volt had probably already blazed a trail for the Leaf in that respect. If Nissan would have done a bit more of their homework to find these green cities and sell into them, they could have had even wider market exposure earlier on, and they would have gained more good will from their primary market segment - the cities of concentrated tree huggers. If there was a green city pilot program, I didn't find it, and none of the half-dozen dealerships I talked to were aware of it.

At any rate, the Leaf buying experience should be substantially different today because it's available nation-wide, and factories here are ramping up production. It's something for Nissan to think about as they do their roll-out in Europe, though. Okay, I've said my piece. It's time to talk about the car.

Driving, Redefined

I get all kinds of questions about the Leaf, so I thought it would be fun to describe it by answering the questions I've fielded that best address the defining characteristics of driving an EV. Here they are in the particular order of my choosing:

Wow, that's so disorienting. Does it take long to get used to how quiet it is? 
Nope, not at all. I was pretty much used to it by the time I first parked it in my garage. What's hard to get used to is getting back into a car with a gas engine because of how loud it is, especially on the freeway. I think most people don't realize how loud a normal car is because we've been trained our whole lives to tolerate it. But the Leaf is an entirely different auditory experience. The motor is basically silent except when accelerating quickly. Imagine a jet turbine revving up. Now imagine you're a couple miles away from that turbine. It's kind of like that. Otherwise, the most noticeable things I hear when going 55mph on the beltline are the tires on the road and all of the car engines around me.

The Leaf is actually quieter than our lawn mower, which is also electric, and most of our household appliances. Apparently, Nissan had to redesign the side-view mirrors and headlights to divert airflow away from the mirrors because you could hear the wind whistling past them. That's how quiet the Leaf is, and I love it. I fill that void with some pleasant noise of my own. I have an iPod loaded with hundreds of hours of music - everything from rock to dance to classical - and I never have to raise the volume above what it would be for comfortable listening when parked. I can hear every note, whether it's from a guitar in Nickelback or a violin in an orchestra.

What is even more amazing, and I think contributes to the initial disorientation, is the lack of vibration. Even with a hybrid, like the Prius, you can feel the engine turning off at stops as the vibrations die off. With the Leaf, those vibrations are never there. The wheels generate some vibration at higher speeds, but it's not nearly the same as an engine. The sensation while driving is all very calm and comfortable. You really have to experience it to fully appreciate it.

Isn't an electric motor kind of weak for a car? It probably doesn't have any power.
It's true that the Leaf only has 107hp, but that only determines its maximum speed of about 92mph. That's plenty fast for most practical purposes. Where the electric motor really delivers is in torque - 210 ft-lbs of it. And not only that, the electric motor delivers the same torque over most of its speed range, starting at 0rpm. Since torque is what produces acceleration, the Leaf jumps off the starting line and gives you that nice feeling of being pushed back in your seat.

That torque is still there at freeway speeds, so if someone is coming up next to you on an on ramp, you can zip forward to give them some space. The same feeling of strong acceleration is even there on significant uphill grades. Madison has lots of steep hills on the west side, and the Leaf zooms right up them as if they weren't even there. On one particular hill westbound on the beltline, rush hour traffic tends to pile up at the bottom and then break up on the hill because of the on and off ramps. (I'm sure any Madisonians know what I'm talking about.) When space opens up, I can floor it and the Leaf quietly tears up the hill starting from 20mph at the bottom and cruising at 55mph half way up. I look forward to that release every day on my drive home from work.

What really makes the acceleration in the Leaf feel different is its immediacy. You know how in a normal car there's a slight hesitation when you step on the gas, especially when it's an automatic and it needs to downshift? Well, in the Leaf there is no delay. You step on the accelerator, and the car instantly goes. It's a combination of the torque in the electric motor and the CVT. (update: It's not actually CVT. It's a single-speed reduction gear that directly drives the front axle. It's similar to CVT in that there is no gear shifting.) There is no increase in fuel intake or shifting gears to wait for. There is only smooth, constant acceleration. Fun.

How badly does air conditioning impact the range?
That varies by how hot it is, of course, but most of the time I don't even use the air conditioning. My drive home isn't that long, so I usually get home before it gets uncomfortable. If I get stuck in traffic on a hot day and rolling the windows down isn't enough, putting the air on for a few minutes will cost about 1-2 miles per minute until the cabin cools down. The up side is that the air conditioning is phenomenal. If you're used to the wimpy A/C of today's economy cars, the Leaf's A/C is downright impressive.

