Living with the 2020 Nissan Leaf
We’re testing the new Nissan Leaf for six months and not just running about the city. We’ll be driving it up and down hills every day, running heating and mod cons full blast through winter and driving long trips…Hopefully our extension cord is long enough if we run out of juice.
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 15amp 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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