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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