Nissan Leaf: Commuting and justified range anxiety

Consumer Reports News: April 14, 2011 08:53 AM

"Sure I'll drive the Leaf home tonight. My round trip is about 46 miles." That's what I said Tuesday when asked if I wanted to try commuting in our brand-new Nissan Leaf, which had arrived (by truck) from California just hours earlier.

We bought our Leaf in California because none of Nissan's rollout markets—Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington—is particularly close to our test center in Connecticut and we are anxious to test this significant new electric car. (Read our second drive impressions.)

In his blog about picking up the Leaf , Gabe Shenhar noted that the car had about 72 miles of range when it was loaded on the car-carrier. After delivery and some driving around our test facility a bit, the Leaf had an indicated 60 miles of potential range remaining, which should have been ample to get me home and back to work.

You can imagine where this is going.

My drive home was an uneventful—if also uninspiring—22.8 mostly highway miles. Despite driving it just like a normal car, I stayed planted in the right-hand lane on the highway in an attempt to avoid impeding traffic flow. I traveled mostly between 55 and 60 mph on the highway, though in some spots, mostly on the uphills, I accelerated up to the speed limit of 65. On downhills the regenerative braking generally slowed the car down. I exited to secondary roads as soon as possible and made it home with an indicated 31 miles of range remaining.

During the trip I kept the climate system on the lowest fan setting, with the A/C off, and didn't use the headlights, wipers, or radio. I didn't even charge my cell phone. I tried ECO mode a few times, but the effect is a slight gain in promised range in return for an experience akin to towing a large parachute through molasses.

The Leaf provided a decent enough ride. The seat cushion is a bit short for me, and the lack of lower back support would make this a tough choice for extended drives. The controls are relatively clear, but take a bit of getting used to. I spent much of my trip observing and fiddling with the energy usage display. For my hands, the shift knob is a bit small. Visibility is pretty good all around.

The next morning, I headed out to drop my daughter off at daycare and drive on to work. At startup the car still showed 31 miles of range. (I didn't charge the car overnight, as we are strictly charging the Leaf at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center so we can closely track the energy consumption.) Unlike the previous day, however, the weather was a chilly 42 degrees and pouring rain. I set the headlights on auto, the front wipers on their slowest intermittent setting, and the heat at 68 degrees with the rear-defroster off.

After driving the 1.2 miles to daycare, the indicated range had plummeted from 31 down to 22 miles. Nine miles of range dropped in just 1.2 miles of actual driving!

Getting on the highway, I knew there was no chance I could drive the Leaf "normally" and hope to make it to work. So I started driving in a self-imposed "running out of gas" mode: steady and slow. At some points I was driving at or just under 50 mph on the highway--below the speed limit and well below the speed of other cars. While I turned the climate system completely off at times, window fogging and general cold temperatures mandated use of the heat and front defroster.

About 17 miles from startup, the potential range indicator had become three blinking dashes. I realized I was not going to make it to work, and decided to get off the highway. As I exited the Leaf entered "Turtle" mode, complete with a small, green turtle indicator light. I proceeded to limp the next 1.3 miles into town. The final humiliation came when a highway department mower passed me.

I pulled in to a local business's parking area and made the call: I need to be towed in to work. Since leaving home I had eked out just 21 miles, and the Leaf couldn't even propel itself onto the trailer my auto-test colleagues brought over. The four of us stood in the rain and pushed it aboard.

I can hear the true believers yelling at me already, since I didn't charge the car overnight. The thing is, we're charging all the plug-in cars at our facility, on 220-volt chargers that can log exactly how much juice our cars are using. Planning a 46-mile round trip when the car suggested I had 60 miles available didn't seem too much to ask.

Consider a real-world scenario where there's a power outage overnight or you forget to plug in the charger. What then? Stay home from work and don't bring the kids to school? No, life goes on and I had to get the car back to work.

My experience just reinforces the notion that the Leaf and other pure electric cars available today work best as city cars. If you're just running around town some short radius from your home, you can make it back before your batteries are tapped. Or seek a still-rare recharge station. When electric cars have a much longer range, the situation will be different. But for now, highway travel and trips around town take careful planning. And you'd better have ready access to a backup system: access to mass transit, a backup vehicle, and people to bail you out if you're left stranded. Or in my case, a company truck, car trailer, and ideally an umbrella.

Visit our guide to alternative fuel vehicles.

Jon Linkov

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