The controls are great, too. There's a pair of buttons for setting the temperature, and a big silver 'auto' button in the middle of the console that you can punch to turn the air on. Within five seconds cool air is blowing in your face, and by ten seconds it's refreshingly cold air. It only takes a couple minutes to cool the whole cabin down. Having a battery-powered air conditioner beats a gas-powered one hands down.

Does the regenerative braking work well?
I don't have a great way to measure this, but overall it seems to work pretty well as long as you can coast. When you're in ECO mode, the response curve of the accelerator pedal changes so that the car accelerates more slowly when you push down the pedal. When you let off, the ERB (electronic regenerative braking) kicks in and recovers charge. The fast acceleration is still there, but it's compressed into the end of the pedal's throw. In normal D(rive) mode, the ERB still engages when you take your foot off of the pedal, but it doesn't try to recover charge as aggressively because it's biased more towards performance. In either case, there are also 4-wheel disc brakes to fully stop the car, and the transition between ERB and brakes is incredibly smooth, as is braking in general. I can hardly tell when the disc brakes engage.

Most of the time, coasting will recover quite a bit of charge in ECO mode. I can coast off the beltline and then go for 1-2 miles at 35mph, starting from a dead stop, just on the recovered charge. I know this because the miles/kWh display is pegged at 8, showing that the car is running off of recovered charge, before dropping back down into the 3-5 range when it's depleted. This can break down, though, as I described in my last post, when you're constantly starting and stopping on a 55mph road with stoplights. For normal city traffic, it works great, and the 2013 Leaf improved the ERB by about 20%.

Steep hills are also a challenge for the ERB. If the hill is steep enough, it doesn't seem to be able to recover enough charge to compensate for when you need to go back up the hill on a round trip. The hill that I like going up so much on the beltline is one such hill. My drive to work is mostly downhill, so even though it's 11 miles to work, the Leaf range estimator, or guess-o-meter (GOM), thinks it went only 6 miles on a normal summer day. On the uphill drive home, it thinks it went about 24 miles. That's 30 miles of charge for a 22 mile round-trip, and most of the loss probably came from going up that long, steep hill and accelerating onto the beltline.

I immediately preferred driving in ECO mode because I can use only the accelerator pedal most of the time. I coast off the beltline or into stops to use the ERB as much as possible. I especially like it in heavy traffic because I can just vary the pressure on the accelerator without having to switch to the brake. I can speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down with the car ahead of me with the heel of my foot resting comfortably on the floor and nothing but music in my ears. Ah, luxury in traffic jams, what more could you ask for?

What's the Price of Gas Again?

That's normally my question nowadays. I have literally gone over a month at a time without knowing the price of gas. I actually don't know what it is right now. It could be $3.50. It could be $3.90. I'm not sure. I'd probably know if it was over $4.00 because I'd be hearing about it. Anyway, I do have to charge the car instead of putting gas in it, and I get a lot of questions about that, too.

How long does it take to charge?
I've been charging with the included 110V trickle charger the whole time I've had the car, and that would normally take about 20 hours to get from empty to full. The car has a setting to extend battery life by only charging to 80%, and I almost always do that unless I need the extra range for a longer trip.  I also normally don't go below 20 miles left on the GOM, and it's never been below 10. I know, I baby it. I'm not ashamed. I can easily charge overnight with the trickle charger. I set the Leaf's charging timer to charge every night between 7pm and 7am and plug it in on the nights that it needs to charge. Nissan recommends letting the battery cool down before charging it, so that's why charging starts at 7pm.

I could charge with a 220V charging station in 8 hours for a full charge (4 hours with the 2013 Leaf's 6.6 kW on board charger). I actually have a 220V charger, but I haven't gotten around to installing it. Maybe I will, but the trickle charger has worked fine so far. Nissan recommends against using it as your primary charger, but they don't explain why. I can't imagine it's bad for the battery. I'm figuring they don't want you driving around without the trickle charger in your trunk as a fail-safe measure, or they don't think there's enough time to always be charging with the trickle charger. I haven't had any problems, though.

Aren't you worried that the battery won't last long enough? Laptop batteries die pretty quickly...
There are so many ways to address this question, but I'll be honest. At first I was quite apprehensive about how the battery would handle aging and frequent charge cycles. That's primarily why I try to be as gentle as possible with the battery. As the months go by, I am gaining confidence in its resilience. After a year and a half, I've noticed only a slight degradation in the range, and even that may be in my head. My 6 month battery checkups at the dealership have been excellent, but I'll know for sure once I've analyzed my mileage log for a future post.

