Living with the Nissan Leaf – three months in
What’s it like to live with the second-generation Nissan Leaf?
Part Three – Leaf me alone
It’s amazing what a microscopic virus can do, locking down the entire city of Melbourne and the cause of micro-living for humans too, with a 5km radius to travel in and limited means to get out. However, there are reasons to drive and yet again, the Leaf proves that it contains a blend of EV credentials that are perfect for an urban EV. If I lived in the city and didn’t care for long or regular long trips (you can always hire a car for that), it has more than enough range for everything you want. The price remains a niggling point to me when comparing direct nuts and bolts value, but it’s not like there are any EVs that are truly cheap, yet.
And I must admit, there’s enjoyment when zooming about with little more than a murmur yet enough torque to breeze past other cars.
As for range, someone in commercial electric vehicle infrastructure put it to me why the hell would you want a battery that can travel 1000km when we can easily build fuel tanks large enough for 200-litres of fuel but we don’t do that. True, though I think that isn’t a convincing argument until we get super fast chargers (which are coming) to actually travel 1000km without stopping for a while, or frequently.
But this lockdown thing. One trip that hasn’t changed for me is dropping the kid off at school and I use the Leaf to do that every day. The back seat is not bad for adults, but the cushion do sit a bit high due to the battery packaging. This reduces the headroom slightly and makes it feel a bit cramped back there, mostly when wrangling him into the seat and trying to get the belts on. And for our three-year-old in a car seat, it looks tight. In reality, he has enough room, though once I slide the manual adjustment on the seat backward his legs aren’t free to kick about. And that’s another thing – there’s a heated rear seat, heated front seats, 360-degree camera and heated steering wheel inside, but the seats have only manual adjustment? Go figure.
So it’s a little bit crampy back there, though with two seats there’s enough width that you could fit a couple of tots in the back without worrying. The door pockets in the rear are only just ok, fitting a single bottle but nothing else… so inevitably we’re left with our kid’s artwork strewn across the floor. The quality of the door panels themselves are also simple, though solid.
Materials elsewhere are good, such as the leather seats and steering wheel (the newer Nissan design which is good in the hands), and the infotainment is proving to be reliable for all connections (Apple CarPlay and Bluetooth, mainly) and not prone to glare.
This is all the stuff you get to stare at when parked in your driveway with nowhere to be, though a trip across Melbourne provided a great run with next to no traffic. This was an interesting route to test out the difference between hills driving and flat driving, both at 60km/h and 100km/h.
For the last few months, we’ve averaged 18kWh per 100km. That’s quite a good figure considering the up and down terrain we live in and drive up every day. It dropped to the seventeens with eco mode on, which dulls throttle response, and I use the e-Brake function at just about all times. That’s something I notice isn’t on straight away if I forget it now, as the instant braking response becomes a handy feature and moulds into the driving experience.
So, last week I drove across Melbourne and back which was about 150km. I used eco mode and the e-pedal and was somewhat worried about the fact I’d be sitting on 100km/h for a fair stretch. Without much traffic about, this could really kill the battery – slower speeds use fewer kilowatts per km. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived back home having used an average of 13kWh per 100km, despite the hills on the final stint and cruising on the freeway.
This is much better than my first outings with the Leaf.
I can’t attribute it to much except that my driving style is likely a bit more relaxed with the throttle now, and I use cruise control (it’s radar cruise on the Leaf) more often as it is more efficient than leaving it to my own modulation. Once I reached home, there was 70 per cent battery left, which is far greater than the 10 per cent I use each day on the route to school and back – no doubt a result of the winding up hill roads which require more frequent acceleration.
It seems that steady but not necessarily slow is the way to go.
Part Two – Learning new habits
My initial approach to the Nissan Leaf was rather technical – the specs, the kilowatts, the kilometres and so on. And that’s indeed a crucial factor to figure out if the vehicle will suit requirements and the bottom line for cost. But what mattered over the last four weeks is how the Leaf works and feels as a replacement for a petrol or diesel vehicle when just simply jumping in and using it.
Firstly, most people talk about EVs requiring a change of habit, making sure it’s fully charged, or charged enough. It sounds daft but there have been a few times I have forgotten to plug it in, or maybe had my arms full of shopping and didn’t get back to zap some energy into the battery. Usually, that’s not a biggie, but when you have to travel 100 or more kilometres the next day it’s a bit of a quagmire. You can’t stop into a petrol station and fast chargers are few and far between.
“Sorry, I won’t make it as I’m waiting for my car to charge up,” is about as poor an excuse as your dog eating your homework. That’s the limiting factor of a car with a 200-odd kilometre range and that takes overnight, from a normal 10amp plug, to charge its battery. If you lived in the city that’s not such a big deal, but when having to drive into or across Melbourne from Mount Dandenong it is.
