It’s been 2 years 3 months and 25 days since I bought my Nissan LEAF. I’m a long time resident of Phoenix, Arizona, and I did about 8 months of research before finally deciding to go electric.

So far, I’ve enjoyed many benefits to owning my Leaf:

  • $20/month electricity cost
  • VIP EV-only parking at many popular locations
  • Unlimited use of HOV lane forever
  • $7500 one time tax credit
  • low maintenance
  • no more gas stations

To date, I’ve put 41,986 miles on the car and I couldn’t be happier with its performance and it’s efficiency. The only two problems I’ve had with the car are the AC compressor failing, and the battery health dropping below 9 bars. Nissan’s warranty got me both a new compressor and a new battery and I haven’t had any issues since.

My 2012 Nissan Leaf Review

At the end of my initial research, the only worry I had was about the battery. The Leaf uses a lithium-magnesium lithium manganese battery, and a lot of people were worried about what the desert heat would do to it’s health over the years. Some people claimed that the battery would only last 3 years in desert climates like Phoenix, but Nissan originally promised 80% capacity after 5 years. Time would tell that Nissan was very wrong about their estimate.

I took the plunge and ordered my Leaf on October 10, 2011. I had to pay $99 to reserve my Leaf (refunded after purchase), which I customized online, and would be built in Japan and shipped to Larry Miller Nissan for me to pick it up. You couldn’t just walk into a dealership and buy one on the spot, they weren’t making them in volume, and this was before they were produced in Tennessee.

I decided to go with the highest end Leaf they had, which was the SL. What set it apart from the other models was GPS navigation with bluetooth and a backup camera, LED lights and fog lights, the 440V DC fast charger, a better sound system, and a little solar panel to charge the 12V battery, and maybe some other things I’m forgetting. I also got lucky and they just started producing the 2012 Leafs when I ordered mine, so I got the 2012 model.

My Leaf arrived seven weeks later, on November 30th. I picked it up, went through the boring paperwork, and bought the extended parts and labor warranty and took it home.

The ride

Bridgestone Ecopia tires

The first thing you’ll notice when driving an electric car is how quiet it is. The only thing you hear while driving is the sound of the tires on the road and the wind hitting the car.  That and a slight high pitched hum while accelerating. Because the car is so quiet, Nissan installed a VSP (Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians), so people can hear you coming. It’s only active while driving below 19mph, and it’s not very perceptible in the cabin, unless you have your windows down.

When you’re stopped, you can’t even tell the car is on. Perfect silence! The only thing that signals you’ve even started the car is a little jingle that comes on, reminiscent of booting up your computer. You can even choose from a number of different startup sounds.

The Leaf comes standard with Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 tires. They were specially picked by Nissan to decrease the rolling resistance and increase efficiency on the Leaf. They were originally more expensive than your normal tire, but now you can find them for just under $100 each.

The Leaf is equipped with tire pressure monitors, and a tire pump located in a hatch in the trunk. Usually when the weather gets colder, the car will notify you that the tire pressure is low, and ask you to top it off. The tire pump uses the 12V cigarette lighter to operate and you can have all 4 tires topped off in about 20 minutes.

In the same hatch in the trunk, there’s also some sort of fix-a-flat compound that works with the air pump, but you should NEVER use it. Just call the free towing service.

The speed

When I first got the car, I loved how quick and light it felt. It was the first new car I’d ever bought. Before that I drove a 2001 Ford Taurus, and before that a 1997 Ford Mustang. Both cars were used and had plenty of mechanical problems, so they worked, but neither were cars I could race anyone with for fear of overheating or a visit to the mechanic.

The Leaf surprisingly changed all that for me. It’s very easy to drive extremely fast and not notice it. There’s no revving engine, and the car seems under no strain at all, even to take it all the way up to it’s max speed of 95 mph.

I raced a friend of mine in his Mercedes C class, and beat him to about 45 mph. He beat me to 60. Basically, I can beat almost anyone to 30 mph. That’s another benefit of EVs: instant torque. You don’t have to wait for an engine to rev up before it can transfer force to your wheels.

