Unlike many of my colleagues, I am NOT a very good candidate to own one of the handful of electric cars on the market today. My round-trip from home to work is 45 miles. I have two young daughters who require lots of random gear and, before long, will surely be involved in all manner of activities that require extensive shuttling. Their grandparents all live within a 22-mile radius of our house, but I nonetheless drive more than 250 miles on a typical weekend.
I volunteered to drive the Nissan Leaf this particular week because I knew that I'd be spending Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Michigan International Speedway (about 17 miles from my home), where I work in the media center on race weekends. That meant I wouldn't be spontaneously tempted to drive to some moderately faraway destination. More important, it also meant that if I managed to reach the end of the Leaf's leash anyway, I wouldn't have my kids -- or my wife -- in the car with me.
Let the week begin ...
Monday, June 13
My commute is within the typical range of the Leaf, but before associate web editor Donny Nordlicht even hands over the Nissan's keys, I receive an e-mail from New York bureau chief (and car-collecting addict) Jamie Kitman. He wants to know if I can check out a 1958 Ford Anglia that he found on Craigslist and is interested in buying. Sounds like fun. I bring up Google Maps for the first of many times this week and map out the distance from our office to the Anglia (located in Belleville, Michigan) and back to my house: 52 miles. That'll be a good test, especially since about 25 miles of the trip will be on I-94, which has had a voracious appetite for the Leaf's driving range during Automobile's first month with the car. I have no plans to baby this EV, though. My goal is to drive it the way I'm accustomed -- quickly but not insanely, usually accelerating with the pedal near (or to) the floor and cruising at speeds 5 to 8 mph faster than the posted speed limit. Tuesday after work, I'll head to Belleville and see what happens.
Upon settling into the driver's seat on Monday evening, I'm quickly reminded of how impressed I was with the Leaf's interior design and quality of materials when I drove my first Leaf during our annual All-Stars testing in October 2010. I also like the bulbous headlights and the slick LED taillights.
I'm not the only one. Just five minutes into my commute home, some lady hollers "Nice car!" as her vehicle passes me at an Ann Arbor traffic light. (She didn't need to yell so loudly; it's easy to hear ambient noise when the Leaf sits in stationary silence.) I expect that this will become an irritatingly frequent occurrence, but it turns out to be the only unsolicited passerby comment I receive all week (more on that later).
The weather is very comfortable, so I cruise home at 60 mph or so on rural back roads with the windows down and the Detroit Tigers on the radio. The car is generally quite comfortable, but, annoyingly, the door and center armrests are at different heights. When I get home, I still have an indicated 59 miles of range remaining (the digital display read 96 miles when I left the office), so I hesitantly decide to forgo plugging in the car overnight. Why add a buck or so to my electric bill when the charging station at work doesn't subtract money from my pocket?
Tuesday, June 14
Before heading to the office, I fill the Leaf's cargo area with stuff to take to the local recycling drop-off point. This'll add only a couple miles to my commute, so I'm not concerned about range. The box (20 x 23 x 18 inches) that I use to hold my small assorted recycling items fits perfectly in the back of the Leaf, with room to spare for extra milk jugs and flattened cardboard boxes off to one side and on top, so I don't even have to fold down the back seats. Nice!
I drive up six flights of the parking structure to Automobile Magazine's reserved (and quite well marked) spot for charging the Leaf, only to find that someone decided to park their silver Toyota Corolla there. Damn. I steer the Nissan to the eighth floor. Since the indicated 25 miles of remaining range probably wouldn't be enough to get me home tonight -- let alone to see the '58 Anglia in Belleville -- I decided I'm going to have to make a call to get that illegally parked car towed. I hate to initiate the ruination of someone's day, but I need to get the Leaf plugged in to the 240V supply by lunchtime if the car is to be fully charged when I leave at 6 p.m.
