2011 Nissan Leaf Long-Term Road Test


2011 Nissan Leaf: Driving It To The Bitter End

May 04, 2011

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We've all been curious since Day One; you've asked for it, we've wanted to do it. Now, at last, we know how far our 2011 Nissan Leaf can go on a single charge. And we also know what this electric car goes through as it slowly convulses and dies at the side of the road.

This last point is why it took so long to arrange this test. Crapping out on some random road or freeway with unknown emergency parking and uncertain traffic simply wouldn't do. Sure, we could have done it at 2:00 am somewhere, but the video would have been a little, shall we say...dark.

Besides, we were going for distance. To do that we would need to drive the Leaf slowly for miles and miles of uninterrupted miles with no traffic. What we needed was a big oval test track, a place where we could set the cruise, settle in and run the most boring laps imaginable while the Raptor and its rescue trailer sat in the shade, waiting for a radio call.

For no other reason than it sounded about right, we chose 35 mph as our test speed. We've heard tales of a Tesla running some amazing distance, but they supposedly did it at something like 17 mph. We'd shoot ourselves if we had to drive that slowly for an estimated 9 or 10 hours -- without cruise control, mind you, because it won't work at such a snail's pace.

To us, 35 mph sounded like a reasonable slow speed, something that reasonable people might actually average in a suburban setting. Something our drivers might stand a reasonable chance of staying awake for.

How far did our 2011 Nissan Leaf take us at a steady 35 mph? Find out after the jump.

Nissan's initial claim for the Leaf centered around 100 miles. They also said that specific driving conditions could drop that figure to 62 miles or raise it as high as 138 miles.

The Leaf's official range, as measured by the EPA and displayed on the window sticker, is 73 miles.

But all of those figures come from tempearture-controlled indoor dyno chambers. None are based on actual driving in the outdoors.

Nissan's maximum data point suggested that our Leaf would be circulating the big, flat oval for something like 4 hours at our target speed. We allowed ourselves 3 stops so we could spread the pain out over four drivers and preserve as much of their weakly-held sanity as possible.

We also kept the climate control system off. Temperatures approaching 80 degrees forced us to allow ourselves to crack the windows open enough to get some air moving in there, but at just 35 mph the aerodynamic effects wouldn't hurt us near as much as running the AC would have.

In the end, our 2011 Nissan Leaf went 132.0 miles.

Interestingly, the sum of the trip odometer and the distance-to-empty (DTE) gauge started predicting something very close to that neighborhood about 15 miles in, the point at which it must have decided that our current driving pattern was persistent enough to use for estimation purposes. Not surprisingly, our Leaf's dash grew the maximum five trees within the first 50 miles.

At 112.4 miles, the DTE meter began blinking "20" miles to go as the Leaf got down to two "bars" of electricity on what for lack of a better term we'll still call the fuel gauge. We've been here before lots of times, but never at a distance remotely close to this.

Then, at 122.0 miles, the gauge dropped to one bar of electricity and the DTE prediction of 11 miles to go winked out and was replaced by "- - -" miles instead. We've only driven a couple of miles past the "- - -" point in real life before wimping out and plugging in, but this time we were going all the way.

At 130.0 miles, the final bar of electricity disappeared from the fuel gauge and the dreaded Tortoise lamp came on, indicating that power and speed were being cut. Speed did indeed drop to 33 mph for a time, but it soon came back up to 35 for a short time before faltering once again.

The Tortoise light went out again at 131.2 miles and an excited red triangle winked on as the Leaf's speed began a steady retreat. I was in the car at the crucial moment and counted it down, reverse Top Gear USA-style, "...18...17...16...15." Our red Leaf finally came to a dead stop after exactly 132.0 miles, 10 miles after the DTE gauge stopped making any promises.

The trusty Ford Raptor swept in to clean up the mess shortly thereafter. Thankfully, the Leaf's power windows still worked and we were able to easily shift it into neutral and steer it onto the trailer with a gang of people pushing. We towed our fallen Leaf off the track and plugged it in to see how many kilowatt-hours (kWh) it had just gone through.

It took 26.08 kWh of juice to recharge the battery, which works out to a consumption rate of only 19.8 kWh per 100 miles. The most we'd ever put in previously was 24.35 kWh, after a real-world random drive of only 71.2 miles and a DTE reading of 7 miles.

Our own day-in day-out random testing tells us the EPA rating has the Leaf's useable range pegged just about right. But on what is essentially an infinitely long straight and level road, at a steady 35mph on cruise control, with the AC off and the windows cracked, our Nissan Leaf will, in fact, go 132.0 miles on a single charge.

To do this again we'll have to rent this track or another one like it another time. Here's a poll for you: steady 65mph with the AC set to 75 degrees or full-whack wide-open throttle?

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 1,881 to 2,013 miles

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