In this first comprehensive look at the real-world electric vehicle experience, we asked five users of the Nissan Leaf — currently the most widely available pure electric car — to share their stories on the buying process, charging challenges, operating costs and driving experience. We also asked them whether “range anxiety” is an ongoing factor or a relic of the pre-EV era.
Frustrations in Ordering
For many, the ordering process was fraught with delays and hiccups due in part to a new reservation process.
After the reservation system went live on April 20, 2010, potential buyers plunked down $99 to get in line. On Aug. 31 buyers were able to start placing orders and track the process online via their personal “dashboard.” Four- to seven-month waits for delivery were common.
Overseas, Japan’s Leaf buyers took advantage of a rebate, diverting orders to production there. The rebate was set to expire in March 2011, but it was extended, further hampering American allocation. ... Then the tsunami hit.
Things went from bad to worse for some buyers. A computer programming mix-up from order to delivery resulted in some cars being delivered out of order. “For some, the ordering process was a nightmare and spoiled it for a lot of people,” says George Whiteside, an acupuncturist and massage therapist in Seattle. He was able to circumvent the process by purchasing an “orphan,” that is, a Leaf that was ordered and produced but ultimately not acquired by the original requester.
Whiteside says some orphans were marked up $5,000 to $7,000 above MSRP for the luxury of shortening the acquisition process, though Whiteside says he found a dealer who “sold it not too much over MSRP.”
Regarding price, buyers chose a dealer and sent a “request for quotation,” which they then accept or reject. When a quote is accepted, the manufacturing order is placed and Nissan assigns a delivery date.
Tom Tweed of La Jolla, Calif., reached out to a local dealer before the RFQ process and had sewn up a price on his own. As a retiree, Tweed was able to shop price between two local dealers and ended up with $1,000 off MSRP. That’s a good deal for an in-demand vehicle, but Tweed says he saw discounts as high as $1,500 to $1,800.
Kirk Gebb, who works for the facilities department for the school district in Eugene, Ore., paid less than $33,000 out the door. He says his buying experience “was no worse than anyone else’s,” though like the others, he “would’ve liked to have the car in October instead of April.”
At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), facilities management fleet manager Jim Ruby and assistant director Dave Weil acquired five Leafs as part of the university’s “Tailpipe Endgame” sustainability initiative. Ruby wrote a “letter of intent” to Nissan and got the university on a wait list. He solicited bids from three dealers and picked the dealer who offered the lowest price.
UCSD’s Leafs are on 36-month leases. Nissan sweetened the deal by passing along the federal $7,500 tax credit which the university, a state entity, couldn’t get. UCSD leases vehicles internally to its departments and, with the price break, could do it at the same rate as a Toyota Prius. All other interviewees were able to take advantage of the $7,500 federal tax credit directly, along with various forms of state credits and rebates.[PAGEBREAK]
These Leaf drivers also received a free, government-funded Level 2 home charging station courtesy of the EV Project. However, some buyers experienced delays in getting their home charging stations installed. The provider, ECOtality, was at one point “overwhelmed by orders,” according to Tweed. Nissan had to stop taking orders for a few weeks in September to allow the EV Project to catch up. Nissan appears to have worked through these problems.
Cost Per Mile – 2 Cents?
In terms of operational costs, Leaf buyers are enjoying immediate savings in fuel costs. And with fewer moving parts and fluids along with regenerative braking to prolong brake life, EVs enjoy minimal maintenance costs.
Jim Hamilton, an air traffic controller from Oceanside, Calif., pays $45 to $55 a month in electricity to power his Leaf — and that’s for a hefty 1,500 miles of driving per month. He calculates that his BMW 330 was burning $300 to $400 a month, or about 20 cents a mile. “We’re now down to almost a tenth of the cost,” he says.
Whiteside calculates 2.2 cents per mile and a fuel savings of $2,000 a year. “I’ve heard plenty of concerns from skeptics about electric cars,” Whiteside says, “But 2.2 cents a mile? That’s real. That’s a hardcore reality that just about anyone can appreciate.”
None of these Leaf drivers has reported a serious maintenance issue, though there have been scattered reports of a parking brake controller problem. Tweed took the car into the dealer to update the firmware, which corrected an air-conditioning controller fault, among other minor issues. More recently, his Leaf got the 7,500-mile checkup and received “a clean bill of health.”
What about the Battery?
Certainly, the biggest maintenance fear surrounds the (very expensive) battery, and it is too close to initial rollout to make judgments regarding longevity. However, the latest generation of lithium-ion batteries has one major advantage: Individual battery cells can be replaced, which relieves the cost of replacing the entire battery.
Whiteside’s research suggests that the Leaf’s battery will perform as expected for at least 3,000 charges when charging from zero to 100 percent, or to at least 150,000 miles. However, Nissan recommends charging to 80 percent, which these users are adhering to. This stopping point ups battery life considerably, perhaps to tens of thousands of charges, according to Whiteside.
Hamilton leased his Leaf as a safety net to battery degradation. “If there isn’t (degradation), I’ll buy the car,” he says.
