LEAFs I Have Known

One of my resolutions for 2012 was to get the eMR2 back on the road and return to driving electric.  As much as I love it, when when our second son was born late in the year, the rationalizations that a two seater would be suitable as a second car for a family of four collapsed.  I started pricing out used Mazda 3s to transfer all the drive components over and surveyed the current crop of lithium battery options.  About 20kWh of A123 AMP20 cells was about to be shipped to my address when, through the magic of idle web surfing, I came across notice that Nissan was offering $10k off list for their 2012 Leafs.  I hadn’t considered the LEAF as a $38k car, EV or not, was well past my budget.  But  combine that 10k discount with the $7500 federal tax rebate and the MD electric vehicle sales tax exemption and it was possible to drive away with a shiny-new, fully loaded 2012 Nissan LEAF SL in a gorgeous Ocean Blue for just around $20k.  So I did.

I was ecstatic to be driving electric again as it had been about two years since the eMR2 was in regular service and way back in January 2012 I’d made a new year’s resolution to stop sucking gas.  The LEAF felt almost like it drove itself; road and wind noise were so subdued it was hard to tell speed by the seat of the pants.  The steering was very Prius-like, smooth and light but devoid of road feel.  Bumps were faintly heard and not so much felt yet cornering felt balanced and fluid due to the underslung battery pack and, for a front drive car, good weight distribution.  The responsiveness of the motor in traffic was very impressive, the torque lifting the nose and requiring a firm hand on the steering wheel to keep the wheels pointed in the desired direction.  The car was best enjoyed at town speeds though as it felt like there was not much urge left by 55mph.  I loved the light colors and airy feel of the interior though my wife was pessimistic that the upholstery would withstand the abuse two little boys can dish out.  The LEAF was roomier than I was expecting, head room is almost excessive while the back seat can swallow a rear-facing child seat and still provide adequate room for a short front seat passenger.  The LED headlights illuminated the road beautifully and all the controls were sensibly placed with a precise feel to them.

My first day with the 2012 LEAF and I couldn’t have asked for a better setup

I fondly remember one snowy trip to grandma’s house, literally over the river and through the woods on country roads with about 4″ of accumulation on the ground.  The LEAF felt amazingly sure footed and very easy to control even when faced with walls of slush thrown up by large 4×4 pickups that were in quite a hurry to get somewhere.  One great advantage to electric drive that I hadn’t fully appreciated before was that the smooth torque curve of the motor and no gear shifting reduced the likelihood of the wheels breaking loose during a shift or as torque builds rapidly as an engine gets “on-cam”.  We arrived safely at Grandma’s with snow plastered all over the front of the car and the windows fogged from limited defroster use but quite relaxed, considering that the same trip in our minivan would have been much more harrowing.

In the mundane world of commuting, the miles passed serenely as I glided down the road.  Occasionally, I’d come to the realization that it had been several minutes since I’d last paid close attention to my surroundings.  This epiphany would hit me when the pain in my lower back reached a level I couldn’t ignore.

And so I began to learn the LEAF’s shortcomings, starting with the incredibly poor lumbar support.  This was surprising as early reviews of pre-production LEAFs noted the adjustable lumbar support and great seat comfort.  I hope the Nissan aparatchik whose brilliant idea was to inflict back pain to save a buck gets his bonus in week-old sushi.  Like most modern cars, visibility is poor due to massive A-pillars and billboard-size rear head restraints.  I’m not sure why this is considering that the Prius dealt well with these issues almost a decade ago.  The rear head restraints quickly ended up bouncing around in the hatch but there’s nothing to do about the A-pillars but take extra care to avoid hitting anything that might be lurking in the forward quarter area of the car, especially when making left turns.  Charging with the 3.3kW charger turned out to be slower than I was comfortable with.  Since we’re driving electric as much as possible, if my wife wants to go out after I’ve come home from work it’s helpful if there are more than 30 miles range available for her, especially if it’s cold out.  3.3kW can only provide about 10 miles per hour of charging, at least with the winter efficiencies I was achieving, so I found myself checking the snail’s pace of charging progress quite often when hooked up to a public charger far from home and feeling a little constricted by the car’s limitations.