One thing I love doing in my Leaf is overtaking people. Phoenix has this problem where people don’t let you in when you signal to change lanes. They’ll usually pretend not to see you, or speed up to block you. Over the years, I’ve developed a solution to this problem. I call it the sneak attack, and it’s so much easier to implement in a quiet EV.

The idea is to make it look like you’re not interested in changing lanes until the lane is perfectly suited for you to enter. Besides all the other road safety factors you watch out for when driving, the key is knowing where the eyes of the driver you’re overtaking are looking. Rather than asking to change lanes, you’re notifying them that you’re changing lanes right before you change, giving them enough time to react to any changes in the flow of traffic, but not enough time to deny you access. It’s an art!

Depending on the situation, sometimes you need to give it a little gas. But if you do, they can hear your combustion engine rev up, and it’ll notify them something is about to happen, giving them extra time to deny you access if they wish. With my Leaf, they never hear me coming, and I can slip in and out of lanes like butter.

The Range

southmountain

At the top of South Mountain

I get asked questions about my Leaf a lot, and usually range is number one on the list. The most popular follow up question is “What do you do when you want to drive out of town?” I’ll go ahead and answer that first, “The same thing I did when I owned a gas car. Rent a car.” Before my Leaf, I’d only driven unreliable cars that I had no intention of taking out of town so they could overheat or break down on me, so I sort of got used to the idea that rental cars were for road trips.

With a full battery, full battery health, and my driving style, my Leaf takes me between 70 and 80 miles. The furthest I’ve ever been willing to push it was 79 miles under normal driving conditions. I’m mostly driving on the freeway at speeds between 55 and 75 mph. These days I try not to go over 70 due to lessons learned with regard to battery life, and I’m a big fan of cruise control between 55 and 65 mph.

When the Leaf was in development, and for the first weeks it was launched in the states, it was toted as the “100 mile range” electric car. That wasn’t even remotely true for your normal American driver, and Nissan quickly about-faced.

Yes, when I bought the car the estimated range was around 116 miles, but that’s only because the range estimator hadn’t learned my driving style yet. It bases it’s estimate on your last half hour or so of driving. If I only drove it on surface streets at 40-45 mph on flat terrain, it could take me 100 miles. I’ve actually gone over 100 miles once, but I didn’t get on a single freeway, the AC wasn’t on, the ambient temperature was around 75° F (23.9° C), and I was driving pretty slow, so it doesn’t count.

When you drive a Leaf, you’ll notice how external factors change your range. Especially when you drive in cruise control. The sweet spot is 2 dots on the power meter. Little things like elevation changes in the road,  ambient temperature, rain, how many passengers are in the car, and how windy it is can change your range substantially. Driving my Leaf around the valley for 2 years has basically given me a mental topographical map of Phoenix.

I recently drove to a friends house in Cave Creek, and achieved 3.5 mi/kWh on the way there, and 6.0 mi/kWh on the way back. I hate driving on the 101 Freeway going North, because it uses more energy than when I’m going north on the 51, or the I-17. I typically get 3.6 mi/kWh on the 101 North @ 65 mph (East Valley), versus 4.3 mi/kWh on the I-17 North @ 65 mph (Central Phoenix). You can always squeeze out a little more efficiency by going slower, since after a certain point, the amount of energy needed to go a constant speed increases by the square of the velocity. I also get slightly less  efficiency the more passengers I’m carrying, though it’s not as noticeable as elevation.

Rain forces you to use the AC (even with the heater on) so your car doesn’t fog up. This reduces your range beyond the initial aerodynamic loss from drag. It doesn’t rain often here, but I can expect at most 60 miles in the rain.

The Leaf has 3 battery range warnings.

  • Low Battery Warning: Comes on at 1 bar left with about 10 miles of estimated range (it comes on much earlier in the 2013 model). Before the software update to improve the range estimations on the 2012 model, I knew that I could squeeze 15-20 miles out of the last bar. Now that the “guess-o-meter” is more accurate, I can probably only squeeze 10-13 miles out of the last bar.
  • Extremely Low Battery Warning: Comes on right after the last bar disappears, and the estimated range changes from “3 miles” to “- – -“. This will take me about 3 miles at 60mph, maybe 4-5 miles at 45 mph.
  • Turtle Mode: This mode really keeps you from accelerating in any meaningful way, and basically keeps you at whatever speed you’re going or slower. Basically you’ve got about 400 meters till your battery is dead. If you have to put on the brakes for any reason, it’ll take you an ungodly amount of time to accelerate back up, and it won’t let you go more than 25 mph.

