I had good intentions regarding writing a review on my Leaf at the one year mark (as we say here in the South, “he means well…”), but never got around to it. As penance, here’s a somewhat fuller review of my two years and 24k miles in a Nissan Leaf SV than the one I’d intended at the one year mark.

Prologue

Rewind to summer 2014. My parents had been on my case to get rid of our six year old, mostly trouble-free Smart ForTwo because they were convinced that I’d eventually get squashed like a bug despite its excellent safety record (and the fact that it had more air bags than all the rest of our vehicles combined), plenty of anecdotes of people walking away after tangling with a moose, etc. Eventually you reach the point in your life where, having exceeded your quota in your teens and 20s, you decide that it’s a priority to not make your elderly parents worry about your safety.

When I told my dad that I was thinking of getting an electric car he had his doubts and raised all sorts of practicality concerns. I was ready though. I observed that I was in my mid 40s and prepared to get a vehicle because of “interesting technology” just as he did when he was in his mid 40s with a diesel VW Rabbit. That pretty much finished the conversation with a grin rather than an argument.

So it was that in early August 2014 I went into Nissan Chantilly (in Chantilly, VA) and signed a three year 36k mile lease on a brand new 2015 Nissan Leaf SV (that’s the base trim edition, but mine came with the uprated 6.6 Kva charger, for those not familiar). I’d never leased a car before (and may or may not in the future), but after doing some research it seemed like the right plan so I signed on the dotted line.

The Lease (Leafse?)

The way that a three year car lease is structured is that they assume that you’ll lose half the value of the car in the first three years, so you pre-agree-upon the residual value, and make payments only on the depreciation amount. The tax credit for buying an electric car goes to the actual owner of the car, in this case the leasing company, and comes off the top before calculating the 50% depreciation, to create a more attractive lease payment.

That’s the theory, and it appears to work well for your average sedan. But I was armed with a bit of painfully acquired knowledge that the leasing folks apparently hadn’t caught up with. Fresh off getting rid of a 6 year old Smart Fortwo with 120k miles on it (initial price $19k, residual value $2k), I was keenly aware of the risk of a car’s desirability getting overtaken by events. In the case of the Smart, it was the across the board fuel mileage increases in “normal” cars that made a 39 mpg average no longer something that people were willing to endure the Smart’s downside in order to get (why would you when you were getting mid 30s average on a Corolla?). In the case of the Leaf, I was acutely aware that the technology was evolving at a lightning pace and that there was all sorts of risk that the range, charging connector standard, etc of my 2015 Leaf would be obsoleted in a way that made it a white elephant. Additionally, I was pretty sure that if the experiment worked and I still wanted an electric car in 2018, that I’d want one with 2018 technology, not 2015. The 2016 model Leaf, by the way, has a nameplate rating of somewhat over 100 miles instead of 83, so my prediction is starting to come true already… and CarMax’s prices for off-lea[f]se cars are notably low (and CarMax is not exactly known for their rock bottom pricing).

EVSE (“charger”)

In the waning days of the EVSE tax credit in 2013, I bought my own EVSE and installed it myself. The colloquial term for this device is a “charger” but that’s actually technically incorrect - the “charger” is in the vehicle, whilst the EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) is a glorified safety-enhanced extension cord that tells the car how much it is allowed to draw and doesn’t actually put live voltage on the business end until handshaking with the car and confirming that it’s actually plugged in.

By the way, an EVSE self-install is a piece of cake if you are even the slightest bit handy or comfortable working with electricity. If you’re installing a normal J1772 charger (i.e. you’re wiring for anything other than a Tesla), the sweet spot in the price curve and availabililty for chargers is the ones that deliver up to 32 amps on a 40 amp breaker. You can wire these with 10 gauge NM-B (aka Romex) on a 240v circuit - it’s just like wiring in a water heater. No need for a GFCI; those are built in to the EVSE. I feeder-tapped mine off the welder outlet, which is 8 gauge in conduit, to a 40 amp baby breaker box, to the outside. Sure, I can’t weld and charge the car at the same time, but given that the car is parked where I usually do such projects that’s no great loss. Somehow, the people at the dealership thought it very odd that I had installed my own EVSE. I know one other person who’s done this (my former Senior Director at TWC installed one for his Tesla, and got to wrestle the heavier cable for it through his crawl space, betcha that was a joy).

