With apologies to Dr. Seuss, would I, could I live with an electric vehicle? The length of my commute (20-30 miles) plus my leadfoot driving style suggests the answer is no, but I'm not convinced. Despite some of my colleagues -- many of whom live far closer to Automobile HQ than I -- exhibiting some tinges of the dreaded range anxiety, I sign on to shepherd our Leaf for a full seven days.
Day One: Monday, June 20, 2011
How does the Leaf fare on my long, hilly drive home? Surprisingly well, actually. Although the shortest distance between my desk and my den routes me briefly on M-14 and extensively on US-23, rush hour gridlock keeps it from being the fastest. It turns out my "escape route," which winds through the outskirts of Dexter, Hamburg, and Brighton, is ideal for the Leaf -- speeds average 35 mph and are posted at no greater than 55, and rolling hills provide plenty of opportunity for regenerative braking. Better yet, beautiful weather and cool breezes allow me to keep the windows down and the HVAC off, further extending the car's range.
This pays off -- despite traveling about 5 mph over the posted limit, two miles down Huron River Drive, I see my range estimate start to increase. Three miles later, I've traveled three miles more than my range estimate has decreased since leaving the office. It seems the Leaf's trip computer is more surprised by my efficiency than I am, although it drops once I'm allowed to open it up to 55 mph. I travel just over 30 miles before pulling into my garage, but the gauge cluster says I may still have another 75 miles of travel. Swell.
Once home, I plug the car into a 120-volt outlet (I have a 240-volt outlet in my garage, but not the requisite hard-wired charger), but not for long. My wife informs me we're running low on tea, paper towels, and a handful of dairy products, so after dinner, I make a run to the nearest grocery store. This entails driving about 15 miles round trip, but it's no sweat -- I still have an estimated 69 miles of range once I return home.
Day Two: Tuesday, June 21, 2011
I take a slightly different return path to the office, opting to wind through the woods near my house instead of cutting directly to paved, high-speed roads. The change-up doesn't impact the Leaf's energy consumption that much, but a brief jaunt on the expressway with the blower motor on does seem to drop the range prediction by roughly 10 miles.
Coming home, I attempt to take the freeways as much as possible, if for no other reason than to see the range plummet as my colleagues experienced. No such luck. I stick with the freeways until I come upon my exit several miles away, but the journey between those points consists of stop-and-go traffic and speeds no greater than 55 mph -- exactly what the Leaf loves.
With two large drywall projects in the works, I've no real reason to leave the house, but my father, a retired automotive electrical engineer who's visiting and helping mud my dining room walls, is intrigued by the Leaf. We venture out for a three-mile jaunt, and he's impressed with many of the same qualities I am, namely its soft ride quality, smooth acceleration, and its eerie silence.
Day Three: Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The commute into Ann Arbor is no different, although I do manage to freak out a couple of early morning joggers as I quietly whizz past them at 35 mph. Thus far, they're the only ones who've paid any attention to the car whatsoever. Others pass by it as if it's any other C-segment hatch. To some extent, I understand -- apart from the need to plug-in the car and the silent powertrain, the Leaf drives just like any other compact offering.
Day Four: Thursday, June 23, 2011
A quick look at my Google Calendar reveals one headache: I'm scheduled to tour General Motors' Flint Truck Assembly tonight. Some quick cyber legwork says the trip would run 49.9 miles. That's feasible on a single charge, but a round trip adds up to 100.5 miles on the highway - and, according to the friendly voice trapped in the navigation system, I "may not have enough range to reach [my] destinations." Flint is devoid of any 240-volt chargers, and I highly doubt the local UAW hall will take kindly to me charging a Japanese-built EV in their parking lot. I elect to simply carpool with a friend.
I ultimately end up stepping foot into the Leaf around 10:30 in the evening -- much later than anticipated, but late enough to actually allow me to sample what freeway driving is like without battling gridlock. It's a little interesting to watch range estimates fall quickly when cruising at 70-75 mph, even though the charge percentage doesn't drop as quickly. I'm sure my efficiency was tainted by both the on-ramp onto M-14 and I-96, as both require hard acceleration in order to avoid being mowed over by traffic.
Day Five: Friday, June 24, 2011
I log into Nissan's Carwings telematics portal for the first time this morning, and configure the system notify my phone when charging is complete. I receive such a message around 11:30 am, and my colleagues and I start planning a lunch run. We make a 25-mile round-trip (mostly by freeway), pull into a 50-year-old drive-in joint, and consume more grease and oil in a single sitting than the Leaf will in its entire lifetime.
We do, however, encounter a hurdle upon our return: someone has ignored the "RESERVED" sign and parked a Subaru Forester in the spot where our 240-volt charger is installed, leaving me unable to plug in. I could theoretically abstain and still make it home, but there's no reason not to plug the car when presented with the opportunity -- doing so gives additional range in case of unexpected trips.
One possibility involves placing a few phone calls to have the Subie towed, but instead, I roll across the street, where a utility company has two EV stations -- both part of the growing Chargepoint Network -- installed. I purchased a network pass earlier this year when testing a Prius PHEV prototype, but at this stage, most Chargepoint stations are free to use; all I need to do is wave a keyfob in front of its display, and I'm ready to roll.