The dispatcher from Brewer's towing service asks me to meet her driver, Carl, at the entrance of the parking structure to ensure that the correct car is towed. When he arrives, I hop into the truck as Carl carefully wends up six levels, over numerous speed bumps, and past jackhammering construction workers and narrow makeshift lanes. After stopping behind the offending Toyota, Carl hands me some paperwork to sign. But before he can locate a pen, a woman walks up to the Corolla and starts to fumble around in the trunk. After learning that her car is about to get impounded, she apologizes politely and drives away, and I am able to connect the Leaf to its electric nectar.
The situation brings to light another EV uncertainty: Even if you have a reserved spot to plug in your car at work, you might have to spend time dealing with a tow-truck driver and/or an unhappy fellow motorist. And if you always plug in to a public charging station, what happens when a few other people in your neighborhood buy electric cars and try to compete for the same spots? I'd recommend that prospective EV owners be able to make it to AND from work on one full charge, just to be safe ...
After work, the Leaf is fully charged and shows a range of 102 miles. After 15 miles of sparring with evening traffic and bombing down I-94 at speeds up to 80 mph, however, the range has plummeted to just 48 miles. Uh oh. However, by the time I reach the Anglia, following a couple miles of in-town driving, the range has climbed back up to 54 miles. I'm still 34 miles from home, though, and facing another 10-mile blast on I-94. Instead of worrying about what friend or family member I might have to call out of the blue for a place to plug in my sputtering electric car (can EVs sputter?), I check out the Anglia. It is incredibly clean and shows just 18,468 evidently original miles on the odometer. (That's 253 full charges of the Leaf, based on the EPA's 73-mile rating of the car's range.) I take lots of pictures for Jamie and enjoy the rumbly sound of the 1172-cc four-cylinder engine, a welcome respite from the ultraquiet Leaf. The Anglia's owner, a collector of vintage American Fords, is not impressed with the Leaf or with Kitman's low-ball offer for his Anglia.
On the drive home, I deviate slightly from my normal driving speed and stay close to I-94's 70-mph limit. The car's ride is somewhat bouncy on the highway (overfirm dampers?), but it's not as bad as it was at higher speeds. Happily, I manage to reach home with 15 miles of range still showing on the instrument panel. After that nerve-wracking adventure, I rig a safe way to mount the Leaf's 120V charger near the ceiling-mounted outlet in my garage and plug 'er in.
Wednesday, June 15
The Kill A Watt measuring device we're using to monitor 120V charges is compact and easy to use. In nine hours, my house injected about 12 kWh of energy into the Nissan Leaf, adding 50 miles to its estimated range. It's a bit muggy this morning, so I turn on the air-conditioning. I get behind some slow traffic on my way to Ann Arbor, so I take a detour down a fairly smooth gravel road. Here, the Leaf is composed at speeds up to 65 mph. On curvy stretches of tarmac, the car offers firm steering feel and good grip (although the Bridgestone Ecopia tires sing noticeably at times). Body roll is quite apparent, but much more unsettling is the issue of the gear selector: it requires a very firm hold (or multiple taps) of the "P" button before it actually goes into park. Be careful, or you could smudge the front bumper.
It rains on the way home from work, so I turn on the wipers. The Leaf has a digital gauge that shows how much juice its accessories are currently using. The windshield wipers spike the scale by a surprising amount, as do the low- and high-beam headlights and the rear defroster. Fortunately, the running lights and the radio don't use much energy.
Tomorrow I need to meet my family at 5:30 pm and collect our children so that they don't have to sit through my wife's meeting at church, so I install the kid seats, as I've done countless times in countless press cars over the past two-and-a-half years. I've gotten pretty good at this task, but the Leaf turns out to be a frustrating adversary. Simply put, its rear seats are too cushy for me to get the kid seats -- particularly my two-year-old's new nonconvertible seat -- planted as firmly as I like. After a long time wrestling with the seat by myself, I finally ask my wife to pull on the Britax's tightening strap while I push the seat itself down into the Leaf's cushion. Even then it isn't quite as well-secured as I prefer, but it moves only minimally side-to-side (the test method for such things). My infant's rear-facing convertible seat, with its dual tightening straps, is much easier to install but still not as easy as it is in most other cars.
