Living with a Leaf

Nissan Leaf
Nissan Leaf

photo: Nissan

30-second summary:- If you are considering a Leaf, or indeed any electric car then you may wish to consider the following guidelines, based on our intensive week with the Leaf:-

  • Understand the type of use you want your car to provide. Operation mainly on 30, 40 or 50 mph speed-limited roads is ideal, fast dual carriageways and motorways less so.
  • Remember that Nissan offer the (currently) free loan of a petrol or diesel car for up to 2 weeks for longer journeys.
  • Know where your nearest charging stations are, and also the stations in any places you plan to visit on a regular basis.
  • Find out what type of charging they provide i.e. slow, fast or rapid, which network operates them, and the costs of belonging to the relevant networks.
  • If you plan to charge at home, ensure you can have a dedicated charging point fitted inside or outside your property in a position which can be accessed by the car – extension leads are not permitted.
  • Recognize that you will need to plan your motoring in advance – although this quickly becomes second nature.
  • Try to borrow a Leaf for an extended trial from your Nissan dealer – you may be pleasantly surprised!
  • Make sure you order the correct cables with your car: normal chargers use cables with a domestic-type 3 square pin plug, fast chargers need a different cable with a round connector.

The detail:- Are you the sort of person who, once your low fuel warning light comes on, happily drives for miles thereafter? If you are a member of that happy-go-lucky club, then you probably wonder what the well-publicised “range anxiety” of electric car drivers is all about. However, if for you, like me, the low-fuel warning remains an ever-present niggle until resolved by shaking the nearest fuel pump expensively by the nozzle, then you may feel that electric cars are not for you. Indeed, sixty-nine per cent of drivers would not consider buying an electric car, according to the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) analysis of the latest Government research. The most important factors deterring motorists from buying an electric vehicle were claimed to be recharging (40 per cent), the distanced travelled on a battery (39 per cent) and cost (33 per cent).

That is why we asked Nissan for an opportunity to spend a week with a Leaf, to see whether range-anxiety and other fears could truly be dispelled. Nissans claim of 124 miles range for the latest Leaf certainly sounds like a useful range, provided that it is a realistic figure. However, first impressions were not good: my heart sank as the test car was unloaded from its’ transporter to find that the remaining range display was registering only 79 miles, despite apparently having just been fully charged prior to delivery. Visions of that 79 miles being an idealised figure, achievable with extreme difficulty and only with minimal throttle openings, low road speeds, no gradients and no aircon in operation made me wonder what I had let myself in for!

However, previous testers must have been wearing lead boots, for our first day of running the Leaf, on a mixture of single-carriageway A & B roads, covered 41 miles for only a 32-mile reduction in the remaining range – which indicated an effective range of around 100 miles – much closer to the specified figure! Clearly the range can vary dramatically, even more so than for a petrol- or diesel-powered car. Finding a way to understand “our” actual range and running costs presented a bit of a challenge, however we did the maths so you, hopefully, don’t have to do so!

This is how we did it: the battery is rated at 24 kilowatt-hours, or kWh. The range calculation therefore looks at how many miles it would take to use up all of this 24kWh charge. Fortunately, one of the dashboard displays includes a “miles per kilowatt-hour” indicator, and we used this to determine relative range and “fuel consumption” figures. Prior to our trial, the indicator showed that the average consumption to that date had been some 3 miles per kilowatt-hour (kWh). This suggested that the full-charge range up to then had been 3 x 24 = 75 miles, consistent with the 79 miles maximum range shown on delivery.

After resetting the indicator to show only “our” mileage, we found the Leaf to be generally beating that as-delivered figure quite substantially, although with a wide variation dependent on the type of driving, and, particularly on the cruising speed. On 40 mph-limited rural roads, the best reading was 5.4 miles/kWh, indicating a range of 130 miles, happily exceeding Nissans’ 124 mile figure. Motorway running however dragged that down significantly, with around 2.5 miles/kWh when cruising at 70-75 mph, meaning that the motorway-dash range could be as low as 60 miles.

Overall, we achieved an average of 4.5 miles/kWh in our 306 miles spent with the Leaf, indicating a range of some 108 miles, not quite as good as Nissans claim, but still useable for most people. This was over a variety of roads, with about 20% being fast (70 mph+) motorway/dual carriageway, 25% slower (50-60mph), 45% rural / urban roads speed-limited to 30-50mph, and 10% heavy city traffic. A number of driving modes are available on the Leaf. When operating in standard mode, the Leaf was no slouch, accelerating far more rapidly than Nissans claimed 11.5 second 0-62mph time would suggest, a result of the 254Nm maximum torque being available from zero rpm, in common with all electric vehicles. Indeed, some testers have reported 0-62 mph times in the 7 second range!

