Cleantech Blog Wants a Leaf, Dammit

I drove my first Nissan Leaf on Saturday. The ultimate cleantech car.  Not Cleantech Blog’s first EV drive, as our blogger John Addison has blogged on the Leaf and other EVs numerous times before. But only my second EV drive.  My Leaf test drive followed a previous conversation with Mark Perry, one of the senior product guys at Nissan, who gave me a bit of insight ahead of time into what all went into the Leaf. I must admit, I was rougher on him than almost any interview I’ve ever done, and was definitely a skeptic. I pushed him hard on why they didn’t push the cost to get just a bit more range and a bit faster charging, and he was unable to share too much on the record.  I’m also incredulous at the minute volumes (20,000 in the US this year) they are producing.  One version?  Every product decision middle of the road?  No real EV options?  Tiny production for the first year?  Scatter that production around the world?  I think at heart Nissan has been scared to death that this thing will flop.  They’ve treated the Leaf like a pilot, and marketed it like a real car.  I say why not bet on it?  They wouldn’t release any other car with such puny production capacity.   As it is, if it works, their 12 to 24 month advantage over the competition just evaporates into market share limbo.  And best yet, it’s a great looking car.  I think they did a damn good job for the first honest to goodness mass market EV on the planet.  And an amazing job marketing.  But have the courage of your convictions!  I want a Leaf, Dammit!

The Leaf Electric Drive Tour has to be one of the best sales pitches I’ve ever received. Think timeshare sales tour, except fun, no pressure, and not obnoxious. (oh and no donuts).  By the end of the group pre-ride tour – you could feel your adrenaline and the excitement just to get it one – it felt like a Disney World ride. And the best part was no salesmen ever showed up! You just leave thinking where do I sign?

Of course, there was the guy in front of me who commented he bought one without ever driving it, and was just coming for a test drive while waiting for it to arrive.  He was not the only excited person in a crowd of excited people.

To be honest, the Leaf looks good, feels good, handles well, and they’ve thought about almost everything I could come up with.

For instance:

  • The “fuel tank’ is measured in estimate miles left, not gallons of KWH – which makes sense I just never thought about it.
  • You can pre heat and pre cool it from your cell phone.
  • A lot of the car’s interior is made from recycled materials.
  • The 600 lb batteries can be swapped out cell by cell and component by component for repair. They have an 8 year warranty – but only 5 years on the EV components and 3 bumper to bumper (which I found odd – Nissan trusts its battery life more than the life of the rest of the car?)
  • The battery power level fades <1% per month when sitting unplugged.  Wish my blackberry did that well.
  • The Leaf can text you when it’s thirsty.
  • You can see component by component how much juice you draw.
  • You can get Leaf apps to help you plan out your route by juice level.
  • The Leaf knows where the fast chargers are around town, and knows if they are occupied.
  • The Leaf will shut down non essentials and ping you the closer it gets to out.
  • It has a back up capacitor to keep it from dying when you run out of juice.
  • There will be a hundred chargers in the first year in Houston where I live – most of them are expected to be free (like at grocery stores and malls and stuff that want your business, and a bunch arranged by Reliant, one one of the big Texas utilities).
  • Oh, and free roadside assistance for 3 years to pick you up if you run out of juice. (I swear I heard that right!)

Now for the general EV advantages:

  • You can hear your self think (and your passenger, too). It makes about as much noise as well, a leaf falling.
  • It turns in almost the space of the dining room table I’m writing this blog on.
  • It accelerates like demon hummingbird on meth.  The beauty about EVs is you can get lots of acceleration and torque at low RPMs.  Nissan quotes 100% of torque at 1,000 RPMs vs. a V8 that might have 40% at 1,000 RPMs.  I can believe it.
  • The maintenance is like, nil.  My kind of car.  No oil.  No transmission fluid.  No spark plugs.  Breakpads don’t wear as much because regenerative breaking uses your drive train to help break.  This one is passively cooled for the batteries, but does have coolant for the EV parts.  They have a cool flat cell design that dissipates heat and makes that possible.  Some guy in the audience asked it there were really only 5 moving parts in the whole Leaf.  (uhm no, but damn that marketing group must be something else to get THAT rumor going!)
  • Did I mention it’s cool and electric and has lots of gadgets and apps?

