What is it really like to live with an electric car? Is it fun to drive? Inexpensive to own? Scary when the range drops?
Two automotive editors at Edmunds.com each leased a 2011 Nissan Leaf and have now driven the electric four-door hatchback for more than a year. Ownership has given them both a greater understanding of the role of EVs in the mix of personal transportation and even some new insights into the often discussed "range anxiety." They might not have all the answers to the questions an EV-curious consumer might ask, but they have a lot of them.
Philip Reed, Edmunds senior consumer advice editor, chose a red 2011 Nissan Leaf SL hatchback and is paying $449 per month for a three-year lease that allows 36,000 miles. He commutes to the Edmunds.com office in Santa Monica, California, along congested Interstate 405, a round trip of 63 miles a day. He has logged 11,000 miles in the first 13 months and has had no significant problems with his car.
John O'Dell, an Edmunds senior editor who writes about green cars and fuel economy, also got a red 2011 Nissan Leaf SL, although it has a quick-charger port that was a $700 option when he got the car. His payment on a three-year, 36,000-mile lease is $483 a month. The car is his wife's daily driver. She averages about 10 miles a day between work and other trips. The Leaf also is the O'Dells' primary car on weekends, unless they take a long trip. They've had the car for 16 months and have logged 6,215 miles with a couple issues.
What is the range? Is it really 100 miles as Nissan advertises? Is that enough?
Reed: I've driven 85 miles on a single charge and Edmunds once got 130 miles under perfect conditions for a Nissan Leaf we were testing. But for planning purposes, it's best to assume the range is 73 miles, the EPA's official rating, not the 100 miles touted in Nissan's ads. For my main purpose — commuting — this range is adequate. Around town on weekends, I usually don't even charge up because local errands just don't amount to many miles.
O'Dell: We don't like to take the car on any trip that involves more than 65 miles — just to be safe. For us, this means my wife uses the Leaf for whatever driving she's doing on weekdays and we're able to use it for most of our weekend driving. The longest single trip we've taken was 70 miles, about two-thirds of it on the freeway at 65-70 mph, and the range gauge said we had about 3 miles left when we pulled into the garage.
What do you do when you have to go farther than 73 miles?
Reed: I take our other car, a 2000 Nissan Sentra GXE.
O'Dell: We use another car. My daily commuter is a 2007 Honda GX, which is the natural gas model. We also have a 2009 Subaru Forester that we use for vacations, long weekends or when we need to haul something that won't fit in the Leaf.
How long does the Nissan Leaf take to charge?
Reed: My typical charging takes about 4 hours at 240 volts. That's because I never start charging from a fully discharged battery, the way people do with cell phones, laptops and iPads. Instead, I usually have about 20 miles of range remaining. Also, I charge after midnight, when the rates are low. So it's a bit irrelevant to be concerned about charging times. I mean, if it took 2 hours, it wouldn't make any difference — I'm not going anywhere at 2 a.m.
O'Dell: We plug in at home with a 240-volt Level 2 charger, usually three times during the week and a couple times on weekends. It takes an hour to top up after driving for two weekdays and 4 hours or so on weekends, when the battery gets down to 20-25 miles of range.
How much does it cost to charge?
Reed: This is a question I wish I were asked more often because the answer is so awesome. It costs me about $2 for my daily 63-mile commute compared to the $8 it used to cost to cover the same distance in my 2007 Honda Fit Sport.
If I had driven the 11,000 miles I have on my Leaf in my Fit, I would have burned 367 gallons of gas, which would have cost $1,375 at $3.75 a gallon. Instead, I used 2,750 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity at 11 cents per kWh for a total cost of $302.50. These figures compare the Leaf to the Fit, a very high-mileage car. If I had been driving an SUV getting 18 mpg, I would have consumed 611 gallons of gas for 11,000 miles and spent $2,292, compared to the Leaf's $302.50.
O'Dell: Fuel cost is immaterial to me. We have a home solar system, so our electric bill is very low. It averages about $25 a month for a 2,000-square-foot house, the EV and the 240-volt natural-gas fuel compressor we have for the Civic. But we are on one of Southern California Edison Co.'s special EV rate plans, so our usual charging — between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. — would average about 8 cents per kWh, or $2.69 per 100 miles of travel, if we had to pay for all of it.
Aren't your lease payments really high?
Reed: Yes. The cost of the lease that I have has now dropped to about $300. But I chose to be an early adopter, knowing it would be expensive. However, my maintenance costs are zero, fuel costs are low and my accountant lets me use the lease payments as a tax deduction because I write articles and do interviews about EVs.
O'Dell: Ditto — although I need to talk to Phil about how to get that tax deduction!
Isn't the charging station really expensive?