Initially, I put my trust in Nissan because of their 8 year / 100,000 mile warranty on the battery. Now they also have a 6 year / 60,000 mile warranty specifically on the battery's capacity, guaranteeing that it will maintain at least 70% of its original capacity during that period. They extended that warranty to all 2011 and 2012 Leaf owners. I have to say, I'm pretty happy with that. It shows that Nissan stands behind their product, and they're willing to go the extra mile for their customers.

On top of that, the data is now coming in that even if you're much harder on the battery - like this guy who's driven over 78,000 miles with normal battery degradation - it can take it. He charges to 100%, frequently quick charges with the 440V charging stations, and runs the battery down low. Compared to me, he's downright abusive to the battery. I figure mine should hold out just fine. Even if I keep the car for ten years, I could start charging everyday and charging to 100% to keep it going.

One last way to think about the Leaf's battery is that the usage model is not that similar to a laptop battery. The Leaf only charges until it's full, and then it's normally discharged a fair amount before being charged again. The lithium-ion battery much prefers this regular charge-discharge cycle. If you kept your laptop on a regular 80%-20% cycle, it would last much longer, too. It's keeping a laptop plugged in and charged to 100% that kills the battery. On top of that, the Leaf battery is made up of 48 individual cells. If worse comes to worse, the weakest cells could be replaced, and years from now they'll probably be less expensive. Who knows, I may even be able to upgrade the range with lighter, higher capacity cells in the future.

You have to charge the battery with electricity generated from fossil fuels, so isn't it worse for the environment than a gas engine?
Au contraire; we buy wind power. MGE (Madison Gas & Electric) offers and promotes the sale of electricity generated by wind farms at a 2.5 cents/kWh premium, and they are required by law to maintain the wind power capacity that they are selling to customers. If they sell out of wind power, they have to put up more turbines, and they have the proceeds from the price premium to do it. They actually raised the premium a half cent recently because the demand has been so high.

Even if we didn't buy wind power, though, the Leaf would still be a significant win for the environment. Using the EPA's fuel economy website, you can explore the tailpipe emissions and total green house gas emissions of all types of cars going back to 1984. Here are the total grams/mile emissions for a few representative new cars compared with the Nissan Leaf charged in various states:

Average New Vehicle
500 g/mile
2013 Toyota Corolla
382 g/mile
2013 Toyota Prius
222 g/mile
2012 Nissan Leaf - Wisconsin
300 g/mile
2012 Nissan Leaf - California
120 g/mile
2012 Nissan Leaf - U.S. Average
230 g/mile
2013 Nissan Leaf - Wisconsin
250 g/mile
2013 Nissan Leaf - California
100 g/mile
2013 Nissan Leaf - U.S. Average
190 g/mile

The 2012 Nissan Leaf is about even with the Toyota Prius, when charging is considered on average across the U.S. It's substantially better than the average new vehicle, and even the fairly fuel efficient Toyota Corolla. The 2013 Leaf improves on those numbers by almost 20% after only two years in production! Imagine how that could improve in the future. Unfortunately, it looks like Wisconsin has some work to do with its electricity generation, but way to go, California!

The real take-away here is that the Nissan Leaf is going to improve its emissions even if I never trade it in for another car. As the power grid moves to cleaner electricity generation, my car becomes better for the environment. I'm helping that along by contributing to wind power expansion, and in the mean time I like to think that my car has 0 g/mile GHG emissions because of the wind power offsets. I'm considering investing in solar panels and a personal wind turbine to truly be off of fossil fuels. Imagine that - being off of oil and off the grid.

Okay, I Really Need to Stop Writing and Post This So...

The bottom line is: this is a tremendously fun and comfortable car to drive. Even though it competes in the small and mid-size economy class, it has performance that's sporty and comfort that borders on luxury. If you really want a sport/luxury EV car, there's always the Tesla Model S, but the Nissan Leaf is an incredible car in its own right, and much cheaper.

Next week I'll talk about the winter driving and charging experience, and hopefully get to the nice comfort and convenience features of the Leaf. Until then, you can play with the EPA site and see how different hybrids and EVs stack up with the gas guzzlers across America. They also have a map giving the breakdown of electricity generation by state. It's a nice site, and quite eye-opening.