The 2013 Leaf made improvements to the weight of the Leaf and it’s heater, so it has more range than the 2012 and 2011 model years. My wife drives the 2013, and I haven’t done any range tests on it to really push it’s capabilities.

I have run out of battery twice. Fortunately, Nissan offers a free roadside assistance and towing for the Leafs. A tow truck will pick you up and take you home, to the nearest Nissan dealership, or to the nearest charging station, all expenses paid by Nissan.

All the times I’ve run out of range I’ve been by myself. This is because I made those trips knowing there was a high risk of running out of juice, and mostly to test the limits of my battery. Were I with other people, I wouldn’t have pushed the car, and I’d have stopped earlier at one of the hundreds of charging stations for a 30 minute top off.

Charging the Car

Unless otherwise stated, when I talk about charging the car, I’m talking about from a dead or almost dead battery. You’ll notice from the stats on my Blink EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment, aka my “home charger”), that my average charge time is about 2.77 hours, because I’m almost never charging from a dead battery. You can cut that time in half for EVs with a 6.6 kW onboard charger.

One thing to understand about EVs is that the charger is actually inside the vehicle, not on the wall. The unit that you plug into your car only supplies the current. It’s your vehicle that manages  everything else, including how quickly energy is soaked up by your battery. An EV with a 6.6 kW onboard charger can charge twice as fast as one with a 3.3 kW onboard charger.

Time to Charge

It takes 20 hours to charge using a Level 1 charger, which uses your standard 120V outlet. This charger comes with the Leaf and fits in a tiny bag in the trunk. Level 2 charging is at 240V (think washing-machine/dryer outlet), and takes 8 hours on 3.3 kW EVs and 4 hours on 6.6 kW EVs. To have a Level 2 charger, you’ll need to buy one and in some cases have it professionally installed.

Nissan introduced a 6.6kW onboard charger in the 2013 Leafs as opposed to the 3.3 kW charges in the 2011 and 2012s, which allows your EV to charge twice as fast. You can expect all future EVs to have  at least 6.6 kW onboard chargers, if not faster, so 4 hours is really the baseline if you’ve got a 240V home charger.

I’ve found from experience that my Leaf adds about 14 miles of range for every hour of Level 2 charging. The 2013 model increases that to 28 miles of range for every hour. Typically if I’m about to run out of range, I’m well within 7 miles of my house. Underestimating how much range you have is a rare occurrence, so 30 minutes of charge is usually enough to get me back home. You might have a range anxiety incident once every few months, if you’re mindful about your car’s capabilities.

A 440V Blink quickcharger

A 440V Blink quickcharger

Lastly, the 440V DC fast chargers are huge machines you’re not going to see in anyone’s home. They can charge you from 0 to 80% in 30 minutes, and provide a full charge in about 50 minutes.

At home

IMG_1523Charging at home with SRP at night is $0.06 per kWh (kilowatt-hour). This meant being able to fully charge the car overnight using my Level 2 for about $1.20, and I could expect that $1.20 to last me at least 70 miles, which comes to $0.02 a mile (I rounded up from $0.017).

The blink unit I was given keeps track of monthly stats. I haven’t reinstalled it since I moved, but one of my old screenshots shows the stats screen. It offers stats both for the current month and the previous month.

By inputting the on and off-peak charging costs of your utility, it helps you calculate how much everything is costing you. It allows you to input the price per kWh based on the time, day, week, month, and even holidays if you’re so inclined. Most importantly, it helps you keep costs down by monitoring what percentage of your charging was off-peak.

blinkcharger

Before I was married, I used about $20 worth of electricity every month, if I stuck to charging during off-peak time. If I was more lax about when I charged the car, or did more driving than usual the price could go as high as $35 a month. Now that I’m married and I’m not driving to a girlfriend who lives 45 minutes away, I’m probably using half that amount.

Also, with my current range needs, I’m fine using the Level 1 charger that came with my Leaf. I charge the car to 80% every other night, and it takes care of my needs. So it’s very possible to get along without buying your own Level 2 charger, especially with all the public charging around.