So yes, I’ve changed my habit, and there’s some discipline. I want to charge it during offpeak times, so not only do I plug it in when I get home, but I have to remember to make sure it’s charging just before I go to bed. An alarm on the phone is a good idea for this, though I’ve bought a wifi dongle so I can remotely control the charging plug. That cost only 15 bucks (and I’m yet to use it).
Those curious to know, the saving to charge on off-peak compared to peak time (almost 10c per kW) will cover the cost of the dongle in around three a bit full charges of the battery. That calculation also works out that, charging on off-peak compared to peak, means you’ll get a ‘free’ full charge every fourth recharge (if we were talking about only ever charging the car from 0 to 100 per cent capacity, which you can’t actually do).
Anyway, in only a couple of weeks use, plugging it in isn’t such a change of habit as it is a rewarding exercise. I love to plug it in every night, regardless of what the next day holds, and just know that it has a full battery of power. It’s also more economical, technically, than keeping a full tank of fuel in the car, given electricity doesn’t share the same weight-per-km deficit of petrol or diesel (or hydrogen).
The plug itself is waterproof too, so there’s no reason not to keep the power going in. I barely use the faster Chademo port either, and it’s the Type 2 that gets the longer charge. I like to think from my RC racing days this is likely better for the battery in the long run, though Nissan says faster charging is not a problem. And when I’ve used public fast chargers they weren’t much faster – at home from a 10amp plug, I’ll get 10 per cent battery charge in an hour a bit, which is the amount of battery I use to drop my kid off at school.
I thought at first that I’d certainly want a fast wallbox charger (32amps) installed if I bought an electric car, but I’m not sure I would if I owned a Leaf. That said, a Nissan Leaf wouldn’t suit my needs as I do need to travel farther than 200km in one trip often enough, but thanks to lockdowns I haven’t attempted what will likely be a long trip of charging at public chargers yet. The point is that it does charge up fast enough on a normal plug for suburban errands, going to the shops, some touring up the hills and the like.
Tech specs aside, the Leaf has fit in quite well, though it is proving to be interesting times as we are not required to travel so far with restrictions on movement in Melbourne. This has proven to me that the LEaf, despite one of the smaller batteries on the market, is a useful everyday car. And the ownership experience is quite rewarding, chasing off=peak tariffs rather than the cheapest servo across town.
Part One – Getting to know you
Whenever a short range-range electric car or plug-in hybrid hits the road for the first time you can always count on the old average commuter distance woff to be included in the press release. Apparently we Aussies rarely travel more than 20km to work from home each day (38km round trip on average, in fact) so there’s really no need to worry about that 200-odd km battery pack in the car. Of course, country-folk need not apply.
So the pitch is pretty simple for the new Nissan Leaf – 270km real-world driving range, a small battery pack to save weight and the environment (producing batteries isn’t exactly a clean process), and it’ll save you some coin too.
But I’m not interested in driving to work and back and telling you that everything is fine. That’s easy, and we know that the Leaf can do that.
Living on the outskirts of Melbourne in the Yarra Ranges, the small Leaf faces a more challenging environment than in the city. There have been petrol guzzlers I’ve driven around the hills at home with fuel bills running quickly into triple digits and each visit to the servo can be frightening. It’s a power-hungry area, and power equals energy.
Oh, and it’s winter, and I like using a heated steering wheel and heated seat, and this Leaf has both, including rear heated pews. I’ll have them on nearly all the time.
This is the polar opposite to my first encounter driving an EV which was the Mitsubishi i-Miev in 2011. The range on that vehicle was horrendous and I almost got stuck just driving home on a cold winter evening with the heater and air con on at full blast – how times have changed!
So, I’m interested to see how this polite EV will fare on something more than flat urban running. For a start, you get an estimated 270km range when the 40kWh lithium-ion battery is charged up to 100 per cent capacity, which is more than what the display showed me when I picked it up at 229km. The drive from picking it up to home was about 100km, which should be easy enough, and with the hills in sight as I whizzed along…I chickened out. I had no idea how slow charging at home would be (I’m only using a 10amp general power outlet (GPO) plug, for now) and decided I’d grab a charge for free from Knox Council’s 22kW Type 2 charging station.
What that means is the plug (there’s actually two there) is a ‘Type 2’ plug and the maximum charging output is 22kW. You can get chargers up to 350kW (with 150kW more the norm) so 22kW isn’t particularly fast.
Finding the charging station was simple too. Create a free Charge Fox account and download the app onto Apple or Android and a map displays charging stations, including if it’s free or not (many are).