The 2012 drawing amps from the newly installed Siemens Versicharge

The biggest shortcoming was the climate control design, specifically the heater.  The LEAF uses a resistive ceramic element to heat a coolant loop, replicating the hot water produced by an internal combustion engine so Nissan can use the same climate control module used in their ICE vehicles.  Upon startup, the element can draw 5kw of power and yet take several minutes to heat up the coolant loop, combining the same disadvantages of  an ICE car but with the additional penalty of a huge power draw that bleeds off precious electrons at a time when range is already being degraded due to the cold.  “But lithium batteries aren’t supposed to be affected by cold, they’re not like Lead-Acid!” you say.  Maybe there are some temperature insensitive lithium batteries out there but the LEAF’s is not one of them.  If it’s freezing out, there is a negative impact on battery capacity in addition to the increased rolling resistance and higher air density that also contribute to lower range in the cold.  Pre-heating while connected to charger power is a must and even then the heat quickly dissipates due to the other shortcoming of the system, a footwell draft that channels outside cold air into the car and can’t be plugged by any control setting.  Preheating the cabin could buy as much as a half hour without heater use were it not for the frozen toes that would take an hour to thaw out after arriving at my destination.  Certainly, the current state of electric vehicles requires some adjustment of expectations but this was a bona fide design defect.  With heat costing so much in battery capacity I’m amazed how such a obvious defect was considered acceptable.

As many complaints as I had about the heater, I sure did miss it when it broke on January 2nd.  I played with the settings for a day to see if it would come back to life but in the end I called the dealer for a service appointment.  Checking the mynissanleaf.com forums, several other owners of late production 2012s were experiencing the same failure with some having waited for weeks just for parts to arrive!  At least I was prepared when the service advisor told me similar news the day after I dropped off the car.  It was a hard adjustment getting into their Altima loaner after having driven electric for a month.  With all the added noise and vibration of those four cylinders rattling around I felt like I was driving a tractor.  Now I was looking at making new car payments as well as funding the loaner’s petroleum habit.  I can’t imagine ever going back to driving a gas car now that production electrics are available.  Luckily, they were able to swap loaners for a LEAF they had just added to their dealer fleet, a brand new left over 2011 with only a few hundred miles.

In the 28 days I had it, I put more miles on the loaner than I had on my own car and drove it in exactly the same manner.  I was relieved to not be driving an ICE car again but I didn’t like the 2011 edition nearly as much as my 2012.  The seats were even less comfortable than the ’12 with thinner seat padding covered in a low rent fabric that looked more befitting a Sentra than a car twice as expensive.  The bare plastic steering wheel lacked the soft leather wrapping of the ’12 and its heating feature.  The seats lacked heating as well and that feature was sorely missed during this unusually long and cold Maryland winter.  The suspension didn’t take bumps as well and let more impact noise into the cabin.  There was also more wind noise emanating from the A-pillar area than the I was used to in the ’12.  The car was new yet when i got a good look at the black paint in the daylight it had the worst orange peel I’ve seen in years.  That was until I looked at a new Versa and saw the same thing, so it must be endemic to Nissan’s black painting process.  Such poor finish is certainly not befitting such an expensive car and maybe the reason why it languished unsold.

The 2011 version struck me as disappointingly cheap compared to the 2012 and I felt for the early adopters who paid full price for the privilege of buying the first mass produced EV available for sale.  It really felt like a minimal effort by Nissan especially considering that a 2002 RAV-4 EV had faster charging, more range and heat pump climate control almost a decade before the LEAF debuted.  Though there are only detail improvements between the ’11 and ’12, the contrasts made me look at some of their shared shortcomings with a more critical eye.

I was happy to get back into my ocean blue cloud but I was less sure that it was suitable for the long haul.  The fabric was inevitably getting soiled by the boys without their even trying, winter range was limited and the charging was too slow.  As much as I loved the electric powertrain, I didn’t look forward to driving the car.  The overly light and anodyne steering just wasn’t designed for driving pleasure and generally the car liked to let you know it was not in a hurry to get anywhere.  Usually neither am I, but the finest machines feel just as good being driven slowly as they do at a more rapid pace and I was hoping for that same sense of competence and capability with the LEAF.  In its defense, the LEAF was designed with no sporting pretensions whatsoever so it was more my problem than the car’s.  That didn’t keep me from wishing otherwise though.

