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A Year with a Leaf

Nissan Leaf Life

At breakfast this morning, my wife reminded me that we picked up our Nissan Leaf exactly one year ago. Since I was looking for time to write a summary of our first year in EV-land, this looks like as good an excuse as any.

The ultra-short answer: We love the car and we’re very happy with the overall price/performance.

The longer answer, is, well, longer.

Life with a Leaf took very little adjustment. We drive it when we want, and we plug it in over night. Normally we charge it to 80%, but about 10 times in the first year we’ve charged it to 100%. We’ve also done some daytime charging, e.g. run some errands on a Saturday morning, plug it in during the afternoon, and then drive the car into town for a lacrosse game that night.

The objection I hear from people who have never so much as touched an EV — “But you have to plug it in all the time!” — is nothing more than ignorance at work. Yes, you have to plug it in. And in exchange for that simple, clean (as in no gasoline smell or spills) step, you’re freed from stopping at a gas station and paying roughly five times more for fuel per mile. Plus, you never have to pay for oil changes or tuneups, or repairs to the emissions system, exhaust system, etc. That’s a deal I’ll make every time.

The driving and ownership experience is great. It corners flat, accelerates and brakes very nicely, and is dead quiet inside. It has plenty of passenger and cargo room, especially with the back seats folded down. The quality of our car has been excellent.

I would change a few very minor things in my car, though. The heater/AC is a little whooshy on the highest setting, and flipping the charging limit between 80% and 100% takes more button pressing than I would prefer (although starting in 2014 I believe that the 80% option is gone).

And yes, more battery range would be nice. I’m not saying I need or expect 400 miles on a charge, but if Nissan delivers on the doubled battery range that they hinted at recently by asking some Leaf owners how much they’d pay for that feature, then I would be quite happy. To date, there’s only been one or two times when range was an genuine issue for us. But even doubling it would still not let us make our several-times-a-year trip to visit relatives (about 230 miles each way) without quick charger support along the way.

My one regret

There is one aspect of our Leaf experience I regret, and that’s getting it on only a two-year lease instead of the three year option. When we got the car last year, the prevailing online opinion seemed to be that the next generation Leaf, the “Leaf 2.0″, would be out by late 2014/early 2015. Since this is our first EV, we were a little nervous about whether we’d really like the EV life, plus we were uneasy about locking into a three-year lease that would keep us from upgrading to the new model with (presumably) greater battery range right away. It now looks like the Leaf 2.0, which might have up to double the battery range, won’t be available until late 2015, which puts us in a bind a year from now. If it turns out that the 2.0 version isn’t available in Spring 2015, I’m not sure what we’ll do. Try to extend our current lease for another year? Lease another Leaf 1.x for two years? Lease something else, like a Kia Soul EV? Whatever it will be, I can guarantee it will have a plug and no gas tank.

I’m equally sure that we’ll be leasing and not buying the next EV. We’re still early enough in the development of EV technology that the resale value on any EV is likely to be somewhere between bad and unspeakably bad for the foreseeable future. People are still way too nervous about the batteries dying — which is grossly overblown unless you’re driving 20,000 miles a year in Arizona, in my opinion — for the resale values to hold up. Given my per-mile savings on fuel, which effectively make my monthly lease payment about $125, I’m happy to keep on leasing.

Looking forward: EVs in general

Honda recently announced that they’re ending production of the Fit EV this year, after cranking them out at a blistering pace of 40 per month in the US.[1] My reaction: You’ll be baaaaack. As batteries continue their price slide and US EPA CAFE standards continue to rise, we’ll hit a tipping point where Honda, Toyota, and all the other foot draggers will have no choice but to introduce an EV in addition to their PHEV, hybrid, etc. models. They’ll need them to meet CAFE standards, plus they won’t be able to sit back and have zero share in a growing market. So, when Honda gets their head out of their corporate butt and re-introduces the Fit EV, no doubt trumpeting that it’s returning in response to massive customer demand, the Leaf will be on version 3.0 or even 4.0, Tesla will have new models for sale, even in Sopranostan (i.e. New Jersey), and who knows what other companies and models will be slugging it out for your EV dollars. Ditto for the other company I find deeply disappointing right now in this regard, Toyota.

And then there’s the Ford Focus EV. Oy. Ford needs to make up its mind: Is it interested in just its Energi PHEV models, or does it want to sell at least one EV, also. Right now, they have a weird, half-hearted offering that they’re barely selling; they’re spending a lot of development money on embarrassing themselves. As with Honda and Toyota and others, Ford will have to change tactics eventually, but in the short run, the right hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing over there.

Overall, I expect car companies to try to deal with improving batteries for EVs and PHEVs by increasing range instead of lowering prices. The last thing they want to do once they have an installed base of customers and a sizable number of vehicles on the used car market is undermine the value of those units too severely. This is why I expect the Volt to get a bigger battery, in time, and the Leaf, Mitsu i, Kia Soul EV, and others to see much improved battery ranges. They won’t charge you (much) less, they’ll give you more functionality.

(Prediction sure to be wrong: The Leaf S 2.0 will increase its EPA mileage from roughly 80 to around 120, and the price will drop a couple of thousand. That will be a substantial improvement without rocking the boat too much.)

The current EV situation is very reminiscent of something I experienced from a front-row seat: The arrival of PCs. In their early days, they were weird, underpowered toys that only geeks and hobbyists (like me) cared about. Most other computing professionals laughed at them. But the PCs — meaning hardware, software, and infrastructure — got better and cheaper, and then they just about took over the world. I see EVs playing out much the same way, with public perception playing an even bigger role. Many people I talk to still are shocked that you can actually go into a local dealership with a recognizable car company name on the facade, and buy a car that (gasp!) runs on electricity and (double gasp!) doesn’t have a gasoline or diesel engine of any kind! And it’s a real car, that goes in snow, and everything! Who’d a thunk it???

The biggest hurdle EVs face is still educating the general public and not batteries or price or availability. It will happen in time, and we’ll have yet another “paradigm shift”, which, as many others have pointed out, is almost universally a phrase used by someone who simply didn’t see an inevitable change coming.

Frankly, I can’t wait.

[1] Forgive my sarcasm. My wife and I have owned numerous Hondas over the years and loved every one of them. I thought that if there was one major Japanese car company that would leap into the EV market, it would be Honda. To say I’m disappointed in their actions would be an extreme understatement.

Photo Credit: Living with a Leaf/shutterstock

Lou Grinzo's picture

Thank Lou for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 30, 2014

Lou, I may be one of the few people who has owned two Leafs, or Leaves, take your pick (the first was totaled in a wreck which left my wife unscathed).

I largely agree with your assessment, however my biggest disappointment is the Leaf’s drag coefficient of .28, a full third higher than the original GM EV1. It’s not a completely fair comparison, given that the Leaf seats five vs. the EV1’s two. But a simple comparison of both cars makes it clear that the Leaf’s neo-Pokémon nooks and crannies are not doing the car any aerodynamic favors.

The most audible sound while freeway driving is the wind whistling around its bumpy exterior, and I find myself hunting down box trucks to draft. In that kind of driving I would bet 5-10 miles of range are unnecessarily lost to air friction.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 31, 2014

The only problem I see with electric cars is that profit seeking will cause prices to not go down as they should, by use of scare tactics and more regulation (nevermind that gasoline is more toxic). For ex, the lifepo4 battery is classified under the same strict rules as the li-ion, even though it has no thermal issues.

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