The Rest of the Leaf Series:
Part 1: The Acquisition 
Part 2: The Summer Drive 
Part 3: The Winter Drive
Part 4: Frills and Maintenance
Part 5: The Data
Part 6: The Future
Part 7: The Energy Efficiency Meter

A Year and a Half With a Nissan Leaf (Part 1): The Acquisition

When I lost my job in late 2011, I suddenly found myself in the market for a new car. Now that may sound strange, but I used to be able to walk to work because the office was less than a mile away from my house. The office for the new job I landed was a bit over eleven miles away, so I wasn't about to continue my daily walks to work, especially in the winter. Because I used to always walk to work, my family was able to survive with one car quite comfortably. Now we needed a second one.

Deciding on a Leaf

I was intent on getting as fuel efficient a car as I could that would still comfortably seat four people - two of them in car seats - for the times that we wanted to use it instead of our aging Corolla. I briefly looked at the Mazda3. A fun, nice looking car, but 40 mpg wasn't going to be good enough. I also considered the Prius, but I wasn't impressed with how they had started cutting corners on the high-tech feel of the car. Among other things, they had replaced the color display of the car's fuel efficiency information with a monochrome display next to the speedometer. Toyota has recently revamped the Prius, bringing back the color display as a touch screen, and we did eventually trade in our Corolla for a Prius in June of 2013. But at that time I wasn't too excited about it.

While researching the new car market, I learned that the Nissan Leaf was the first fully-electric car available that didn't cost a fortune. It was still pretty pricey, but with the government rebate, it was affordable. The Leaf could go about 100 miles on a charge, which was more than enough for me to get to work and back a couple times. I didn't need a car that would go long distances because it would be our second car. I was intrigued.

There was one problem. The Leaf was not being sold in Wisconsin, yet. The 2011 and 2012 model years had a limited roll-out because Nissan was making sure that states had adequate charging infrastructure in place before making the car available for sale. They weren't going to take orders on Leafs in Wisconsin until March or April of 2012, and first deliveries would arrive in June or July. I needed a car in early January. Even though I wasn't sure that I could get one, I decided to take a trip down to Chicago to try one out anyway, and see what I thought.

I was blown away by the test drive. The Leaf was everything I wanted in a car. It was quick, quiet, and full of high-tech goodness. Even better, it was actually roomier than our Corolla, except for maybe the trunk. Even though the Leaf is a hatchback, it's hard to beat the Corolla's trunk. It is just freaking huge for a car that size. Anyway, I wanted the Leaf. Now I had to figure out a way to get one and get it back to Madison.

Trying to Buy a Leaf

That may not seem like it should be that difficult, but it would have been if not for a lucky break. First off, the car's limited range severely limited the number of dealerships within range of my house, namely one in Rockford, Il. For the dealerships around Chicago I would have had to get the Leaf to Milwaukee and charge it before I could get it back to Madison. Even that would have been a stretch because it was the middle of winter, and the Leaf's range is reduced in cold temperatures. There was the option of having the car delivered, but I didn't want to resort to that because it was pretty expensive.

Getting the car home wasn't the worst of my problems, though. The real problem turned out to be buying the car. I had assumed that I could go to any dealership in Illinois and buy a Leaf, but that was wishful thinking. Nissan was only taking Leaf orders through their website, not from dealerships. Every car was built-to-order and shipped to the desired dealership with a three month lead time. The lead time was trouble enough because I needed a new car quickly, but it turned out that Nissan wouldn't even take your order if your address was not within the designated states where they were selling.

I tried calling a number of dealerships in northern Illinois to see if anyone could help me buy a Leaf. No one had any immediate options that were viable. They couldn't even sell the demo Leafs off their lots because Nissan wouldn't allow it. This all struck me as a rather strange predicament. Here I was trying to buy a car off of any dealership that could get it for me, and I would be paying MSRP because Nissan was selling them at a fixed price. It was an easy, guaranteed sale. I'm sure any dealership would have loved to sell me the car, but they couldn't because I lived 50 miles north of the Illinois border!

I got a phone call a couple days later with some great news. The dealership closest to me had received a cancellation because the customer needed a new car and couldn't wait for their Leaf to arrive. The Leaf was already in transit to the dealership, so the order couldn't be cancelled from the factory. It was arriving on the lot on Friday, and I could have it if I wanted it. Now, it wasn't exactly what I wanted. It was an SL, which added a solar panel of dubious value and a quick charge port that I was certain I would never use, and it was silver instead of blue. I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and said I'd be there on Saturday to pick it up.