Public Chargers

PlugshareFor the first year I owned the car, I charged everywhere for free. You can’t beat that! Leaf owners in Texas are getting a similar deal. Ecotality owns the Blink charging network that now consists of over 488 chargers in the Phoenix Metro Area.

Blink chargers now cost $1 per hour for blink members and $2 per hour for non-members. Since Blink isn’t a utility, they’re not allowed to charge you per kilowatt, only by time of use. This makes it extra affordable for people who own an EV with a 6.6 kW onboard charger, like in the 2013 Leaf.

Blink chargers make up the majority here in Phoenix, but there are many more places to charge. All the Nissan dealerships in the valley have free charging as well, and there’s many other options like Volta which offer free charging at popular public locations like malls and shopping centers.

There’s many great apps for your smartphone to help you find chargers. My favorite is PlugShare. It’s got the best user interface and shows all the known chargers, not just those of a particular company, with detailed directions on how to get there, along with photographs.

Ecotality did file for bankruptcy and was bought by another company, but throughout the ordeal, the public charging stations never stopped working.

One good thing did come out of this new acquisition. Before, if you charged for even one second over 1 hour, you got charged for two hours. Now, they have a more fair pricing scheme where they only round up to the next dollar amount if you’ve gone over the 30 minute mark.

The battery

The Nissan leaf has a 24 kWh capacity lithium magnesium lithium manganese battery, though only about 20 kWh are available for the driver. The extra 4 kWh is to keep you from over-discharging the battery beyond recovery. A Lithium battery has a weird property that if you completely discharge it, there’s a chance it won’t ever wake up.

Lithium batteries are like a girlfriend. You’ve got to keep her happy and treat her right. All you care about is if she can take you from point A to point B. She, on the other hand, has an entire list of requirements for you.

When I first bought the Leaf, I didn’t pay attention to all these requirements, because it was just so much fun to drive. It’s a zippy and fun little hatchback, so why not throw caution to the wind? I used the quick charger a couple times a week, drove at high speed, and I was on top of the world.

I took a picture of my lucky mileage numbers, a few days after losing my first bar

I took a picture of my lucky mileage numbers, a few days after losing my first bar

Then 8 months into our relationship, in the month of July, I lost my first bar of battery health. A month later I lost a second bar. Now down to 10 bars of health from my original 12, I started to get worried. I thought this was supposed to happen after 4 or 5 years, not 8 months!

To Nissan’s credit, they didn’t have to put a battery health meter on there. No other EV manufacturer does, and it’s an honest move on the part of Nissan. It does have a way of disgruntling customers though. It has a psychological effect of making your car feel “old” when you start losing bars, and the problem is magnified when your car is still new. It’s probably as annoying as a receding hairline.

At around 14 months, I lost my 3rd bar. By then Phoenix owners had already had our town hall meeting with Nissan, and they promised a solution to our battery woes. Nissan then announced a 5 year or 60,000 mile battery capacity guarantee of at least 9 bars. It’s around this time I really had to plan my routes. I could reliably get about  50 miles; 60 miles if I was really conservative. I was regularly driving 5 mph slower than the speed limit on the freeway. I’d start to pre-cool or pre-heat my car so the climate control didn’t have to use any battery power to initiate, and I’d always have a charging station bail out plan. By then the infrastructure was so good I didn’t have to worry about range much, but I was very worried about resale price. Leafs seemed to be losing their value pretty quickly, and sales were slow. Thankfully that trend has reversed, and Leafs are selling better than Volts now! Nissan has sold over 100,000 Leafs worldwide.

Arizona Summers

August 8, 2012 - Waiting about to charge my car in front of Bookmans

August 8, 2012 – About to charge my car in front of Bookmans

In July and August it gets super hot over here. It can get as high as 120° Fahrenheit (48.9° C) in the city. The pavement on the roads is dozens of degrees hotter, and the battery is only sitting a few inches off the pavement, cooled only by air running over the battery. Unfortunately in Arizona the air 8 inches off the ground on the freeway when it’s 118° F (47.8° C) outside is much hotter than the air 8 inches off the ground in grassy park, or on desert earth. On top of the hot air near the battery, the pavement is radiating heat into the battery.