Driving and Charging

Back to the car. One of the first things I had to get over was the notion of range anxiety. Unlike ICE (internal combustion engine) cars, the fuel gauge and remaining range indication is actually quite accurate and there’s no reason to be worried about whether you can actually make it into your driveway if your calculations indicate that you’ll have 7 miles of indicated range left when you get home. That actually took a lot of reconditioning to get over and I’m still not sure I’m entirely over it, particularly in cold weather (more on that later).

Charging away from home when marginal on range requires some rethinking too. We’re conditioned to going to a gas station and filling the car all the way up with fuel, because we’re adults and have money enough to afford a tank of gas. But remember when you were a teenager and passing the hat among your friends to come up with enough money to put gas in the tank to handle the round trip to the nearest “cool” hangout spot (in my case it was South Street in Philly)? That’s how you come around to thinking about charging once you’ve got an electric car - “gee, I could sure use an extra 10 miles to do all the errands today” == “could pick that up in 30 minutes at a public free Level 2 charger, maybe I’ll stop for lunch somewhere that one is handy”. Rule of thumb, by the way, is that you pick up 20 miles of range per hour of charge on “normal” level 2 EVSE, and 5 miles of range per hour on the 120v Level 1 EVSE that comes with the car.

Most of the time, though, you don’t charge away from home. I’ve gone entire months without plugging into a charger other than my own at the house. What’s particularly nice about this arrangement is that you start every day with a “full tank” - the running-late-for-meeting-have-to-stop-for-gas scenerio is basically a thing of the past. So when people ask me how long it takes to charge my car, I say “I’m not exactly sure, how long does it take to charge your cell phone?” - it’s pretty much the same thing. Plug it in when you go to bed and it’s ready to rumble in the morning.

The 83 mile nameplate range, like so many other things automotive, is quite variable based on a number of factors including your driving style and the weather. Batteries don’t like the cold, as any photographer will tell you. In fact, they don’t like the cold so much that there are heaters on the battery packs themselves in the Leaf, which turn on automatically to keep the batteries happy when the ambient temperature drops below a certain point. There’s no waste heat from the engine either, so if you want cabin heat (from the resistance heater pack in the car) you’re going to pay for it by taking a hit on your range. The DC fast chargers (not Level 2 public chargers) don’t charge nearly as fast in ultra-cold weather either, again to save the battery. The worst hit I’ve seen as I pull out of the driveway on a chilly 6F morning after cold-soaking the car all night (it lives outdoors not in a garage), was 61 miles indicated.

When the weather is nice out, it’s great. I’ve seen an indicated range of over 100 in balmy 85 degree weather, which quickly settles down to 90-ish when the car realizes that I’m gonna use the air conditioner (apparently there is either no humidity sensor, or maybe DC summers have caused the one on my car to expire). Compared to heat, air conditioning is not that much of a hit.

Worst case in the winter (on my daily commute to work, driving 70-75 mph on the Dulles Greenway), I see about 3.2 miles per Kwh. In the best case, in spring or fall, on country highways at 45-50 mph, I’ve seen around 5. If you figure 4.0 as an average, the cost of fuel for the Leaf is comparable to driving a 25 mpg car with gas at 80 cents a gallon.

Gripes

The driver’s seat cushion wore a little funny and I had to have it replaced. Something built a nest in the cabin ventilation fan box and I was on the hook for replacing the fan - arguably a design flaw, but whatever. The adventure came when the replacement fan was the wrong item but still bolted into place and subsequently burned out the fan speed regulation resistor. There were a couple of recalls, both trivial while-you-wait affairs, and both of which included, among other things, firmware updates. Maybe they figured out that Bosch had written the firmware for my car too…

It would be nice to have more interstitial notches on the fan speed control.

The twist direction for the interval wiper speed seems to be reversed from my wife’s Subaru. Surely there could be a standard for this?

The environmental controls are all computer driven and seem to think they are smarter than me. If I want to run the defogger without heat, or without air conditioning, I should be allowed to do that without going through gyrations. If it returned to the previous state that I’d gotten it into rather than defaulting to the state that the manufacturer made for it, that would be super nice and make the other stuff less noticeable.

The built-in USB port which includes an interface to the radio for playing back music etc. off handheld devices does not support fast charging for either Android or iDevices. Given that there are chips and have been for some time that will suss out what you’re plugging in and send the appropriate fast-charge signals, I think this could be easily improved. Maybe Nissan should call the folks at Anker for clues.

