Three Years in an Electric Car

The Pros and Cons of EV Ownership

Two editors drove a combined total of almost 47,000 miles over the past three years in their all-electric cars. That's the distance of eight round-trips from Los Angeles to Boston. What did they experience? What did they learn? And would they do it again?

Both editors leased the 2011 Nissan Leaf, the electric four-door hatchback, and drove their cars for three years. They recorded their impressions after one year. Now, they discuss the complete three-year ownership cycle.

John O'Dell, an Edmunds senior editor who writes about green cars and fuel economy, got a red 2011 Nissan Leaf SL, with a quick-charger port that was a $700 option. His payment on a three-year/36,000-mile lease was $483 a month. (The monthly lease payment for a Nissan Leaf is now much lower; the editors chose to be early adopters and paid the price.) The car was the daily driver for O'Dell's wife. She averaged about 10 miles a day between work and other trips. The Leaf also was the O'Dells' primary car on weekends, unless they took a long trip. Over the three years they drove 15,317 miles and had three problems with the car, none of which was related to the batteries or electric powertrain.

Philip Reed, Edmunds' senior consumer advice editor, also chose a red 2011 Nissan Leaf SL hatchback and paid $449 per month for a three-year lease that also allowed him 36,000 miles. He used the Leaf mainly for commuting to the office in Santa Monica, California, along congested Interstate 405, a round-trip of 63 miles a day. His wife and son also enjoyed driving the Leaf, but they only used it for around-town errands. Over the three years, Reed and his family drove 31,400 miles. He had one problem with his car, which he relates below.

Did you find driving an EV with a 73-mile range too restrictive?

O'Dell: Not most of the time, but enough that it quickly became unlikely that we'd replace it with another "pure" EV. Although the number of public charging stations has grown, there simply weren't enough in our territory to make longer drives possible. We never got to use our rapid-charger port, for instance, because installations of quick chargers in our area didn't begin until our lease was ending. The 73-mile range (more like 60 when we drove at freeway speeds) meant we couldn't use the Leaf to visit some of our relatives and friends who lived farther than 30 miles from our home.

Reed: At first, the 73-mile range seemed adequate. But as time passed, and my patience diminished and the range dropped slightly, I began to feel restricted by it. Also, to squeeze a full 73 miles from the battery, I had to abstain from using heat or air-conditioning, which I became increasingly unwilling to do. In the last year of my lease, I took to "topping up" at the office by charging for 90 minutes at a public charger, which usually cost about $1.75 for the time period.

Do you think that driving the Leaf saved you money even though your lease payments were really high?

O'Dell: Most definitely. Because we have a home solar system, our electricity costs were nil. If gasoline averaged only $3 a gallon over our three years of leasing, the equivalent cost of fuel for a 30-mpg car would have been $1,577. We installed the solar system to offset our home electricity costs before we added the EV to the load, and topping up the Leaf each night from the 240-volt "Level 2" charger we got for free as part of a special program made little difference.

But even if we had paid the full 8 cents per kWh that our utility charges EV owners who plug in the car between midnight and 6 a.m., our total three-year fuel costs would have been just $2.69 per 100 miles, or $412 for the term of the lease. Our total out-of pocket for maintenance and repairs totaled $80 for a cabin air filter and $432 for four new tires, which we bought just before the lease ended.

We used the Leaf to replace a 25-mpg car. Although it was paid for, it would have continued to cost us roughly $60 a month for gasoline, plus oil changes and other maintenance. Nissan applied the Leaf's $7,500 federal tax credit to the lease, so that didn't save us money. But we did receive a $5,000 state rebate. And we sold my wife's seven-year-old, gasoline-gulping car for $8,000 in a private transaction. So overall we made out just fine.

Reed: Driving the Leaf saved me money in a number of ways. First of all, and most noticeably, I didn't have to fill up my gas tank once or twice a week to the tune of $40 a visit. Instead, over three years, I calculated that I saved $3,400 in fuel costs, compared to my previous commuter car, a 30-mpg 2007 Honda Fit. I also figured that I avoided at least $300 in oil changes that would have been required for my Honda Fit. And finally, unlike John, I returned the car without replacing the tires, so that was one expense I avoided.

What was the biggest benefit to driving an EV?

O'Dell: Low operating costs and single-occupant use of California's carpool lanes.

Reed: I really enjoyed driving the Leaf. Plus, I saved countless hours by using the carpool lanes.

