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Zen and the art of Nissan Leaf maintenance

Consumer Reports News: July 12, 2011 02:03 PM

One of the expected advantages of electric cars over today’s conventional cars is that they should require very little maintenance. Compared with gasoline-powered cars, EVs have very few moving parts: no crankshafts, pistons, valves, coolant, or multi-speed transmissions.

With no reliability history for these new cars, we decided, as a first check on this claim, to read all the way through the maintenance schedule in the owners’ manual of our Nissan Leaf.

Two things stood out: It’s the first maintenance schedule I’ve looked at where the “severe use” schedule is the default. It’s labeled Schedule 1, and it is listed before Schedule 2 (“less severe operating conditions”), clearly implying that most owners should expect to follow the more aggressive schedule. This jibes with federal statistics which show that most American drivers live in cities with stop-and-go traffic and use their cars on freeways, during hot summers and wet winters--conditions that call for the “severe use” schedule in most cars.

Second, under Schedule 1, the Leaf manual calls for changing the brake fluid every 15,000 miles (or every 30,000 miles on Schedule 2). That stopped us cold. Most cars call for changing the brake fluid at most every 60,000 miles. Nissan expects it four times as often on the Leaf. The service costs $291.95 at one Southern California dealership we called, which has sold 34 Leafs since they went on sale in January.

Hybrid cars, which have electric regenerative brakes like the Leaf, are known for brake pads lasting a couple hundred thousand of miles. So what gives?

We called Nissan and they explained that brake fluid has a fairly high tendency to absorb moisture and should be replaced regularly in any car, especially with today’s anti-lock braking (ABS) and electronic stability control systems. “Increasing the brake fluid replacement frequency reduces the likelihood of braking performance issues due to increased moisture content,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

It may be that with an all-electric car and frequent use of the regenerative brakes, the company is concerned that the hydraulic brakes may get used so little that increased moisture could build up, leading to rusted and dangerous brake lines.

The good news is, if brake fluid changes seem excessive, there’s little else to do. The schedule calls for inspecting the charge port every 15,000 miles. Everything else would be expected in any car. Mainly it consists of rotating the tires and replacing the cabin air filter every 7,500 miles. Coolant is expected to be changed at 105,000 miles and every 75,000 miles thereafter. Otherwise, it’s just inspections: suspension, drive axle boots, brake pads and rotors, and interior electrical connectors (such as the USB port).

So the Leaf’s maintenance schedule largely bears out the theory that there’s lots less to maintain in an electric car. But there are some new systems (such as the charge port), and owners need to beware that the very lack of use can increase the need for maintenance of some items. We think most electric car owners will be happy to whiz silently past regular engine and transmission oil changes. In time, we’ll learn more about the real-world maintenance costs and reliability from our Annual Questionaire.

See our guide to alternative fuels.


Eric Evarts

   

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