Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Future 2nd100k Car: Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf SL. Photograph by Robert Latham
Electric vehicles have a turbulent history within the American automobile industry.  The first all-electric cars were introduced in the late 1800’s when the American automobile industry was in its infancy.  Several fuels were competing at that time, including steam, electricity, and of course gasoline.  Over time, people realized the steam cars were too impractical, and the electric vehicles took too long to recharge with not enough range, so eventually, gasoline won out. 
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005 fuel prices started an unprecedented rise.  Gas prices have more than doubled since March 13, 2000, which was the first time in our nation’s history the price of gas crossed the $1.50 per gallon threshold.   The past 13 years have seen the shortest time period for a doubling of the price of gasoline in history.  Unfortunately for our national economic interests, coffee isn’t the only black liquid Americans are hopelessly addicted to, so this substantial rise in gasoline prices has caused major economic consequences.
Enter part of the solution, the Nissan LEAF.
When I arrived to take my LEAF test drive, I didn’t know what to expect.  Nissan’s press kit on the vehicle raved about how painstaking measures were taken with the vehicle to reduce wind noise.   They  included  a specially designed antenna and headlights that cut the air to create less drag and noise around the rear view mirrors amongst other things.  At 29 years old I’ve certainly driven my fair share of vehicles.  My aging Honda Accord is car #18 for me.   This, coupled with stints working at car dealerships actually selling the things, I’ve likely driven somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 different makes and models, a fair number of them with gas/electric hybrid power trains,  including Nissan’s own Altima, 3 models each from Toyota, Honda and Lexus, one Chevy and two Fords.  Even with the extensive behind the wheel experience I have, one of my friends who currently drives a Prius but had in the past driven a GM EV1, cautioned me to expect something radically different from any of the hybrids I’ve driven. 
When I sat in the driver’s seat, the first thing I noticed was how conventional the interior of the car is.  Gearshift? Check.  Radio? Check. Climate control? Check.  Even the most important of features (yes, I’m talking about you Mr. iPod Connector) was easy to find and smartly positioned.  When I turned on the car, it sounded more similar to when I start up my MacBook Pro than my Honda. 
The LEAF is equipped with an intelligent key, so all the driver needs to have is the key on their person in order to get in the car, and start it.  Once the green ready light popped on, we were off!  The eerie silence is fairly familiar to anyone who is used to driving a Prius or other dual mode vehicle at low speeds, one of the first sounds I noticed the car making was the turn signal.
One of the things, despite my friends warnings, I had not prepared myself for is how hard it is to gauge speed.  At speed, the only noises the car made were a slight whirring sound from the electric motor, and road noise from the tires.  Since the car has no transmission, there are no gear changes to judge your current speed; furthermore there are no engine noises whatsoever, so the only thing you have to gauge your speed at all is other traffic and the speedometer.  It’s impossible to explain how much you rely on those other factors until they’re removed, and you’re driving 50 in a 35 zone. 
The car rides exceptionally smooth.  Both power delivery and suspension control are effortless and I barely noticed a few bumps that I notice in my Honda.  Even with the silky smooth ride, the vehicle was able to comfortably take a highway on-ramp I routinely use at speeds where other cars I have driven produce tire chirp and start to feel a bit squirrely.  At highway speed, the only sounds you hear are the noises  of other vehicles on the highway.
Many of the detractors of the LEAF cite its high price and short range as reasons not to buy the car.  While yes, 100 miles per charge (Nissan Factory figure) and a $32,780 base MSRP on the LEAF is a bit intimidating, the overall value of the vehicle is evident when you look at the hard numbers.  First of all, very few people drive 100 miles in a given day.  For most of us, work is within 10-15 miles of our home, and even for those on the high side at 15 miles, there is still plenty of drive time when you get back from work to head to the grocery store, go to the gym, and potentially even have a local night out on the town.  The 8 hour charge time is a downside, however, if the car is plugged in at night when  it’s parked, for most people, that would be well in excess of the 8 hour charge time.
                  As of the time of writing, pre-owned Nissan Leaf pricing is starting to come down to the levels of comparable cars.  There are reasons for this that I have neither the time, nor the space to get into, but that being said, a quick search on the other day yielded a 2011 Honda Civic, and a 2011 Nissan Leaf with nearly identical equipment, and nearly identical mileage.  The Leaf’s premium had dropped to just over $1000.  For fuel alone, the leaf has an approximately $.10 per mile advantage over the Civic, which means the additional cost of the Leaf would be made up in just 10,000 miles.  Granted, at some point you will have to replace the battery in the Leaf, but there’s also a good chance that when this happens, a Leaf owner will likely just ditch the car without a significant drop in the price of Lithium Ion batteries.
Overall, the Leaf (while a spectacular feat of engineering) isn’t for everyone.  If you live far out in the country, and commute to Downtown DC every day, you might want to stick with a more conventional vehicle for now as there is currently very limited EV charging infrastructure in the Washington DC region. Over time, as more electric vehicle charging infrastructure is added, the distance away from your daily routine and where you live will become less of a factor.  
Overall, I strongly recommend the Leaf if you have the budget to have a car that’s strictly devoted to short-distance driving, or even if you have a commute that’s less than 50-60 miles round trip every day, and you have the garage space for more than one car, particularly if it's a vehicle you plan to buy new, or late model used.  The Leaf is not the car for you if it’s going to be your only car, and/or you routinely drive more than 60 miles in one day.  High mileage drivers in the LEAF have already reported significant battery life drain, particularly those in extremely hot weather climates, and those who rely heavily on fast-charging.  These criticisms are significantly less pronounced when you venture out of the states of Arizona and New Mexico, but are still there. 
One huge thing that’s going for it, is as battery technology improves, and costs fall, a new battery pack for the car at 100,000 miles could conceivably be a better and less expensive than the one that was installed in the car from the factory.  At current replacement costs of around $8,000 (estimated after calling a local dealer, but I couldn't get an exact quote on it) any reduction in price would be very much welcomed.
As far as buying one at the 100,000 mile mark goes?  It has yet to be determined.  I very much wanted to give this car a comfortable “BUY at 100K” rating, because it’s a car I absolutely adore.  Unfortunately the technology is too new for that recommendation, despite that I see no reason why the body, paint and interior materials shouldn’t hold up well past 100,000 miles.  There is a strong chance I will end up with one (at this moment, I am planning on purchasing a pre-owned LEAF at some point in the mid 2013-mid 2014 time period), and you’ll get to see my writing on it, but for now, wait for other early adapters to shake out the bugs before writing the check.  Because of that, unfortunately I have to rate it as “Wait and See”.
On a final note, there is one great feature of this car that I haven’t yet mentioned.  When you’ve got one in your driveway, you’ve just one-upped the smug Prius driver who lives 3 doors down.
For more information on the Nissan LEAF please visit  Many details contained in this article were provided by Nissan USA.
Note: A version of this post first appeared in the Loudoun Lantern Newspaper, a Student Publication at Northern Virginia Community College.  For the Original article please visit here:
This version has been significantly updated and edited from the original, but still relies on much of the original framework; including the original test drive, and unpublished photos from the original Photo-shoot.  The car pictured is a 2011 model year vehicle. 

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