Thursday, June 16
I have to run an errand in Grass Lake before work -- basically doubling my morning commute -- so I make sure to fully charge the Leaf overnight. It's a good thing, too, because my 43.1-mile journey chews up 73 miles of the car's indicated range. About half that distance was on the highway and I had the A/C running, so I'm actually surprised that the range wasn't diminished even more than that.
The Leaf charged fully during the workday, so detouring to pick up the kids at church was simple. After taking some pictures in the parking lot, we hit the road and discover another potential hindrance to the Leaf's suitability as a family car: Baby Josephine seems less apt to doze when riding in a quiet EV. Apparently she feels she must make up for the missing racket of internal combustion.
The Leaf shows a range of 64 miles when I reach my house, so I again forgo plugging in overnight. I'll be commuting to MIS tomorrow, which is only 36 miles round-trip on back roads, so range shouldn't be a concern.
Friday, June 17
For whatever reason, the Leaf is thirsty this morning, but I enjoy the cool weather and some empty, twisty roads. By the time I park in the MIS paddock, the car displays a range of only 23 miles. (With the exception of my highway blast to Belleville, this turns out to be the only time I burn more than two miles of indicated range for every one mile I drive.)
Following a day of work at MIS, I need to travel 17 miles on 23 miles of expected juice. Based on my observations so far, it's going to be a very tight squeeze. Having dropped the kids off at her parents' house, my wife meets me and some other MIS weekend warriors at a local restaurant for a late dinner. It's comforting to know that she and her 2001 Cadillac DHS will be nearby while I'm trying to make it home. Also comforting is the fact that I'll go right by her folks' place (7 miles closer than our house), so if the Leaf is struggling I can always park it there and borrow one of my in-laws' cars to go back home and collect the Leaf's 120V charger. (Yes, I stupidly left it at home.)
The Leaf's range barely changes in the first several miles or driving away from the MIS campus and through downtown Brooklyn, so things are looking up. I try to drive in my typical manner, but clearly I am feather-footing it a bit, because I end up burning only 2 miles more than I actually travel. I arrive home, triumphantly, with a whopping 4 miles remaining and "Battery level is low" prominently displayed on the gauge cluster.
Saturday, June 18
Nine hours of charging on 120V adds 53 miles to my range, so I'm going to have to find a place to plug in at MIS -- which is harder than you might think, since there are many restricted areas, few buildings that cars can park near, and lots of foot traffic.
Yesterday, on hearing my deliberations about where I'd plug in the Leaf at MIS, my colleague Kim Hagen volunteered an exterior outlet of her motorhome, which itself is plugged in to a heavy-duty camping outlet. Back at the track on Saturday with just 24 miles of range remaining, I go straight to Kim's rig, plug in, and catch a ride to the infield media center on a gasoline-powered golf cart.
Many hours later -- after watching Carl Edwards win the Nationwide race, do his signature backflip off his Ford Mustang, and climb into the stands to celebrate with fans -- I am back at the Leaf. I figure it should be pretty near fully charged by now, so I might chauffeur a few of my track friends to dinner at the Michigan-famous Jerry's Pub. Strangely, though, no lights are illuminated on the Nissan's charging controller, and I can't get a reading on the Kill A Watt meter, even inside the motorhome, even though the rig's porch light works fine. The Leaf's indicated range has climbed only 29 miles in ten hours or so. That will be plenty to get me home tomorrow after the Sprint Cup race, but I scrap my dinner plans and park the car for the night near Pit Road.
Sunday, June 19
When I see Kim, she shoots me The Look and growls. Last night she'd been on the phone with her husband -- who's nearly 200 miles away -- trying to figure out why the motorhome didn't have any power. It turns out that, while the Leaf was plugged into it, the motorhome blew a breaker when Kim's son, Christian, tried to turn on the air-conditioning and the TV. (How dare he?)
Upon hearing about my travails with the Leaf, some of the highly critical sportwriters at MIS razz me mercilessly, as several of my MIS friends have done already.
"If I win the lottery tomorrow," says Mike Pryson of the Jackson Citizen Patriot, "I'll buy you four Leafs and space them out every forty miles."
"Clearly that car isn't ready for prime time," opines Matt Markey of the Toledo Blade.