The normal drive mode provides little or no regenerative braking. However, capturing energy which would otherwise be lost in braking is, of course, the key to hybrid operation, so a “B” mode is offered. This allows exactly the same levels of acceleration as the standard driving mode, but starts to brake the car as soon as you lift off the throttle. This sensation of slowing on lift-off is briefly disconcerting, but soon becomes accepted by the driver.

Two further modes are available: Eco mode, selected simply by a button on the steering wheel, limits acceleration, and as with standard mode can be used with B mode for maximum regeneration. The Leaf felt sluggish in Eco mode compared to normal mode, and strangely the use of Eco mode seemed to make little or no difference to the rate at which energy was consumed. Most of the test was therefore carried out in normal mode but with B mode engaged for maximum brake regeneration.

Nissan Leaf

the two charging points – the left for rapid chargers, the right for normal or fast chargers. Photo AG

Initially, charging was carried out at home using a normal 3-pin domestic supply. Nissan do not recommend the use of extension cables in this situation as they are unlikely to be rated for the continuous 10 amp charging load involved, however the Leaf is supplied with a reasonable 6-metre charging cable. Indeed, Nissan, in common with other electric vehicle manufacturers strongly recommend that if you intend charging at home, you have a dedicated charging point installed. Fortunately, Government grants are available to install a basic 16 amp domestic charging point free of charge (no pun intended!). This will take the Leaf from empty to fully charged in around 8 hours.

If you opt for the £850 optional on-board charger, a higher capacity 32 amp fast charging point can be installed in your home for around £100 on top of the Government grant, which will reduce charging time by about half, to around 4 hours. This uses a different type of cable and connection, Charging on a normal domestic supply can however be painfully slow, with upwards of 8 hours required for a full charge. Not a problem if you can charge overnight, but potentially a real problem if you suddenly find you need to pop to the shops and your battery is out of charge! Buying a Leaf fitted with the on-board fast charger option is therefore strongly recommended.

As well as the 32 amp “fast” charging public charging points, “rapid” charging systems are therefore becoming increasingly available, and Nissan claim the rapid charger will charge the battery to 80% of capacity within 30 minutes, and this was borne out when we popped in to West Way Nissan in Aldershot to sample rapid charging. This gave us a range increase of 56 miles in 47 minutes.

The real surprise discovered in the week-long test was that the electric car charging station network is neither as comprehensive as publicity suggest, nor quite as simple to access. Apart from anything else, there is always a risk of the charging station already being occupied, although in fairness we only experienced this once. More fundamentally though, many of the older stations offer only 10-15 amp slow charging capacity, much the same as a domestic supply. These can only provide around 10 miles of range for every hour spent hooked up to them, so as an en-route top-up they are of limited value. Strip those low-current charging stations out of the claimed 6,000 national network to leave only high-current fast chargers which can halve charging time, and the charging station map looks much sparser. Remove both and the remaining, ideal, rapid chargers presently number only 500 or so.

Having the ability to get an 80% charge via a rapid charger in 30 minutes rather having to wait a minimum of 4 hours makes a significant difference to the usability of the car, and, whilst rapid charging stations capable of delivering this quick range boost are presently relatively few & far between, more are being installed all the time. Presently, rapid chargers for the Leaf are located mainly at around 250 Nissan dealers, as well as many motorway service areas and most Ikea stores under the Ecotricity network. However, car dealers tend increasingly to be clustered together in out-of-town motor ghettoes, making them, like motorway service areas, not always the most ideal place to while away a spare hour or three, depending on the charging system in use.

The range of charging station types throws up another issue: connectors are incompatible for the three different charging systems for the Leaf, a problem shared with all other electric vehicles. Slow chargers use a cable with a 3 square pin domestic type plug fitted, whereas fast chargers need a cable with a “type 2” connector.  Nissan offer both cable types as options, although they are relatively expensive. They also occupy valuable boot space! Rapid chargers, fortunately, have their own tethered cables, petrol pump style avoiding the need to carry yet another cable around. Just to make life with an electric car even more tricky, there are a number of different charging point networks, membership being required for each if you want to use their network.

In our area for example, we would have needed to sign up to Ecotricity, Chargemaster, and SourceLondon to get maximum coverage. Frustratingly, we rolled up to RHS Wisley to use their charging station only to find that whilst it was branded as a SourceLondon station, it was in fact operated by Chargemaster, for which we didn’t have membership! The moral of this story is to ensure that you find out the ownership of the charging points you wish to use well in advance, and arrange the appropriate membership.

One hours charging on a domestic supply, we discovered, fairly consistently increased the range by 10-11 miles using, by calculation, 2.5 kW or 2 ½ units of electricity in the process. With electricity at a typical price of 15p per unit, at our average range this means the Leaf would cost around 3½ pence per mile if charged at home. This compares well with a similar sized conventional car, the fuel cost for which would be around 13p a mile for petrol or 10p a mile for diesel.