. . .

But I’m not going to buy one.  As a car, it’s just not there yet.  Almost – but not quite.  I’m a 15 year car guy.  I don’t believe in the throw away economy when it comes to cars.  I want my next car to last til the cows come home.  As I said, just not quiiiiiiite there yet.

  • Charging time – eh.  Can fast charge on 480V in 30 minutes.  But you’re not going to have a fast charger in your home.  Needs like 8 hours on 220V (you buy a 220V charging station installed at your house).  On a 110V wall plug, think more like most of  day.  These are good numbers, but from a guy who sometimes doesn’t always fill up the whole tank if I’m at a slow gas pump – uh, not very impressive.  Of note, Ford just announced its Focus will charge in 3 to 4 hours – bascially they just use a 6.6 KW charger instead of Nissan’s 3.3,  about a 7% cost saving move according to Mark Perry.  I kept asking the whyb we didn’t see a more expensive fast charge version if it’s the cheap – and better yet a fast charging version with just a tad more batteries, and no answer really forthcoming.  Back to my Nissan wasn’t ready to swing for the fences, and has treated the Leaf has a high profile pilot.
  • Saves money, sort of.  You fill up your car on $2-$3 per “tank”.  24 KWH battery pack, $0.10/kwh.  Nissan posted a target miles per $ for a number of cars as a comparison, about 37 for the Leaf, 18 for a Toyota Prius, 14 for a Ford Fusion Hybrid, and 5 for a Hummer.  Estimates using $0.10/kwh and $2.80 per gallon, I believe.  Great, saves money.  Um, not so much.  $2800 savings over 100,000 miles/8 years vs a Prius, and $4400 vs. a Ford Fusion Hybrid.  Does not pay for the cost difference.  Of course, after some really rich subsidies, you might say, yes it does!
  • 100 mile average range target.  Not bad.  But not quite good either.  Especially as I’m 30 miles from the airport.  Basically no running errands on trips to the airport day – especially since it’s all freeway and no way I’m going to the airport without AC in Houston most days.
  • Or put another way, I drove across town to test drive my Leaf.  When I got in for my 10.30 a.m. appointment, the car had been test driving intermittently for a couple of hours, kind of like running errands.  The range said 72 miles without AC, 63 miles with AC.  My house is 34.2 miles from the test drive location in Pearland.  If I’d owned a Leaf, the range would not have gotten me to the Leaf test drive.  That was very unsettling.  (Of course, if I lived in Pearland, then I’d have gotten to drive the Leaf with no problem, but now I’d be 40 miles from the airport).
  • Gets worse.  Remember I’m a 15 year car guy.  I asked them what happened at the end of my 8 year battery warranty.  They assume future battery packs will be backwards compatible and could be replaced if need be (my Corolla and Accord are both approaching 15 years and I have no intention of replacing the engine).  And they estimate the battery will be at about 80% capacity in year 8.  Not good, wouldn’t even be able to pick up friends from the airport under any circumstances.  Not sure I could get to Costco, HEB, and parents house and back at year 15.  And for those non 15 year care guys, who do you think is going to buy your 6 year old Leaf  with an 85 mile range when you’re tired of it?
  • Which brings us to the final reason I’m sadly not going to buy a Leaf.  Ford is launching an EV Focus later this year.  The Volt is out.  A dozen more are coming.  In 24 months, the Leaf will be the first, but likely not the best.  By year 3, EV battery life will have improved.   By year 6-10 when you’re trying to sell it, it’ll be the slow charging, short range, out of warranty really cool old obsolete car, and it probably won’t last 15 years.  🙁

So I will be buying an EV. Just not this one.  Just not now.  But kudos to Nissan for making a really cool car that almost got an electric vehicle skeptic over the line.

PS For the record, I’ve pinged Nissan PR a dozen times asking for one to drive around for a couple of weeks and see what it’s like in real world conditions.  Never gotten a call.

PPS  Despite all that, I want a Leaf, Dammit!

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