What was the biggest negative to owning the Nissan Leaf that you discovered in Years Two and Three?
O'Dell: Lack of range, which limited our usage. I couldn't drive it to work, for instance, because my round-trip on days I go to the office is 108 miles. That would have pushed the Leaf to its range limits on each leg, with little room for detours or side trips. A year into my Leaf lease, we got electric charging stations at the Edmunds office building so it was technically possible to recharge there. But I would have had to plug in for close to eight hours to refill the battery, and the cost (the chargers started at $2 an hour and later dropped to $1 an hour) made driving the Leaf to work more expensive than driving my other alternative-fuel car: a natural-gas-powered 2007 Honda Civic GX. Besides, my wife was driving the EV to her work and loving it. I never had the nerve to try to take it away from her!

Reed: There were some places I wanted to go that were just outside of my range and that was frustrating. Also, driving the Leaf required some planning. I had to calculate my route, find chargers and restrict my use of the air-conditioner and heater. When I wanted to take longer trips, I used our second car, a 2000 Nissan Sentra.

Did you have any mechanical or electrical problems with your Leafs?

O'Dell: There were three issues, none related to the EV system itself. The first was a missing fuse that kept the air-conditioner from working (we never did figure out how the fuse went missing, but suspect it was taken out during pre-lease prep and never reinstalled); a 12-volt system short caused by an improperly installed fuse box that let in water during a visit to the car wash; and a wheel misalignment that chewed up the right front tire in just 15,000 miles.

Reed: I had one problem in the final year that proved difficult to diagnose. As I was braking for a stop, the regenerative braking system would malfunction, causing the car to bump to a stop. On two occasions, the car popped into neutral and then temporarily refused to go back into gear. After a few minutes, it seemed to recover and I was able to continue driving. I went to the service department once and the technicians couldn't find the problem. The second time it happened, they traced the problem to a loose bolt connecting the battery, which somehow caused an electrical short. The technician fixed the problem and my Leaf performed flawlessly after that.

Did your Leaf ever run out of electricity and strand you by the side of the road?

O'Dell: Nope. We came close but always managed to make it home with at least 2 miles of spare range showing. Our general modus was to never take it more than 30 miles from home, so we were sure we could make it back.

Reed: The lowest I ever got was about 2 miles of range. And I never did see the sinister "turtle of death" warning light that indicated impending shutdown.

Were there any positives about driving an EV that grew on you over time?
O'Dell: The quiet ride, the responsive throttle and tight steering, the absence of any need to visit a gas station, and the environmental benefit we provided by driving emissions-free on electricity that was mostly provided by the sun.

Reed: I completely agree with John's points, plus I came to admire the ease and simplicity of the electric powertrain. I especially like the way an EV doesn't have to warm up to operating temperature to achieve maximum efficiency. This makes it a perfect around-town car for efficiently performing quick, short errands.

Since you both leased the Leaf and you have now returned your cars to the dealer, what did you buy or lease to replace it, and why?

O'Dell: My wife and I returned our Leaf in May and two weeks before the lease was up, we purchased a 2014 Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid. We bought it because it best fit our needs for space, comfort and range: especially the all-electric range. The C-Max Energi was EPA-rated at 21 miles of all-electric range when we bought it. That's since been reduced to 20 miles after a re-evaluation, when Ford discovered what it described as an error in its fuel efficiency testing procedures. Nevertheless, it is still the third-best plug-in hybrid range in the market, behind the 38 miles of all-electric range for the Chevrolet Volt and 21 miles of battery power for the Ford Fusion Energi. So far, with about 3,500 miles on the odometer, we're averaging 70 miles per gallon. With daily battery charging, the C-Max Energi is delivering almost 1,000 miles per 14-gallon tank. But both of us wish for more all-electric range — we absolutely hate it when the gas engine does kick in!

Reed: As the Leaf lease was ending, my son said, "You have to get another electric car because I couldn't stand looking at the charging station in the garage and thinking it was just a fad." I agreed with him and considered many different electric options. I thought about a plug-in hybrid, or a really cheap EV such as the Fiat 500e. But then I saw that Toyota was offering $16,500 cash on the 2014 RAV4 EV and I decided to lease it for three years at $428 a month. Owners have reported getting as much as 150 miles of range, which opens up many more destinations for me. So far, I love it — and my charging station is again in use every night.