Praise

PM on this car has been a walk in the park. Tire rotation, wheel alignment, cabin air filter replacement… top off fluids, pat you on the head, and out the door you go. Nothing at all like owning an ICE car. Haven’t had to have the brakes replaced yet - the regenerative braking on the Leaf, which is not quite as aggressive as the regenerative braking on the BMW i3 or the Tesla, is still sufficient to keep brake pad wear way way down compared to what we’re used to in ICE cars.

Nissan provides downloadable PDF-format manuals for the car, which is nice. I wish all manufacturers did this.

It’s SO QUIET. Almost spookily so. Apparently blind folks didn’t like almost getting run down and successfully lobbied Nissan to put a warbler in the car that makes noise at low speeds so you can tell it’s coming. Who could blame them, really? It has a backup alarm (like construction equipment or a truck) and I’ve come to the conclusion that having such an alarm on every motor vehicle would be a decent thing. They’re starting to require backup cameras so the driver can look out for pedestrians (good!), why not include a requirement for backup alarms so that the pedestrians can look out for the car?

Criticism of included EVSE

All Leafs come with a 120v EVSE which can slow charge a car from completely dead in about 20 hours. It rides in the cargo area in its own zippered bag. The design has changed over time; the early ones had a straight plug on the end that goes into the wall, and that was fine. The 2015 model year ones have a right angle plug on them that is nice for laying back against the wall, but precludes connecting to the recessed receptacles on certain generations of Chargepoint commercial pedestal-mount EVSE. Net result: I keep a short heavy duty extension cord in the car to accommodate this eventuality.

Fast Charger Standards

With the exception of Brits who have accidentally stepped on an upturned BS1363 plug in bare feet, it seems to be a matter of national pride that everyone considers their own standards to be better than those of other countries. We seem to have a de-facto standard of J1772 for Level 1 and 2 charging, which everyone except Tesla subscribes to (and Tesla provides an adaptor for free in every car so they can use J1772 too). But in the world of DC Fast Charging, there are three competing standards and no harmonization on the horizon yet. They are:

  • Tesla Supercharger - Tesla’s proprietary standard, but possibly subject to Elon Musk’s open patent licensing commitments. Up to 120 Kva.

  • CHAdeMO - TEPCO, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Toyota’s DCFC standard. Up to 62.5 Kva.

  • SAE CCS Combo - Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Porsche and Volkswagen’s standard that includes an extra couple of pins for DC fast charging next to a J1772 (or IEC 62196 Type 2 / Mennekes connector in Europe). Current (2012) spec says up to 100 Kva.

There are combo units available today that will do either CHAdeMO or CCS, kind of like a gas pump that has both gasoline and diesel nozzles only one of which can be used at a time.

The one thing that all these DC fast chargers have in common, though is that they’re both big (size of a soda machine or larger) and expensive, both to purchase and to operate. They all take 480v 3-phase (not universally available) at 100 amps or more. Believe it or not, the power company takes a dim view of step-loads that can add or remove 50 Kw of load from the grid in one swoop, so they have a surcharge for such things, leading to a market for downrated 25 Kva CHAdeMO chargers.

There are few places to fast-charge and none of them are free unless you happen to be at a rare location like a Nissan dealership (most free) or Mom’s Organic Market in Frederick. On the balance, they seem to like charging usurious rates $0.49/kwh or more is not uncommon for a casual user plan for electricity. I suppose that if one is already paying about $0.25/Kwh average in the summer for electricity (a shout out to my friends in California) that may not look so bad, but here in Virginia we pay $0.11/kwh or so and it seems a bridge too far. Nissan has a “no charge to charge” card which is nice for casual use, though my friends Chip and Kathy hold up the other end of that bell curve because there’s an on-network CHAdeMO charger outside the gym where Kathy works out.

I’ve used the CHAdeMO port on the car several times, but given the whole ecosystem and my parsimonious reluctance to pay outrageous rates, I probably wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t there.

It would sure be nice though, if we could converge on a single standard, or at least pervasive multiprotocol chargers like the aforementioned ABB unit. More choices is always good.

Summary

My lease is up in just under a year. I’m going to hand in my Leaf… and then what? The answer is “it depends”.

  • Not sure where I’ll be working (after a 5+ year run, that’s in flux now) and what the commute will be like
  • Not sure what the rumors will be like for the next generation of Leaf, due out in 2018
  • Not sure on availability of Tesla Model 3s and whether I’ll fit in one (a Model S with a sunroof is right out; I’m too tall)

Particularly if I’m working from home I might sit out a year and decide that with an updated pickup truck, which I need anyway, I can wait for something new and shiny.

But there’s definitely another electric car in my future. And the odds are strong that it might be a Leaf again.