Picking up the New Leaf

Come Saturday my wife and I piled the kids in the Corolla and we all drove down to Rockford, Illinois to get Daddy's new toy. It was an especially warm January 7th, with a high of 60℉, which was a good thing because to get me home the Leaf was going to need all the help it could get. When we arrived at the dealership, the salesman apologetically told me that they somehow dropped the ball, and the Leaf had not been charged the night before. What?! But not to worry, they'd been charging it since he got in that morning. Again, what?! The Leaf kinda needs to be charged to go anywhere, and it takes 7-8 hours to fully charge. How do you mess that up? I wasn't about to push it back to Madison. It looked like we would be staying a while.

That turn of events gave us plenty of time to go through all of the paperwork and the Leaf tutorial and what not. We also had a nice look at all of the other Nissans in their showroom. The kids particularly liked hanging out in the 370Z Roadster they had. Nice car. By the time the Leaf was charged, detailed, and ready to go, we were more than ready, too. The kids were beyond squirrely by then, and I think the sales staff was glad to see us go.

The Drive Home

The Leaf helpfully reported that it could travel 96 miles in ECO mode, and it was only 72 miles to Madison according to the navigation and avoiding freeways. I thought 24 miles to spare should be plenty of margin. My wife would follow in the Corolla, and my daughter really wanted to ride with me in the new car. Fair enough. It was late afternoon, and we had to get a move on while it was still warm, so off we went.

I learned an awful lot about the Leaf in those first few dozen miles of driving. For instance, it's not too efficient with a combination of 55mph highways and stoplights. Pretty much the whole route to the Illinois border was like that, and I must have hit every perfectly-timed stoplight. I did my best to accelerate slowly and coast into the stops so that the regenerative braking could recover as much charge as possible, but it's quite a lot to ask the braking to make up for that kind of extreme constantly varying speed. By the time we crossed into Wisconsin, I was down to about 16 miles of margin and I'd only gone about 18 miles.

The stoplights ended at the border, but then the hills began. From the Leaf's perspective, hills look almost like stoplights. It recovers some charge going downhill, but not as much as it consumes powering uphill. I was watching the navigation system and calculating options in my head almost constantly, but there really was only one route to take for most of the trip.

When we were within 15 miles of home, I actually only had 5 miles of margin to work with, and the temperature was dropping as the sun went down. My hands were going numb, and I seriously regretted leaving my coat in the Corolla. The weather had been nice and warm when we left the dealership, so I thought I wouldn't need it. I couldn't turn the heater on because I needed the miles to get home. Luckily my daughter had fallen asleep in the back, and had her jacket, so she didn't notice the cold.

Now I actually had a choice in the route. I could either take the freeway, which was a couple miles shorter but at higher speeds that would likely sap more of the little battery power I had left, or I could go through the town of Verona, which was a bit longer with more stoplights but had some stretches of 25 and 35mph roads. I decided to try Verona.

It was actually dark enough by this point that I had to turn on the headlights, but happily they did not seem to impact the distance left on the battery much, if at all. Thank you, Nissan, for the LED headlights. It turns out that Verona was the right choice. I avoided a big hill on the beltline that I would have had to climb otherwise, and the stoplights didn't hurt too much at the lower city street speeds. I actually recovered 5 miles of estimated distance - which I would later learn is quite substantial when at the end of the battery's charge - and pulled into my garage with 10 miles left. Home, sweet home.

Overall, that was quite an exciting and nerve-wracking experience. It probably wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world if I had run out of juice. I could have called AAA and gotten towed the last few miles, but boy, would that have been a hassle at the end of a long and trying day. It was good to end the adventure on a positive note, and I gladly turned the car off and plugged it in for the first time.

That was my very first experience of owning a Leaf. Everything since then has been fairly uneventful in comparison, but I won't get ahead of myself. Next week I'll talk about what I thought of the car and all of its high-tech features as I broke it in and really got to know it better.

The Rest of the Leaf Series:
Part 1: The Acquisition 
Part 2: The Summer Drive 
Part 3: The Winter Drive
Part 4: Frills and Maintenance
Part 5: The Data
Part 6: The Future
Part 7: The Energy Efficiency Meter