A series of Twitter posts involving our 2011 Nissan Leaf summarized the risk, reward and range anxiety posed by driving the EV on a daily basis. The following string of entries was courtesy of Director of Vehicle Testing Dan Edmunds:
Aug 1 -- (16:00) Time to take advantage of our Leaf's new carpool lane stickers.
Aug 2 -- (17:30) At home with our Nissan Leaf after commuting 46.4 miles. Range meter says I have 53 miles for the return trip.
Aug 3 -- (07:30) My Nissan Leaf round-trip test failed with a ticket for entering the carpool lane a couple hundred yards too soon in an attempt to make it.
Aug 3 -- (07:50) Waiting for my tow but the AAA flatbed just passed me and kept going #%^$&.
Aug 3 -- (08:00) Tired of waiting for a tow. Decided to inch the Nissan Leaf forward off the freeway. At a nearby shop.
Aug 3 -- (8:30) Today I thought I would do something cool and interesting in the name of science and it totally blew up in my face.
Why We Bought It
Is an electric vehicle the solution? We posed this question at the introduction of our long-term test of the 2011 Nissan Leaf. After six months with an electric vehicle as our primary mode of transportation, we hoped to know the answer.
This was the first year of production for the Leaf. It was powered by a lithium-ion battery pack generating 107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. EPA estimates gave it a range of just over 70 miles, which fit our commutes nicely. Before the Leaf, public exposure to electric cars was limited to low-volume test cases. This Nissan was a true EV built for mainstream consumption for under $35,000. We were intrigued.
The only way to test the practicality of an electric vehicle was to drive one every day. With that objective in mind, our long-term test began.
Life on Electricity
Battery life is a constant concern with electric vehicles. The Leaf was no exception. To own an EV requires planning and the realization that this car can't do it alone. A second form of transportation is a necessity. Associate Editor Mark Takahashi wrote, "The Leaf probably isn't the best car in an emergency.... You need something reliable with a decent amount of range. In seismically active Southern California, the Leaf would be one of the worst choices when the Big One hits. Power would likely be out for weeks, so charging is out. That means getting around just got more complicated."
We found battery charging was also an obstacle to owning an EV. One editor noted, "This is the first time I've driven our Leaf home from the office. After 40 miles in one direction the DTE (distance to empty) reads 47 miles. Now I could gamble and make it back without a refresh, but I'd rather not. I need to plug it into the wall. According to the IP, it will cost me 11 hours to charge the Nissan from my 120-volt outlet. At 240 volts it shortens to 4 hours. My commute is probably longer than that of the average Leaf owner. But based on my situation I could not make it through a typical work week without another car."
Reliance upon the distance-to-empty meter did leave us stranded on two occasions. One such event, cited above, was documented by Dan Edmunds and the California Highway Patrol. A second run-in with roadside assistance occurred 1.5 miles from our office with Automotive Content Editor Warren Clarke behind the wheel. Clarke blogged, "I don't have a lot of driving planned and figure the quiet weekend will be a good match for the Leaf's limited range. The weekend winds up being more social than I'd anticipated. By the time Monday morning yawns and stretches, the DTE gauge is showing 13 miles. No cause for concern, I reason. I live only 7 miles from the Edmunds nerve center, so I decide to go for it. A couple moments later, I see it -- the flashing tortoise. After a block or so, the Leaf checks out. I'm a block from a major intersection. No nearby spots to push the car. Nothing left to do but call AAA and wait."
As far as reliability went, our limited six-month test equated to a spotless problem history. A tire rotation and cabin air filter change isn't even a consideration until 7,500 miles. Severe service intervals don't call for brake and battery inspections until 15,000 miles. We experienced no mechanical issues during our test.