"I suppose," I reply. "The Chevy Volt makes a lot more sense for Americans, since you've got the safety net of its gas engine. Plus, you can drive it all week on electric power and still travel a few hours away on the weekend and not have to worry about running out of juice."
"When they come out with a full-electric car that can go a couple hundred miles between charges and costs less than twenty-five grand, maybe then we'll talk," Pryson adds. "Meanwhile, I'm considering buying a new Ford Focus."
Following the completion of the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 -- with some product samples stored conveniently in the little net in the Nissan's cargo compartment -- I cruise the Leaf through the sea of infield campers at MIS for the third time this weekend. Surprisingly, not once do I hear a single comment whatsoever about it. No "Hey, sweet car!" No "Go to hell, tree-hugger!" Nothing. This Nissan is completely off the radar screens of the NASCAR crowd, and no one even seems to notice its funky styling or silent operation.
Their loss. On my drive home from the track, I remember associate web editor Jake Holmes's comment: "Only when merging onto the highway did I wish the Leaf had more power." While exiting sweeping turns on a particularly enjoyable ribbon of Jackson County roadway, I wished for a bit more power, but I think I could adapt to this EV challenge by getting back on the accelerator a bit earlier than I would in a gasoline-powered car.
Monday, June 20
On my drive to work on my last day with the Leaf, I contemplate my EV experience. I'm quite pleased that I more or less retained my typical driving style. I toggled into the Eco mode for about three minutes during the entire week, and that sluggishness was enough for me. (Real EV owners can play with that mode all they want; I wanted to see if a driving enthusiast can be satisfied with a car like this. The answer: sort of.)
Conveniently, I was able to comfortably do without climate control for probably 90 percent of my time with the car. Michigan's extreme winter temperatures would surely do the Leaf no favors, though, so it makes sense that the car won't be available nationwide until next year.
I've been keeping a detailed spreadsheet of my daily driving distances for more than three years, but I've never really had the limiting factor presented by an electric vehicle. For every mile I drove this week, I burned an average of 1.62 miles of the Leaf's expected range. My longest distance between charges was 63 miles (plus 4 miles of leftover range). I'm confident that I'd be able to make Leaf ownership work during the week, but I'd require access to another vehicle for longer trips and weekends.
Few households can justify $33,600 for a second car, even if the fueling expenses are as low as they currently are with electric cars. Honestly, I think many people would be surprised with how easily they could live with a Leaf. Personally, however, I wouldn't want to deal with the added stress and hassle. I'd be much more comfortable with the safety net offered by the Chevy Volt's gasoline engine, even though that car is less attractive, isn't as nice inside, and weighs about 400 pounds more.
From January through May 2011, sales of this pair of plug-ins are almost identical, at a hair fewer than 2200 vehicles each. There won't be one in my personal garage anytime soon, but someday it'll probably happen.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Base price (with destination): $33,600
Price as tested: $33,930
Available federal tax rebate: up to $7500
16" aluminum alloy wheels
Portable trickle-charger cable
Front-seat side-impact air bags
Front- and rear-seat side curtain air bags
Stability and traction control
Tire pressure monitoring system
Electronic brake force distribution and brake assist
Vehicle security system
6-speaker CD audio system with audio input jack
USB connection port
XM Satellite Radio
Multi-function trip computer
Power windows & locks
LED headlights & taillights
Bluetooth hands-free phone system
Options on this vehicle:
Splash guards, $140
Floor mats & cargo area mat $170
Cargo net $20
Key options not on vehicle:
Internal-combustion engine (not offered)
Solar panel spoiler
Auto on/off headlamps
Estimated charging time:
220-volt outlet: 8 hours
110-volt outlet: 21 hours
DC fast charge to 80%: 30 minutes
80 kW AC synchronous motor
24 kWh lithium-ion battery
3.3 kW onboard charger
120-volt portable trickle charging cable
240-volt home charging dock
Optional 50 kW DC fast-charging port
Curb weight: 3366 lb
Coefficient of drag: 0.29
Length x width x height: 175.0 x 69.7 x 61.0 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in