So it was with great anticipation that I read the specs on the 2013 LEAF as soon as it was announced.  It appeared Nissan had addressed most, if not all, of the issues I had with the car as the charging time was cut in half, a hybrid heat pump warmed the cabin, leather seating was available and there was a raft of other incremental improvements that had me looking forward to checking it out more closely as soon as I could.  But considering I’d already bought a new car just a few months ago, I really should have been following my father’s practice of ceasing to look at all advertisements right after making any big purchase.  Sometimes it’s better not to know about what you forsook to better enjoy what you have.

Instead, I followed my dad’s admonishment of not having any common sense and checked out the first 2013 SL I could find at a nearby dealer, a Brilliant Silver example trimmed with a black leather interior.  I got in, sat in it for about 30 seconds and got out.  Didn’t like it.  The seats had much improved support but sitting in the interior felt like I’d fell in a hole, it was so black.

Gone were the pleasant contrast of tans and browns, all replaced by a funereal sobriety more befitting a 90s BMW.   An interaction with a typical car salesman-type further soured my experience and I went on my way, content with my 2012.

It was hard to ignore the additional refinements of the 2013 though, so much so that its effect on 2012 model resale values worried me.  As fast as the technology is maturing, I could foresee being stuck with an outdated and unappreciated historical artifact that even now wasn’t quite adequate for my needs.  Though I’d never leased a car before, in this case the proposition started to make sense as a hedge against obsolescence.  So I tried again, emailing a bunch of dealers to see what kind of lease deal could be had on a 2013 SL with premium package given a 2012 trade-in.  The broken heater episode was very generously compensated by Nissan by covering a monthly payment and a VPP voucher that offers a significant discount off MSRP, no negotiation required.  Fortuitously, Nissan also began offering a $1000 LEAF loyalty discount to current owners.  The numbers worked out really well and after only 3 months and 2500 miles of ownership, I traded in the blue 2012 for a two year lease on a silver 2013 with very favorable terms.

I hadn’t even driven the car before signing the papers so the drive home was an adventure.  The sensory deprivation chamber of the 2012 now hummed with a modicum of road noise from the larger 17″ wheels (still quieter than the 2011 though), the steering felt more naturally weighted (if still numb) and the heater got the interior toasty promptly and with hardly any effect on range.  Plus no footwell draft!  That in itself is almost good enough reason to get a 2013.  Even better, highway travel could easily be accomplished at or greater than 4.1 mi/kWhr and traveling in the left lane could be done without worry due to the expanded power band of the motor.  There wasn’t quite the same thrust available at town speeds (rated torque has dropped from 207 to 187lb-ft) but I was happy to trade that off for better highway passing capability.  I find myself moving at 5-10mph faster than I used to in the 2012 with better efficiency than I could ever wring out of the 2012 at the lower speeds.  I ran both with tires at 40psi; there’s some sacrifice in ride quality but I like the efficiency bump.  The batteries seem to be sag and lose less capacity in cold weather and even absorb regen energy at 100%SOC.   With all these improvements it was maddening to find that the brakes had become quite difficult to modulate smoothly.  It’s very hard to avoid slowing down more abruptly than anticipated at low speeds.  Despite that dynamic demerit, I have taken the LEAF out just for the joy of driving it and I’m very happy that I persisted with trading up to the 2013 model.

The blue stitching and perforations of the 2013?s leather seats – a pleasing and subtle detail

I very much enjoy the 2013 but don’t love it, so I’m not quite compelled to make the significant financial commitment to own it.  After my experience with the ’12 I’m wary of Nissan’s design and engineering standards and will wait and see how the LEAF holds up over the next two years of to decide if I should get the 2015 model.  Hopefully by that time I’ll have the budget for a Tesla which is much more my style, having spent most of my driving life behind the wheel of various Alfa Romeos.

That said, the 2013 edition of the LEAF is greatly improved and, with the exception of poor forward quarter visibility and no temperature management of the battery, has no significant weaknesses.  It delivers on its promise competently enough that I feel comfortable recommending it to people who are not familiar at all with EVs, something I would not do with the 2012.  Really, it should have been the product Nissan came to market with in 2010.  Trite as it may sound, in this case it’s better late than never.

About Suhas Malghan

This blog documents the design and development of environmentally sustainable machines and humane design practice in general; machines that work for humanity as well on the move as they do sitting still.
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