This is what it's like to live with the Nissan Leaf

nissan leaf in garageThe truth is, I blogged about the Nissan Leaf long before owning it, and now that my family has logged several hundred miles on it as both a commuter and weekend family car, I suppose it is time to share some observations. I'll omit the usual clever intro and jump right in:

The Leaf is not a small car. It easily dwarfs our e30 3 Series BMW and the Nissan Cube it replaced. It is no surprise that it is classified as a midsize car – it is certainly neither a subcompact nor even a compact. It is also not particularly attractive, inside or out, but that's no surprise based on all the pictures that people are used to seeing. Its real-world size, however, can be a bit surprising for those expecting a car the size of a Mini or even a Volkswagen Golf.

Our real world range has been between 70-100 miles with an indicated 105-110 miles at full charge.

Top speed is just north of 90 miles per hour and it will reach its terminal velocity relatively effortlessly with no audible or tactile reluctance. Be ready for a profound impact on range driving at those speeds for any length of time, though. The biggest range killer, BTW, is not speed, not climate control, and certainly not stop-and-go driving (this is actually where an EV is completely the opposite of an ICE car – it hates steady state, but thrives in stop and go traffic jams). The biggest range killer is hills. Long uphill sections are the Leaf's nemeses.

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On the flipside, EV's don't care about altitude at all, so for those that want to smoke a ZR1 Corvette above 14,000 feet, your ride has arrived (well, not really, but it may have a fighting chance against a Ford Focus). Speaking of fighting chance, the Leaf excels at 0-40 merging sprints, thanks to a lack of a 1-2 shift and all that torque (200+ lb/ft from zero). After 40 mph or so, it is all over, but up until about 40, with a quick reaction time, it more than holds its own off the line.

The complete silence at speeds is impressive. When someone rolls down their window it is an event. As is a burp or breaking wind or the windshield wipers turning on. It is no surprise that Rolls Royce is looking to adopt EVs for future silent, vibration-free drivetrains. This technology will make a perfect Rolls Royce drivetrain – tons of effortless pull from zero rpm and no soundtrack to go along with it.

The handling is meh. Yes, the batteries put the bulk of the weight in the floor, and in theory, this car should benefit from a low center of gravity, but the econo- car suspension, eco tires, and numb steering more than negate the inherent benefits of the low mass.

If you are looking to turn heads, this is not your car. We have the obnoxious zero emissions stickers and badging and the car is still fairly anonymous. Apart from a few envious Prius drivers asking questions, the car just blends right in. When we got our Smart car, we had to fight through crowds to get to the parked vehicle. This car, for the most part, doesn't garner a second look. Thankfully, this suits us just fine (although it would be nice if it were more attractive generally – did I mention it is kind of homely?).

One more thought about the looks: I now understand why the most obvious color – green – is not available on the Leaf: it would look just like a frog. I personally think that would be funny/cute, but I guess that's not the image they were going for.

green nissan leaf

Replacement batteries are rumored to cost $15-18k from Nissan and, while they are covered by a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty, gradual degradation of the pack is not warranted and the warranty is null and void if you don't do the annual check-ups. For this reason, and the fact that it is a first new-gen EV, I shudder to think what the long-term residuals will be on it in a few years time.

Which brings me to the fact that you can both buy or lease the Leaf. Residuals be damned, we chose to buy (Who Killed the Electric Car? burned into our heads that leasing an EV is just not the thing to do). Our car stickered for around $36k and, after the $7,500 federal rebate, $5,000 state rebate, $2,500 dealer discount, and $2,000 free charging station, we figure we saved on the order of $17,000 on the purchase. Not bad, but keep in mind that you are taxed on the full purchase price (like a cell phone contract, the tax seems way out of proportion to the discounted price of the phone) and while the state rebate comes back in about a month, the federal tax rebate is only at the end of the year after you file taxes. Also, for those that participated in Cash for Clunkers, take heart. After 2 years with our Cube and 40k miles, we got more in trade than we paid for it – so essentially, we drove the Cube for free for 2 years while we waited for the Leaf to come out.

Yes, the Leaf qualifies for HOV lane in California. While they are ending the yellow stickers for hybrids, the white stickers for EVs still lives on.

No, most of those old paddle based charging stations at airports and train stations won't charge the car. You can still park there for free, but don't plan on powering up off an old induction charger. Also, if you have a friend with a Tesla Roadster, don't plan on using their charger – at least not without Tesla's new $750 adapter some sort of adapter [Editor's note: my mistake. Thanks, yudishtira9]. While the Volt and Leaf and most other new EVs use the standardized J1772 connector, the Roadster charger does not.

While the electronic gadgets are a nice touch – this is our first car with a back-up camera, blue tooth, navi, etc. – the lack of amenities found in our Smart car, or even basic economy cars, is kind of conspicuous. There is no leather option. There are no seat heaters. You can't even get a sunroof. Yet...

With safety on most people's minds as this will serve as a daily duty commuter for most people, as opposed to a limited-use weekend fun car for the well-heeled like a Tesla Roadster, it is heartening to know that both the Leaf and it's serial hybrid compatriot, the Volt, scored very well in recent IIHS crash tests, each garnering "Good" ratings (the highest possible) for front, side, rear and rollover crashes.

Still, there are bugs. Apparently, a number of cars are having problems with their AC disabling the car. Our AC and heat both work just fine and you'd never know it was an EV based on how these have been operating for us (I suspect, if we lived in a less temperate climate that was really taxing on either heat or AC, we might be reporting differently, but in the Bay Area it is fine). In any case, Nissan has promised to fix all of the affected vehicles.

The LED headlights are bright and work as well as HIDs with a fraction of the energy consumption/cost/complexity. I only wonder why they went with halogen on the fog lights (cost cutting, I suppose).

There is an iPhone app to initiate, stop, and check the state of charge. You can also pre-heat or pre-cool the car to a desired temp. This is a nice touch and means that you can top-off the car while eating at a restaurant, and know exactly when to return to the car and expect it to be comfortable and ready for you when you get there. On the flipside, there is no security provision that would prevent a miscreant from unplugging your car in your absence to charge his/her car instead and/or just to be a jerk (depending on the public outlet/charger you're using).

Speaking of charging: We have just now received our first PG&E bill and it looks like the Leaf is responsible for between $90-110 of this past month's electrical bill. Given that we have covered approximately 1,400 miles in that time, it is fair to say that our operating cost on the car is somewhere in the neighborhood of $0.07/mile. So, at $4.50/gallon, that gives us an equivalency of around 64 mpg. This is not quite the 99 mpg estimated on the EPA sticker, but not bad so far either. This is just a ballpark for now as we are on solar and consecutive months will provide a better indication of the cost to run the Leaf, but it gives us an idea.

Overall, the Leaf has served us well so far and, as gas prices locally inch towards $5 a gallon, there is some joy in never having to fill up again, along with skipping all the other usual service associated with cars – belts, hoses, filters, fluids, plugs, smog checks, etc. I wish it looked and performed a bit better – taking advantage of its inherent advantages over ICE cars in both performance and looks (this is where the Tesla Roadster shines) but for what it is, it appears to be a competent, well-built car and a fine first-generation offering.

Any other questions, just ask.

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David Vespremi is an accomplished brand marketing strategist working across both automotive and cleantech industries. He served as Marketing Director for K&N Engineering, and Tendo Communications, in support of client American Honda, and as the Director of Communications for Tesla Motors. He now runs his own San Francisco Bay Area-based marketing agency, BoostedGroup LLC, providing marketing solutions and support for automotive and cleantech clients.

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