The Leaf has a battery temperature monitor so you stay within safe temperature levels, but during the summers I was regularly starting off the day with 7 bars of temperature (sometimes 8) out of 12. Once it’s over 10 you’re in the red. Remember your Lithium girlfriend? Well, she doesn’t like to get too hot.

I knew this, so I tried to schedule my day so I’d be driving around either early in the morning or after sunset. Of course that’s not always possible, so you’ve got to manage as a best as you can. The last thing I wanted was to be driving around at rush hour in 118 degree weather, and having to run an AC that will take 15 miles off my range, all while worrying that my battery is degrading too fast.

On August 8th, the hottest day up to that point in 2012, my car’s thermometer showed 118° F outside, and my car had 9 bars of temperature. I was in a hurry that afternoon, so I had to drive fast, and then I ran low on charge and had to stop at Bookman’s bookstore (Northern and 19th Ave) to charge. But charging your car makes the battery hotter, so it’s a lose lose situation.

I ended up charging for an hour and making it to where I was going, while crossing  my fingers that my battery wouldn’t go into the red. I’m pretty sure that this very day contributed a lot to that second bar I lost.

By the second summer in my Leaf, I knew what all the rules were, but I still didn’t follow them because I wanted my new battery. When you have 9 bars of health you’re just praying for the day you lose another bar so you can get it replaced. Even after losing my 4th bar in July of 2013, I waited 2 months, until after my wedding and honeymoon to get a new battery. Specifically, I was waiting for summer to be over. There’s no point in getting a new battery only for it to get baked from the get-go.

Nissan honored their end of the agreement, and by the first week of October 2013, I had a brand new battery, that was assembled in Japan and shipped over. It only took the dealership only 2 days to install.

That’s what ex-girlfriends are for. They teach you how to be (or not to be) in a relationship, so you do it right the next time.

Now that I’ve got a new battery, I’m following all the rules! I’m looking forward to a long and fruitful relationship.

  1. Don’t fully charge your EV all the time. It’s a sacrifice, especially when it’s only going to take you 79 miles on a full charge anyways. Charging to 80% (easily programmed on your Leaf) lengthens the lifespan of your battery and guards against degradation. I still charge my EV to full when I need the range, but it’s default setting is an 80% charge unless I request otherwise.
  2. Don’t drive your EV too fast. No fast accelerations, no high output. I generally drive the speed limit now, and I’ll save my “fun” driving for when I buy a Tesla. Extended high output puts strain on your battery.
  3. Don’t use quick chargers. Quick chargers aren’t as damaging to your battery as was initially thought, but it does have an effect. Quick chargers degrade your battery by stuffing it with electrons at a very fast rate. Quick charging also heats up your battery, and it’s especially degrading in the summer. It’s more expensive than using a Level 2 charger depending on your locality. Ecotality currently charges $5 for a quick charge in Phoenix, regardless of whether you need just 50% or 100%. It’s still cheaper than gas, but you have to be smart about how you use it. In my mind, quick charging is for emergencies.
  4. Don’t over-charge or over-discharge your battery. If you’re consistently taking your battery percentage down to empty, it’s not good for your battery health. How do you over charge it? It’s done by trying to keep your battery topped off. Don’t top off your battery until it’s under about 50% charge. You’re trying to keep your battery in a sweet spot between 4 bars and 10 bars.
  5. Don’t leave your battery at full charge for long periods of time. This is partially taken care of by rule #1. But if you’re not going to be using your EV for a while, or going out of town, keep the battery around 50% charge.
  6. Park in the shade or better yet, a garage. Keeping your Leaf out of the sun should help you manage your battery temperature a little bit. Due to Arizona’s heat, I don’t recommend EVs for anyone that doesn’t have a garage. To be honest though, if you’ve been driving your Leaf around in the summer heat all day, you can park the Leaf in your garage, and find that by 11 pm, your garage is actually hotter than it is outside due to the Leaf battery giving off excess heat. If you’ve got an air-conditioned garage, you’ve got it made!

