Earlier this summer while I was toiling away in Seattle, I asked my dad a crazy question:
What would you say to car sharing a Nissan Leaf and your Passat?
Needless to say that was the beginning of a very slippery slope. By mid-August when I returned we had visited a used car dealership in southern MA to take a look at our options. We decided that this was to be a year long experiment.
The Money Talks
The economics, while clearly not optimal, were very favorable — currently there’s a large influx of used vehicles coming off of lease and given the tax subsidy on new vehicles, that depresses the used price even further. Granted, this Geekxperiment ™ was not solely to optimize cost and partially to try out this alternative lifestyle.
We eventually settled on a used 2013 Nissan Leaf SV trim. It had just under 16k miles and cost us $12,799 after some hardball negotiating tactics that only Dad could muster (of course almost a thousand dollars of bullshit fees and then some sales tax were attached but at least we didn’t have to go to the RMV ourselves).
The SV model supports four charging standards:
- L1: Trickle Charge off 120V 15 amp outlet (~1.5kW)
- L2: Standard charge off 240V (~3.3kW)
- L2: (Optional on standard S trim) faster charge off 240V (~6.6kW)
- L3: DC Quick Charge off 480V with ~30 minute 0-80%
The car came with a pre-modified charging cable capable of charging at L2 (3.3 kW) off a 240V 20 or 30 amp dryer outlet in addition to the factory-included 110V charging standard (and, as it turns out, my dad’s dryer is within cable reach of the left bay of the garage :D). We have, for this reason, opted to not go with a dedicated charging station. At my apartment I will be stuck with standard L1 trickle charging unless I find a charging station (details below).
The Leaf is beautiful: a black interior and exterior, but not a single blemish to be found and it was freshly detailed when we picked it up (some do say it looks like a frog, which I partially agree with).
I have named him Fergus after this dog from reddit, who I consider to be this vehicle’s spirit animal:
Performance and Technical
The Leaf’s internal battery pack has a nominal voltage of 360V. A big part of the concern with these vehicles is the battery (as it’s the primary consumable that isn’t tires). It is specified to last about 10 years with 70% capacity remaining, which is fairly reasonable in my opinion. Certain factors accelerate this deterioration:
- Charging and storing the battery at high State-of-Charge (SOC > 80%). Recommendations are to only charge to 100% when necessary for extended range.
- High battery temperature (different cities have different expected deterioration). You also shouldn’t park a black car in the sun XD.
- Amount of use: there’s a certain amount of deterioration expected per 10k miles driven, dependent on these factors.
It’s super fun to drive
I will admit to giddily laughing to myself as we were driving the car home from the dealer. First, and most interesting, is that it doesn’t “start.” You push the start button and it makes a weird jungle noise and then it just goes. It has a satisfyingly “high tech” electric engine noise especially when you punch the accelerator and you can beat most gas vehicles out of the traffic lights if you want.
Obviously driving more agressively (fun-ly) will hurt your range. Oh well.
Most leafs have a D-Drive and a E-Eco mode. Eco basically just makes the accelerator do less when pushed to a certain height (and appears to have some other voodoo magic to make you just accelerate less quickly).
The 2013 SV trim (at least some models?) have a B mode on the shifter. This stands for “Regenerative Breaking” and basically causes the regenerative breaking to kick in when you remove your foot from the gas entirely (basically the first 10% of the pedal range is various amounts of “slow down” and the forward 90% becomes accelerate). The control of this mode is easier in the Eco mode because it devotes a greater area of the pedal to the breaking portion.
What’s cool is that you can actually drive mostly without touching the break pedal. Technically speaking, you want to maximize the breaking done regeneratively (I think that’s a word) because you increase efficiency and decrease wear on the break pads.
The one annoying thing is that it’s pretty clear that the B mode doesn’t engage maximal regenerative breaking. In normal mode, for instance, there’s still a bit of regenerative breaking when you take your foot off the pedal; maximum is attained as you depress the break pedal. At some speeds, likewise in the B driving mode, maximum regenerative breaking is not activated without a slight depress of the break. Also note that regenerative breaking doesn’t really work below 5-10 mph so the full stop will have to rely a bit on break pads unless you’re going uphill 😉
Also note that both modes have the car “creep” forward to help sooth the mind of the fools who normally dwell in automatic transmission vehicles. I do wish that some of these parameters were tweakable for optimal nerdiness and efficiency (for example, please don’t creep without accelerator depress and please engage maximum regenerative breaking at all velocities while in “B + Eco” mode when the accelerator is lifted entirely so that I don’t have to try my best not to engage break pads while partially depressing the break pedal for regen).
Charging and Range Anxiety
Everyone has the same first reaction:
So you’re SOL when you run out of electrons in the battery?
The answer is, “Yes.”
Why is this not as big a deal as most people make it seem? First, most people commute less than 20 miles. In fact, the amount of days in which your cumulative driving exceeds 60 miles is probably minuscule. The amount of days in which your driving exceeds 90 miles (100% charge) is probably much smaller. And you can probably count on one hand the number of days per year in which you couldn’t get by with the Leaf if you have the opportunity to charge it at a charging station or L3 quick charge station for an hour or two.
This means that if we have two vehicles (my dad has a diesel Passat TDI stickshift and I have a Nissan Leaf), there will almost never be a day when we both can’t do what you want driving-wise.
For example, today I stopped by our friendly Davis Square Rite Aid. There are two ChargePoint charging stations in the parking lot to the rear each with dedicated parking spaces. While I was eating lunch and running two errands, my car was charged from 60% to 100% for free (and I didn’t have to hunt for parking).
You can’t expect maximal convenience, but fears about range are almost entirely overstated except for a very small percentage of drivers (uber and crazy college students who drive 50 miles on a whim each way to visit a friend for a drinking and/or Tinderadventure). Rentals, borrowing cars from Mom, and carsharing like Zipcar should entirely fill that void.
If you do succeed in draining the battery, the car goes into “Turtle mode” which allows you to limp sadly towards your closest outlet and plug it in for a big until you have enough range to get to your destination.
The car includes Nissan’s “CarWings” which basically gives you a bit of remote control over the vehicle with a cell phone. You can initiate a charge (but not stop one that’s ongoing?) and turn on the climate control.
There are also a suite of various timers that are designed to maximize efficiency. For example, if you’re on a time-of-use metering plan which charges less for electricity after 10PM, you can tell the car to start charging at 10PM. Likewise, if you always leave for work at 8AM, you can tell the climate control to kick on at 7:30AM to get the car acclimated while it’s still plugged into the main wall.
There’s also an internal GPS that will look up charging stations, but your phone is (sadly) probably better suited for that task.
So I’ve had this car for only a few days but I’ll be sure to check back in as I learn more about it.