Pondering the Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf
Today’s topic strays from my usual focus on electric cargo bikes, but it relates to my broader interest in finding transportation options that are practical for my family and sustainable for the planet.  With these criteria in mind, where does the all-electric Nissan Leaf fit in?  To answer that, we recently traded our Toyota Prius for a new Leaf.  Since then, I’ve received many questions from friends and family about this car, and I’m hoping to address some of these in this article.

Is it practical?

The Leaf is proving itself to be very practical for our family – the four of us fit into it comfortably (our collective height and width are probably somewhat less than the average American family), and our normal daily driving falls easily within the range of the Leaf’s battery.  We drive very smoothly using the Leaf’s “ECO” mode, but the hilly terrain reduces the Leaf’s range to about 80 miles rather than the frequently quoted 100 miles.  The range drops to about 70 miles if we run the air conditioner.

The Leaf works well for us because it complements the capabilities of our other vehicles: a mini-van for hauling bigger loads of people or stuff (or for longer trips), the electric cargo bike for short errands (usually just one person and cooperative weather conditions), and traditional bikes for recreation or short commutes to a bus stop.  We initially thought the Leaf could handle medium-distance trips with breaks every couple of hours for a quick charge (a 480V charger can charge the battery up to 80% in less than half an hour), but Nissan is warning owners not to use quick chargers more often than once a day to prevent damage to the battery.  There is some debate on the owners’ forums about whether that is conservative advice promulgated by cautious lawyers, or whether there are sound engineering reasons behind it.  (By the way, if you’re thinking about getting a Leaf, it might be worth your time to visit the forums at MyNissanLeaf.com and delve into various pros and cons posted by current Leaf owners.)

Range and carrying capacity are two facets of practicality; cost of acquisition and cost of operation are also important.  Well, let’s face it, the purchase price of the Leaf is high compared to similar gasoline-powered cars, even with the $7500 tax incentive.  But compared to a well-trimmed Prius, it’s not so far out of line.  We chose to lease the Leaf, partly because the $7500 tax break is applied immediately to the lease (rather than waiting until next April to get the refund if you choose to buy the car).  Also, I’m not sure what the resale value of a first-generation electric car is going to be in 39 months.  I’m hoping that battery technology will improve quickly and that we will have compelling alternatives to consider when the lease expires.  For example, the all-electric Ford Focus may provide decent competition for Nissan when it arrives next year.

Of course, it’s the Leaf’s cost per mile that is really amazing.  With gas at $3.90/gallon (that’s the average price in Washington as I write), the Leaf is more than three times less expensive to operate than our Prius.  That surprised me.  Driving the Prius, we were averaging about 45 miles per gallon, or about 9 cents per mile.  Last week, we drove the Leaf 310 miles for $8.73 worth of electricity (at $0.10 per kWh) – less than 3 cents a mile.  It’s not unreasonable to imagine that you could make up for the difference in price between a Prius and the Leaf in fuel savings, especially in a place like Wyoming, where electricity rates are 40% lower than those in the Seattle area.

And we love the convenience of plugging the car into the charger in our garage rather than figuring out when we need to fit a visit to the gas station into our driving schedule.

Is it luxurious?

Leaf backup camera with guide lines

The depth and breadth of amenities in our Leaf also surprised me.  I’m comparing it to our Toyota Prius, which was a “Touring Edition” with extras like leather seats and fog lights.  But it was a 2007 model, so the comparison with a 2011 Leaf might not be completely fair.  I think it’s still worth describing what surprised me.

  • Proximity keys.  Our Prius also had proximity keys, which allow you to unlock and start the car without removing the key from your pocket.  Once you get used to them, it’s hard to imagine fishing through your pocket or purse for your keys while balancing an armload of groceries.  One thing I liked about the Leaf: you can specify whether you want the proximity key to unlock just one door, or all the doors.  I like the latter option, so my family can enter the car without further action on my part.
  • Backup camera. The Prius had a backup camera as well, but the Leaf overlays a graphic to show where the car is headed.  The rectangular shape of the graphic bends as you turn the wheel, so you can see where you will be if you continue on your current course.  It also overlays range lines so you can tell what objects might be getting close to your bumper.
  • Multiple Bluetooth devices. The car can connect to my iPhone for hands-free calling, and simultaneously connect to my daughter’s iPod to stream her music over the stereo.  Setting that up required a few too many menu choices on the touch screen for my liking, but it seems to remember the configuration so that we don’t have to set it up each time.
  • Speed-dependent volume. You can tell the stereo to automatically increase the volume as your speed increases.  Nice touch!
  • Automatic headlights. I’m surprised that our Prius didn’t have those.
  • ECO mode. The ECO driving mode will theoretically increase your driving range by 10-15%.  It does this partly by reducing the snappiness of acceleration and engaging regenerative braking when you back off on the accelerator.  Although less energetic responsiveness might bother some people, I love it!  If you pay attention to the traffic in front of you, you can drive so that you only rarely need to touch the brake pedal.  In slow or stop-and-go traffic, it’s nice not to continually bounce back and forth between the accelerator and the brake.  But there’s a disconcerting caveat: the regenerative braking only kicks in when the battery has less than a full charge.  When the battery is full, you might take your foot off the accelerator thinking you will start to brake, but instead you just begin to coast.  That seems slightly risky to me, although I understand why you can’t put more energy into a battery that’s already full.  To remedy this, some Leaf owners don’t charge their batteries all the way to capacity.  They get regenerative braking as soon as they get on the road, but their range is correspondingly reduced.
  • Decent menus. In general, I found the Leaf’s menus easier to understand than those in the Prius.  I was able to accomplish some tasks that I was never able to figure out in the Prius.  However, they are still fairly primitive compared to the ease of use of the iPhone, and the voice commands seem pretty clunky.