It’s a lot to keep track of, especially #4, but it’s the price of being a pioneer for new technology. When I drive my Leaf, I feel like I’m driving one of those little shuttles from Star Trek. Because of the range restrictions, every drive feels a little more like an adventure, having to keep track of various systems to ensure your mission is a success. It’s not for everyone, but it makes it fun for me. When you’re in a bind, ensuring you make it home can be as simple as getting off the freeway, or with a little more effort, introducing yourself to a new charging station.

Battery technology is improving at an exponential rate, and soon EV owners won’t have to worry about any of this. Despite these rules, owning an EV hasn’t been an inconvenience to my lifestyle. It’s only made it better.

Nissan is currently developing a “Hot Weather” battery with a new chemistry, that will hopefully replace the current chemistry in the next year or so. A new design for the Leaf that includes more range is also due in 2015 or 2016.

The interior

interior

I like the interior and the dashboard display, especially position of the digital speedometer. I would have loved leather seats, but they didn’t offer that upgrade in 2012. My car has got the partially recycled cream colored cloth. The joystick shifter is a nice touch, and makes switching drive modes feel like a video game.

It was initially important for me to have GPS, but I’ve found that I don’t really use it very often. My phone’s GPS is much better. Thankfully Nissan, among other car manufacturers will be using Apple’s CarPlay in the future, to integrate your iPhone into the car’s LCD touch display.

I do love the backup camera, and it’s nice to have in the 21st century. The 2013 SL comes with a 360° camera setup which aids in parking, though it does make the tiny LCD screen feel a little crowded.

The one thing I really love on the 2012 model is the electronic brake. I’ve always hated parking brakes because of inconsistency with which they can be applied when setting them with your foot. The electronic brake in the 2011 and 2012 models is just a switch that does it all for you. It also gets rid of the problem of accidentally driving off with your parking brake on, since you can’t move your car with the e-brake on. With manual foot-brakes, if it’s not tight enough, you can find yourself driving on with a half-applied parking brake.

They got rid of the e-brake in the newer model Leafs, and replaced it with a nice little space for your telephone or other trinkets. I am a little jealous of that, but you can’t have your cake and eat it.

One of my requirements for a new car was keyless entry and a start button. There’s no reason I should have to turn a key in an ignition in the second decade of the 21st century. The Leaf takes care of that nicely, and my key never needs to leave my pocket or my wife’s purse.

Internal Space

interior2

The car is a comfortable 5 seater hatchback, with the rear seats both folding down to allow for more room. I’ve been able to fit a dresser, a twin sized bed (tall), an 8 foot ladder, and a 50″ Television and pre-built entertainment set from Frys Electronics. Not all at once, but I’m always pleasantly surprised at how much it can hold.

The Nissan Leaf app

IMG_2546IMG_2547You can also control your leaf with the Nissan Leaf app for iPhone and Android. This app has been a headache from the beginning, but it’s now reached a sort of stable point in it’s development. It’s supposed to log you into a system called Carwings and allow you to pre-heat/cool your car and turn the charging on and off, and let you know how much range you have.

For basically the entire first year of ownership, the app was so slow to connect with my car that I almost never used it. I shouldn’t have to stare at my phone for 5 minutes just to login. Facebook’s login takes all of what, 2 seconds?

Today the app is still slow, but more bearably so. Every app from every other EV manufacturer looks better than this one. It’s a shoddy user interface, and doesn’t even give you pertinent information like the GPS location of your car, or the ability to lock and unlock doors; features other EVs like the Chevy Volt and Teslas include.

Conclusion

The Nissan Leaf is the best car I’ve ever owned. I like it better than any gas car or hybrid I’ve ever driven. The 2014 Nissan Leaf was recently named the cleanest car in North America!

I’m always a little bit upset when I have to drive a car with an internal combustion engine, as it’s loud, shaky, and I lose out on my EVIP status. I have to remember that I’m no longer allowed to drive in the HOV lane by myself. I have to stop at gas stations. I can’t sneak attack like I’ve grown accustomed to…

EV technology has a ways to go, but I’m sold on it. Investing in the technology now will only make it better for the masses that adopt it in the future. A little extra TLC will take the battery a long way, and I’ll keep this blog updated as to how my battery strategy is working.

One thing is for sure, I’ll never buy another gasoline powered car again!