As usual, both chargers aren't being used, but one is blocked by a dump truck. I plug in at 2:47 pm; by the time I leave work, the car is almost fully charged, having consumed almost 9.275 kWh in the process. Predictably, this extra effort was all for naught, as I ended up staying home for the entire evening.
Day Six: Saturday, June 25, 2011
Time for a road trip. My wife and I have tickets for a baseball game in Lansing, Michigan -- which, it so happens, is also home to two Chargepoint stations. Neither is remotely close to the downtown stadium but one is located off a street that has regular public bus service, which runs right alongside the park.
Since my wife has a baby shower to attend in Okemos, we drive separately -- and since I also have to potentially contend with a lengthy charge time, I plan on spending a little more of my day in the capital city, adding a stop at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum before reconnecting with my spouse for dinner and the game. I set off for Lansing around 1, and actually use a considerable amount of the range estimate just getting to the freeway. The roads between home and I-96 are hilly, and traffic loves to cruise at 60-65 mph. The dash display drops almost 15 miles by the time I hit the highway, yet I've traveled less than seven.
Once on the freeway, that figure continues to drop as I cruise a steady 70 mph with the windows down and HVAC off. By the time I reach Pennsylvania Avenue, the meter proclaims 21 miles remaining, although I still have five of the twelve bars on the graph remaining. I'm not fretting range at this point, despite the fact that construction has forced me to find a back entrance to the charger. Once I do, I plug in, a few blocks to the nearest bus stop, and wait to hitch a ride on the #3 bus line.
Fun fact: Lansing isn't exactly a stranger to electric cars. In fact, from 1996 to 1999, it was home to perhaps the most infamous example: the General Motors EV1 (another fun fact? AeroVironment, the firm that helped engineer the original GM Impact concept, now builds the 240-volt charger Nissan supplies to Leaf owners). Roughly 1117 examples rolled out of the Lansing Craft Centre, but few cars -- like the one parked within the Olds museum -- exist; most were scrapped like the Craft Centre itself. It's a little surreal to be staring at what was once widely portrayed as the end of the electric car when I have the keys to an EV consumers can actually own in my pocket.
I perhaps budgeted a little too much time for the recharge process. My wife and I meet for dinner at 5:15, and by the time our entrees reach the table at 5:37, Carwings tells me the Leaf is finished charging. Two minutes later, a similar notice from Chargepoint pops up in my inbox.
The game runs long into the tenth inning, and post-game fireworks don't allow us to leave the stadium until 10:30 pm. By that point, the buses have stopped running, and a cab is my lone means of returning to the Leaf. I end up arriving back home at 11:50 pm, and the Leaf informs me a full 120-volt charge will take roughly 14 hours.
Day Seven: Sunday, July 26, 2011
So much for estimates. Carwings says the car is fully charged shortly after 11:00 am, two hours earlier than the original prediction. Perfect -- I have a number of errands to run, including a stop at the doctor's office, a couple trips to the pharmacy, a lunch break, and a grocery binge. When I return, I find my father pulling into our driveway, and we make another run to Home Depot to pick up some plumbing parts. An unanticipated run, but no anxiety here -- the Leaf displayed an estimated 50 miles of range when I returned home; we whittle that down to 38 in pursuit of a new (and functional) outdoor spigot.
I decide not to take the Leaf back to Lansing for a U2 concert. As much as Bono would enjoy someone taking a "green" vehicle to the performance at Spartan Stadium, the lack of chargers on Michigan State University's campus (they're coming soon, says the Lansing Board of Water and Light) turns me off to the idea. I also don't feel like trying to fetch a cab afterwards -- the show is expected to run until 11:00 or so, and I have to be behind my desk early tomorrow morning. We once again opt for my wife's gas-powered Honda.
Could I, Would I Live With An EV?
Not as my sole means of transport, but as my primary commuting vehicle? Absolutely. Before my week behind the wheel, I feared I'd encounter a number of random trips and errands that would hinder my mobility. But apart from two special events (how often do I go to late-night U2 concerts, anyways?), I never encountered a trip that was insurmountable. My longer treks were possible with the help of a little patience (and the use of public transit networks), but on a daily basis, I found I had enough range to get to and from work and tackle most errands on my calendar. I imagine my mobility would only increase if I added a 240-volt station at home -- and most owners should.
Speaking of charging at home, I didn't shell out a whole lot when plugging in within my garage. At home, I used a grand total of 80.83 kWh charging the Leaf. Based on my electric service, which has a flat rate of $0.08136 per kWh, I spent no more than $6.57 to keep the car charged. My long trip to Lansing wound up costing me the most: a whopping $1.22. Spread over the 40.3-mile trek, that works out to roughly three cents per mile -- far shy of what a comparable subcompact would cost (a Nissan Versa 1.8 with the CVT, for instance, would cost $0.10 per mile on the same route, if I'd fueled up with the $3.20/ gallon fuel I found in Lansing).
Affordable charging, a comfortable ride, and surprising practicality lead me to think the Leaf would work well as a second car for my household. For now, the biggest hurdle is the fact that for many families, my own included, it's $32,780 price tag essentially renders it an only vehicle. But like any other pieces of technology, those who want to be first to use the latest and greatest gadget must pay to play. Time should theoretically drive the price point down in the years to come, and at that point, despite the fact that gasoline does flow through my veins, I may park an electric car in my garage.
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