Gebb sees the bright side of technological progress. “If my battery wore out in five years, it would be a good thing,” he says. “I could put in a battery that could go twice as far, and (that battery) will last longer because you won’t be pushing its limits as hard.”
The Charging Infrastructure Scramble
The Leaf comes with a 120-volt (commonly referred to as 110-volt) Level 1 charger that plugs into a standard home outlet. Charging from dead zero to 100 percent could take up to 18 hours on a standard 120-volt wall outlet. The Level 2 home charger takes about five-and-a-half to six hours from near empty to 80 percent charge. For some, the basic Level 1 charger may be sufficient, especially for shorter commutes.
Commercial-grade Level 3 chargers (480 volts or more) can charge from zero to 80 percent in about 25 minutes and are just beginning to be installed in publicly accessible locations.
The aftermarket is beginning to service the charging infrastructure. A company called EVSEupgrade.com will upgrade the car charger to accept a 240v charge, for about $300, provided your house has a 240-volt outlet (typically for clothes dryers).
As an interim solution to the public charging infrastructure buildout, individuals are listing their household charging stations online for use by other EV drivers through a grassroots program called PlugShare.[PAGEBREAK]
The Drive: From Spirited to Zen
In terms of drivability of an electric vehicle, “I had all the assumptions a lot of people had,” says Whiteside, who, at 6’3”, was surprised at the Leaf’s roominess. “Will it have enough pickup? Is it practical? It blows me away how much pickup it has. I didn’t know what ‘instant torque’ was, and that’s fun. It’s out of the chute before everyone at the stop light.”
Gebb says he had to ease off the accelerator for safety’s sake when traveling through a local highway cloverleaf. He also has taken coworkers for test drives, and they too have been impressed. “I work with guys that drive big diesel trucks and when they get out of this car they say, ‘Damn, it’s a sweet deal,’ ” he says.
Tweed, owner of two Porsches that he races, comes from a different perspective. “It’s not the most exciting or high performance car, but it gets the job done,” he says. Tweed took the Leaf to his Porsche club’s autocross track, and while he found it “underpowered,” he says the battery’s weight and low position kept the vehicle stable on the road. He says Nissan could have been more aggressive on the brake regeneration to recapture energy, “but that would’ve gotten people freaked out when they took their foot off the accelerator and really slowed down more than a (gas-powered) car,” he says.
Hamilton has “no complaints” about the drive. He praises the pickup and braking, though he admits the Leaf can’t match the cornering on his BMW 330. However, “I get in the gas-powered car and it feels like an antique,” he says. “The vibration and looking at the gas tank gauge drives me crazy. I will never own another gas car again if I can avoid it.”
Leaf owners say the driving limitations — along with the desire to conserve power — is having unexpected consequences. “The driving induces a Zen approach,” says Tweed, who now leaves the performance driving for the track. “You get in and you calm down.”
What Range Anxiety?
“Range anxiety is mostly a matter of the unknown,” Whiteside says. “It’s something I had before we bought the car and a little in the break-in phase. The reality is, in a given week or month, I do the same 10 things.”
Whiteside adds that he thought he was driving 70 to 80 miles a day when it turned out to be only 50. “It’s amazing how adequate (the Leaf’s range) is,” he says. “We rarely have to charge anywhere else but home. For what the car is designed to do — a commuter car — it covers about 80 to 90 percent of our driving.”
Generally, our Leaf users report average ranges of 70 to 90 miles with a charge to 80 percent. Hilly terrain, using the HVAC system, a lead foot and a higher mix of highway driving will negatively affect range. Leaf users say the air conditioner is relatively efficient, though the heater is notoriously inefficient.
Hamilton notices a 10 percent loss of range when using the heater, though only a 3 to 5 percent loss using the air conditioner. This can be addressed with “preconditioning.”
The 2012 Leaf models offer a cold weather package that includes heated seats and steering wheel. A smartphone app allows users to heat or cool the car remotely while it is charging. Gebb says preheating the car keeps him comfortable for his entire commute. Hamilton added aftermarket seat covers with an integrated seat heater that keeps him “comfortably warm” and hardly affects energy use, he says.
UCSD’s five Leafs cover a network of extension facilities in the San Diego area and are used by mail services and other campus departments — incurring about a thousand miles per vehicle per month.
Weil admits the biggest concern for UCSD users, who include the director of housing and dining and the university’s chancellor, had been the vehicle’s range, though it’s no longer an issue. Weil reports that UCSD’s Leaf drivers achieve an average range of 60 to 80 miles. “The ones who are getting only 60 miles are pretty aggressive drivers,” he says.
The Leaf has a mileage range gauge that recalculates constantly based on immediate driving conditions, allowing drivers to proactively manage their range. With about five miles of range left, the car enters “turtle mode,” which limits the car to about 35 miles per hour while the navigation system directs the driver to the nearest charging station.
Gebb has experienced turtle mode once about a half-mile from his driveway. The car eases into turtle mode, he says, and gives plenty of warning beforehand.
Hamilton calculates that slowing down to 55 mph increases his range by 10 percent. “I’ve slowed down my drive to and from work because I needed to relieve my range anxiety,” he says, “but I’ve found I no longer have road rage.”