Not surprisingly, there are some disappointments to balance out my overall positive impression of the Leaf:

  • Silly legal stuff. Every time you start the car, you have to give it permission to transmit data to a web site that tracks interesting data about your efficiency.  There doesn’t seem to be a way to opt in or opt out permanently, so you have to press the OK or Cancel button every time.  That annoys everyone on the owners’ forums.
  • ECO mode selection. To shift into ECO mode, you have to double-shift the gear selector.  The car doesn’t remember your preference, so you have to double-shift every time you turn the car on or shift from reverse.  There are many comments on the owners’ forum that suggest I’m not the only one who finds this suboptimal.
  • Inconsistent data. The energy usage displayed by the car, by the web site, and by our home charger are only roughly correlated.  It makes me wonder about the accuracy of these measurements when they can’t agree with each other.
  • Cheap carpet. I think it’s supposed to be environmentally friendly, but it looks like Nissan skimped in this area.
  • Uncomfortable seats. Although they don’t bother me, my wife finds the Leaf’s seats much less comfortable than the Prius.  The head rest juts forward and hits her ponytail, and there isn’t an adjustment to tilt the head rest back.
  • Shiny plastic. There is a fair amount of shiny plastic in the cabin, which shows fingerprints and scratches more readily than a matte finish would.  The seat fabric is also very light in color, and will probably show more dirt than the leather seats in the Prius did.

Implications for our energy grid

Although the Leaf is reducing our gasoline consumption, it is increasing our use of electricity significantly (about 60%).  I watch our electricity usage on a daily basis, because I like to see how the solar panels on our roof are performing.  The good news is that the output of our solar panels matches the Leaf’s electricity consumption fairly closely.  We celebrated the anniversary of our solar panels in the beginning of June.  They produced 6,500 kWh of electricity last year – an average of 18 kWh per day.  Our Leaf is using an average of 13 kWh per day, so we’ll still have a little extra solar electricity to offset our household usage.  And we’ll be driving carbon-free and penny-free!

But perhaps that method of accounting is a little too rosy.  The chart below shows our hourly electricity consumption and production, and it illustrates some issues that will impact our power grid if electric vehicles become more commonplace.  The large blue bars on the left side of the chart are due to the Leaf recharging between midnight and 4 AM.  The spike at 10 PM shows the impact of the Leaf starting another recharge cycle at the end of the day.  The yellow bars in the middle of the chart track electricity produced by our solar panels.


Our electricity usage and production on a sunny June day
Our electricity usage and production on a sunny June day

The good news is that our solar panels produced enough electricity to charge the Leaf and cover our household usage.  We even had a couple of spare kilowatt hours to sell back to the electric company.  But the fact that our consumption and production are not coincident is a matter of concern.  If all our neighbors bought Leafs and solar panels, the grid would have to absorb a surge of production during the day, and then give it back so everyone can charge their cars each evening.  Storing large amounts of electricity is neither simple nor cheap.

If mismatched consumption and demand is an issue on a sunny day in June, there are bigger issues to worry about in December.  Our solar panels produce roughly a tenth of their potential power on a dark winter day, and it can drop to zero after a light snowfall.  The Leaf will have the same energy appetite year-round, or maybe even more in winter when we start to use the heater.  Where will that electricity come from?  Does this transportation strategy scale well if electric cars by the thousands start driving on Seattle’s streets?

Leaf vs. cargo bike

I love the Leaf, and it’s nice to be able to transport my family comfortably using solar power.  But it’s still a car, and our current mono-culture of car-based transportation can’t be the ultimate answer to the challenges facing our environment or our society.  I’m hoping that the debut of electric cars doesn’t distract us from the long-term problems posed by cities designed to accommodate cars (and not much else!)

It’s great that I can drive a vehicle that’s 3 times more cost-efficient than the Prius, but my electric cargo bike in maximum-assist mode is ten times cheaper per mile than the Leaf.  There are still many errands I can do in approximately the same amount of time with the bike compared to a car (see here for an example).  The bike gives me an opportunity to see my neighbors and get a little exercise in the process.

There are actually people in my neighborhood and at my kids’ school who know my name because of my bike.  They would have never seen me or taken a moment to say hello if I had been driving a car.  In my opinion, the quality of my life and our neighborhood would be diminished as a result.