However, the picture changes if recharging away from home, mostly for the better. The costs involved for charging at public stations vary according to the network, from free with Ecotricity, with a £10 annual subscription for their charge card (again, no pun intended!) to Chargemasters  £1.20 per hour for a basic 16 amp charge. Infuriatingly for those outside London, charging stations within the M25 have been brought under the SourceLondon network, in one of Boris Johnstons’ better initiatives. For an annual fee of £10 per vehicle, SourceLondon allows free charging at any of the 1,300 charging stations throughout the metropolis, although many of those are standard (slow) chargers at present.

Electric cars are of course also exempt from the London Congestion Charge, so adding to the attractions of driving electric there. Of course, much depends on the type and conditions of driving, with the Leaf proving to be much more economical in urban or gentle rural operation than when mile-munching on a motorway. Another factor in the equation is of course how much use can be made of the public charging networks, which could potentially reduce running costs to almost zero.

Having rambled on about the charging and economy issues at great length, what about the desirability, or otherwise, of the Leaf as a car? In truth, it is a rather effective and acceptable package. The car is around the same size as a Golf, with plenty of space inside for up to five passengers. The seating positions are surprisingly high, giving good views and easy entry and exit, particularly to the rear seats where the rear doors are squared off.

Luggage space is reasonable, at 370 litres, although luggage needs to be lifted a long way from the boot floor to clear the deep lip up to the rear bumper. Due to the positioning of the batteries under the rear seats, the seat base does not fold, so boot space is not increased massively when the seats are folded down.

Nissan Leaf

The large squared-off doors make rear seat entry & exit easy. Photo: AG

Nissan Leaf

the rear seat folded. Note also the cases for the charging cables on the right. Photo: AG

Routine service items are grouped under the bonnet, including a coolant reservoir for the water-cooled motor. It is unusual nowadays to find an underbonnet area with so much space, suggesting that Nissan could perhaps have reduced the overall length of the Leaf with a little more care in packaging.

Nissan Leaf

Plenty of space under the bonnet, or “motor compartment hood”. Photo: AG

Dynamically, the Leaf has excellent levels of performance, together with good brakes. A foot-operated parking brake is fitted, which can be a bit of a niggle in traffic. Steering is well-weighted, with handling being generally neutral, tending towards understeer when pushed hard into a corner, as would be expected from a family-type car. Roll is not excessive, particularly given the high seat position, and doubtless aided by the low centre of gravity position with the batteries mounted low down in the car. Ride comfort is particularly praiseworthy, with the seats both supportive and comfortable.

Nissan Leaf

the mildly irritating foot-operated parking brake pedal is on the left. Photo: AG

Servicing requirements are minimal, with a check being required every 18,000 miles but which should be a fraction of the cost of a normal service. Road tax is free, and for company car users there will be no Benefit in Kind to pay. All electrical components are warranted for 5 years including the battery. Whilst batteries will degrade over time, experience seems to indicate that this takes place very slowly and is unlikely to be a real issue. Indeed, Toyota technical staff told me recently that end-of-life battery replacements on their Prius – which has been in service for a good number of years now – are minimal. Given that battery life does not seem to be an issue, Nissans alternative pricing structure, whereby the batteries are rented rather than bought outright, seems like an unneeded extra hassle.

The minimal running charges of a Leaf do, of course, need to be weighed against the purchase cost of the car, which, it has to be said, is significantly higher than a comparable petrol or diesel motor of similar size & specification. As a guide, the Leaf in Acenta trim which we tested is £23,490 on the road, after deducting the current Government £5,000 subsidy. So there we have it – one mans attempt to discover the answers to those questions about range, charging, and running costs.

Is a Leaf for you? Well, if your car use is primarily in urban areas, then it may well be a viable alternative to a conventional car, provided that you do your research before buying to make sure that the necessary charging stations are available. Indeed, if you live, or need to drive, within the London Congestion Charge area, and particularly if it would be a company car, driving an electric car is probably a no-brainer, given both the exemption from the Congestion Charge, and that a disproportionate number of charging stations are conglomerated within the M25 area.

Should your car use be in more remote areas, or with a high percentage of motorway or dual carriageway running, then maybe an electric car may not be for you just yet, given the twin drawbacks of much reduced range at higher speeds and the lower number of charging stations outside the M25. However, the picture is changing all the time, as more charging stations are provided and technological developments improve range.

Whether petrolheads like it or not, electric cars are here to stay!

With thanks to Kayleigh Lawrence of Nissan for the loan of the Leaf

Interested? Find out more at the Nissan Leaf website  here


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