Reed: I didn't install a "charging station." An electrician installed a 240-volt outlet and a new electrical panel, which we needed, for $900. Then, I bought an SPX charger for $750. Federal tax laws allow 30 percent of all expenses for EV recharging equipment and installation expenses to be deducted.
O'Dell: I went with the Aerovironment charger that Nissan offers with the car. It would have cost me $1,900 except I got a call from Nissan just before it was installed and was offered the charger for free if I'd agree to be part of a special test group. I'm not stupid, so I said yes. Nissan monitors my charging through its onboard CarWings system.
Did you discover any unexpected benefits to owning an EV?
Reed: One morning I drove past a filling station, where regular gas was selling for $4.15 a gallon, and saw several cars at the pump, their owners standing nearby, staring off into space as numbers ticked off the expense. It hit me that I never do this anymore. Instead, I pull into my driveway, connect the charging cord and go on about my business. When I return, the car is recharged and ready to go at a fraction of the cost.
O'Dell: No worries about gas prices, a really quiet and smooth ride, and we get to meet lots of people who come up to us, usually in parking lots, to ask about our EV.
Compare driving an all-electric car to driving a gas car.
Reed: The Leaf is immediately responsive at all speeds, which is very pleasurable. It also handles well because the battery provides a low center of gravity. Beyond that, it gives a wonderful feeling of simplicity because there are few moving parts — just a whirring electric motor connected to a battery. There is no meshing of transmission gears, no churning pistons, no elaborate cooling system, no exhaust system or expensive catalytic converter.
O'Dell: Phil almost said it all. I especially love dropping out of "Eco" mode, which extends range but reduces responsiveness, and into "D" (for "drive") mode, which is like lighting off an afterburner. I have lots of fun powering up steep hills while the BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and hot Mustangs drop behind me. That electric-drive torque is a real kick.
Were there any negative surprises to owning the Nissan Leaf?
Reed: The indicated remaining range bounces around wildly based on driving conditions and driving speed and style. I got used to this. But it drives my wife crazy and she is reluctant to drive the Leaf. The rear storage area is smaller and the folded-down seats provide less cargo area than I sometimes need for my bike. Finally, I'm disappointed that the promised EV charging stations are not appearing as quickly as I had hoped. If I want to charge away from home, I have fewer options.
O'Dell: Lack of public charging — fast public charging — is my biggest disappointment. Nothing about the car, its character or performance has been negative. We did have two surprises, though. The A/C didn't work properly when we first got the car. It turned out someone along the new-car prep chain removed and forgot to replace the 15-amp fuse for the A/C condenser fan. Then about six months after we got the car, all of the 12-volt equipment shorted out at the car wash. It turned out that the little black box linking the 12-volt and high-voltage systems hadn't been properly installed, exposing all the electrical connections to the water that got under the hood during the wash.
Nissan's EV-owner hotline wasn't much help. All it offered was tow-truck dispatching and the guy who answered the phone knew nothing about the car. I hope they've fixed that by now. We'd already called the Auto Club and had the car towed to our local Nissan dealer, where it was promptly fixed under warranty.
Were there any positive surprises?
Reed: I didn't realize how inexpensive it would be to commute on electricity. Also, running errands around town in the Leaf is effortless. Rather than firing up a gas-engine car, and driving a cold car for 5-10 minutes which is less efficient and more polluting, the Leaf operates at maximum efficiency, with no tailpipe emissions as soon as you press the button. I love that feeling.
O'Dell: The quality of the ride is a real surprise. It's like a luxury car. And while I know that EVs are quiet, I can never get over just how quiet. Music sounds much better in the Leaf than in any of our other cars. It's also easier to have a conversation while motoring along and you're not as worn out at the end of a day of schlepping around. Plus, we find the car exceptionally roomy. We even got four non-folding lawn chairs and a small table in it one day (with the backseats down).
Would you summarize your impressions after your first year?
Reed: In congested Los Angeles, owning the Leaf is my "Get Out of Jail Free" card. I never go to a gas station, which is a great thing both politically and economically. I can use the carpool lanes as a solo driver, which saves me about 4 hours a week of sitting in traffic and an untold number of attacks of claustrophobia and frustration. Several times I worried I might run out of power, but it never happened. In fact, I never even saw the dreaded "turtle of death" icon that portends imminent immobility. I rotated the tires myself, so the only time I went to the dealer was for the required battery test. The poor service advisor, who is trained to upsell customers coming in for maintenance, didn't know what to do with me.
O'Dell: I absolutely love it for what it is: an amazing second car. We don't expect it to take us 200 miles to the mountains and back and we don't expect to be able to find free fuel around every corner. What we do expect is carefree, fun local driving, easy refueling at home and little or no maintenance costs — and it's delivered all that. My only gripe is the price. I know it pretty accurately reflects what it cost to build the car, but I keep hoping we'll see costs — and prices — come down so more people can afford EVs.