Total Body Repair Costs: None
Total Routine Maintenance Costs (over 6 months): None
Additional Maintenance Costs: None
Warranty Repairs: None
Non-Warranty Repairs: None
Scheduled Dealer Visits: None
Unscheduled Dealer Visits: None
Days Out of Service: None
Breakdowns Stranding Driver: None
Performance and Fuel Economy
We didn't expect outstanding instrumented test results from the 2011 Nissan Leaf. Our 3,300-pound EV accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 9.9 seconds (with rollout) and completed the quarter-mile in a leisurely 17.5 seconds at 75.9 mph. From 60 mph the Leaf reached a stop in 130 feet. It passed through the slalom at 60.3 mph and generated 0.78g of lateral force around the skid pad. The most limiting factor in these performance categories was its Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 tires, built for low rolling resistance rather than adhesion.
This test was about fuel economy above all else. Was electricity a viable alternative to gasoline? One of the most important factors to consider was range. Nissan's original claim for the Leaf was 100 miles. Under certain driving conditions this figure could vary from 62 to 138 miles. The EPA rated it at 73 miles. After 3,500 miles our Leaf performed better than both estimates, averaging a projected range of 86 miles. But we found the variability of real-world driving made the DTE meter somewhat unreliable. During one closed-course test we set the cruise to 35 mph and drove our fully charged Leaf until it would go no more. We covered a total of 132 miles and consumed electricity at a rate of 19.8 kilowatt hours per 100 miles (kWh/100). Then we towed it home.
Cost per mile was another element of Leaf ownership to consider. We used the cost of electricity on both a California and national level for measurement. Over 3,500 miles our Leaf cost us 4.7 cents/mile to operate in California. Based on the national average it was a bit less, 3.5 cents/mile. Now consider a 50-mpg Toyota Prius. Here, we also used both the California and national averages for gasoline prices. Over the same time period, the hybrid would cost 8 cents/mile to own in California and 7.5 cents/mile nationwide.
Best Fuel Economy: 22.0 kWh/100
Worst Fuel Economy: 53.8 kWh/100
Average Fuel Economy: 33.4 kWh/100
Best Observed Range: 89.9 miles
Best Projected Range: 104.0 miles
Worst Projected Range: 65.8 miles
Average Projected Range: 85.5 miles
At the time of our test, resale value information on the 2011 Nissan Leaf was unavailable. These cars were only six months old. Owners weren't selling them yet. Some dealerships hadn't even received their first sellable units.
True Market Value® at service end: Unavailable
Final Odometer Reading: 3,551
We lived with a 2011 Nissan Leaf for six months. Over this time we drove it for 3,500 miles and towed it another 900 miles. To be clear, most of the flatbed miles were the result of special tests and the distant locations we traveled to perform them. We called roadside assistance for rescue just twice. No mechanical failures. We simply ran out of juice too far from home. We don't hold the Nissan responsible for stranding us, but these events shed light on the pitfalls of an EV as a primary commuter car. Three elements must be considered when discussing the Leaf: range, charge and cost.
Range was the most important aspect of Leaf ownership. We wished the DTE meter was more trustworthy. Despite averaging a projected 86 miles per charge, to drive much farther than 70 miles between charges was a risk. Real-world driving situations were too unpredictable.
Battery charging was also a concern. A dedicated 240-volt charger would fully replenish the Leaf in about 4 hours, regardless of the mileage driven. On the other hand, a 120-volt outlet needed upward of 11 hours to restore the battery to full after just 40 miles of driving. The lack of 240-volt chargers on both ends of our commute required careful time management lest we chance being stranded.
Cost was one clear advantage of the Leaf over gasoline-powered automobiles. The Nissan cost over 3 cents less per mile to operate than a 50-mpg hybrid. Local driving situations give it a leg up on its gasoline competitors. But our infrastructure cannot support long-distance all-electric travel. The same, more expensive gasoline-hybrid can traverse the country, while the Leaf will never leave the city. Is 3 cents per mile worth the loss of versatility? Only if you have a second gasoline-powered car to fall back on.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.