The Leaf comes with two types of charging ports located underneath a flap on its snout. They’re Chademo and Type 2 ports and illuminated at night by a little light. The Chademo plug is special as it allows for Vehicle2Grid reverse energy sharing, which we’ll dissect another time.
With the Type 2 cable plugged in, I decided to wait it out, watching the charge on the digital screen in the driver’s cluster which is about as fun as watching paint dry. It sucked in 45km range in 50min at a rate of 6.0kW.
Sitting the cabin for so long you notice there’s a mix of nice materials and basic panels to cover large areas, like hard plastics across the lower dash but stitched leather higher up, on the steering wheel and around the centre arm console. The infotainment screen is certainly a step up for Nissan, measuring 8.0-inches across and with nice bright graphics. It also has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which transform functionality from average to great. And the speakers attached to it are decent as well.
The backseat is a bit of a pinch compared to some five-door hatchbacks, although I’ve since popped a child seat in back there and it’s been fine – more on that in another report.
Back on the road, the battery consumption began to climb as the car climbed the hills. The average energy consumption around suburbs is 17-18kW per 100km. Nissan claims 17.1kWh/100km, and you’ll certainly be in the seventeens with a gentle right foot. But the hills see real-time energy use peak beyond 45kWh/100km as the 110kW and 320Nm synchronous electric motor dials up grunt.
The beauty of it is that there’s never a flinch from the Leaf as you will it up hill or for more speed. There are no cogs in a transmission for it to swap around and no combustion engine that needs to rev up to produce torque – it’s all available instantly, at about any normal speed. So the most you get is slight shove as the motor almost silently does its thing. Surprising performance for a 1.6-tonne hatch.
But it should not be entirely surprising, as instant torque is what all electric cars do. The trick is taming the power effectively with electric traction controls and the like, and there is a bit of wheel spin from the front wheels of the Leaf when you get on the electric go pedal too hard. Then again, it’s nice to keep up with cars that think they’ll show their tailpipes to a car with Zero Emission emblazoned down each flank.
It is a little bit addictive, the electric car ownership experience. So far I’m averaging 19kWh/100km, which actually isn’t far off the usual 18kWh consumption in flatter urban areas. That surprises me given I can’t go to the shops without tackling some serious hills. Each weekday also includes a 22km round trip down the mountain to school dropoff and it saps 10 per cent of the battery. By that logic – and I’ll test it soon – I can do that trip 10 times or 220km, which involves a lot of uphill driving.
At an average power supply price of 25 cents per kWh from my energy provider and an average 19kWh per 100km useage in the Leaf, it means that to travel 100km costs me $5.70. While that doesn’t calculate properly at first look, we need to account for around a 20 per cent energy efficiency loss. That means it takes 22.8Kwh to put 19 useable kilowatts into the battery, which costs $5.70 per 100km.
Now to compare with a petrol hybrid, let’s use one of the top hybrid hatchbacks on the market, the Toyota Corolla. The Corolla ZR Hybrid uses a claimed 4.2L/100km which in our real-world testing is over 5L/100km. At the time of writing, the average price of unleaded petrol in my area according to the RACV is $1.33 per litre. So to travel 100km at 5L/100km in the Corolla would be $6.65. If you weren’t driving a hybrid the price per 100km would be $10 or more per 100km. Of course, at $49,990 before on-roads the Leaf is comparatively expensive. That’s the price to pay for no tailpipe emissions and driving an EV – there’s barely any change from $50k to buy an electric car, and most cost even more.
The reason that it’s working out at a good relative economy for the Leaf up in the hills is because e-Pedal is engaged almost all of the time, being both beneficial to range and fun to use. Flicked on with a switch, it makes its presence known immediately and you can feel the car beginning to slow but put your foot down and you accelerate.
The end effect is that if you take your foot off the accelerator completely, you’ll eventually come to a stop – and it’s fun gauging the distance it will take to stop at traffic lights and junctions. But with e-Pedal engaged the electric motor is doing the braking rather than the disc brakes, converting kinetic energy into stored energy. This replenishes the battery somewhat, and if you’re gentle, you can maximise driving range.
This all sounds good in theory and seems to hold true in practice, but will require a more scientific approach which we’ll write about next. We’ll take the car over the same routes with different settings to better understand the most and least efficient driving methods. I’ll also start taking different routes down the hill with different gradients (steepness) to see what the positive and negative effects might be.
And once we can travel a bit further out of Melbourne there’s a run up the east coast that will require taking an extension cord into the unknown.
It’s a bit like Nissan has given us a science experiment on wheels for six months, though that’s harsh on the Leaf which has come a long way since the real science experiments that landed here early last decade.
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