Four days after I purchased a Smart ForTwo ED (Electric Drive) my wife was so impressed by the performance and driving that we decided to get her an electric car. We needed something that would fit our growing Newfoundland puppy when she reaches her full 120 lbs in a year or so and something that had better range and comfort than my SmartCar. We decided on the Nissan Leaf. It has a quoted range of 65-100 miles, it rode like a dream in the test drive, and it would fit the dog. What could possible go wrong?! Well after a 4 day, 200 mile test drive it didn’t work out. Here is what I learned about the car and how it would have actually worked if we had one piece of the missing puzzle.
If you want to drive the the coolest electric car on the planet, go get a Tesla. If you want to drive the first electric car for the mass market that you could actually afford, get into a Leaf. It has smooth handling, a cushy suspension, and a constant and quick acceleration. Every time you drive it, it is exciting. My wife and I took it all around town for three days and was really impressed. It zips, zaggs, it does it all. Charging at home was a bit of an issue now that we had two electric cars but we made it work. We took turns charging at night and supplemented at the Nissan dealership by my work. We woke up everyday giggling that we now had TWO electric cars! Then, I had a long distance trip for work and that is where the dream began to unravel.
First a bit of foreshadowing. We had noticed in the Nissan Leaf app that the car wasn’t charging to its full 100%. It was charging to a 73 mile range at 80%. Even though I’m a techie, I didn’t pay much attention. The car had been reset to factory settings so we assumed that we had to break in the battery or we weren’t charging long enough. Next sign of pending doom, my wife noticed that driving to work her range was not accurate. She would leave home with 65 or so miles of range but after arriving at work a mere 10 miles away, she is suddenly down to 40 miles of range. By the time she was home after work, another ten miles, she is down to 20 miles of range. It was a bit cold out so we assumed it was temperature related or that she had the heat, seat warmers, and steering wheel heaters all cranked up. The night before my big work trip, I hadn’t let it deter me from proving to myself that it could be done. I had 85 miles to go and ample charging opportunities in between. So I decided to offer two coworkers a ride.
I charged the car as much as it would go. I drove like a granny to pick up my coworkers and after picking them up I merged on the highway at an incredibly reasonable pace. I had 70 miles on the dash and only needed to go 44 to my first charging station. I figured I would arrive with 20 miles, I could charge for an hour and add 20 more and then while working charge up for the return trip home. It was a perfect plan, until we started driving.
We made it 34 miles before I received a warning to pull of the road. I limped the car into a gas station parking lot at 5:30am just 30 minutes after leaving with no option there but to plug in to a 110v outlet by an ice machine for 14 hours. I was only 8 miles from a charger that would get the job done in 4 hours but couldn’t get there. I had to call another coworker to pickup the two that drove with me and had use Nissan’s included roadside assistance after we had owned the car for 3 days. It was sad to see this car on the back of an old beat up tow truck covered in grease and oil being towed to Nissan for so many reasons. I wanted it to work. I spent 3 hours charging at that dealership which made me late for work and almost made three coworkers late. When I finally did arrive I parked in a garage which I assumed would have a 110v outlet kicking around some where but didn’t. I had 20 miles of range left, no where to charge, and a long return trip home ahead of me.
After I left work, the saga continued. With 20 miles I drove to the closes Nissan dealership and was surprised by what I found. At the dealership by my work, they have three fast chargers available for any electric car to charge 24 hours a day for free. At this dealership near Salem, NH they had but one. It was currently locked up and was only available for me to use for about 45 minutes until the dealership closed for the night. Disappointed does not convey the feeling. I sat there and thought I may need to get towed twice in one day.
When they finally gave me the casual “Get out now so I can go home” look, I had about 40 miles of range. I continued down to Lawrence, MA to see a friend thinking I could stop at a Nissan dealership that I remembered and while the car charged, beg for a ride to Cafe Azteca for a bite to eat. It is now about 6:30pm and I had a long day behind me. A day of work, a tow, a scary ride. It seemed like two days smashed into one. Now I still have a long night of charging and driving ahead of me. Just when I felt hopeless about electric cars and felt miserable about talking my wife into this Leaf now to just admit that it wouldn’t work for us, a shining glimmer of amazing hope.
You see, the Nissan dealership in Lawrence, MA has a Chademo quick charger. Not a fast charger like most dealerships have that will give you a 4 hour charge at best, no oh no… This is the much rumored Chademo FAST charger. This was supposed to give you a full charge from depletion in 30 minutes. A rush of electricity ran to my face (not literally, they are actually very safe) and it was all smiles. I pulled up, popped the latch and plugged in this awesome looking mammoth cable. It took a bit of ‘adjustment’ to figure it out. (The trick is to insert and squeeze the handle like a gas pump, that locks the connection). Once I made the connection and hit charge, it was AMAZING. Thus far I had watched the 28 or so KWH battery charge very slowly, like watching dialup. Now, I’m on a dedicated fiber line. Now, I was charging 1% in 30 seconds or less. After 20 minutes I was at my 80% (more to follow about that) and I had 73 miles again after just moments ago having 20! This was great! I could drive around town, pump up the heat, get some food, let my friend test drive the car and then top off on my way out of town. I was elated!
Well I did all of that. Drove, ate, test ride, and at 10pm made my way on home. We had used about 15 miles of range when I drove up to the dealership and there it was; a locked fence at the entrance. I wouldn’t be topping off tonight. That was the first of many disappointments for the rest of the night as I drove with out heat from Lawrence, MA to Portland Maine. I stopped a total of 3 times for 2-3 hours each to charge because even though the dash said I had 65 miles range, on the highway, I was actually getting half that. Afraid that I wouldn’t make it to the next station, I had to stop at each one I knew of via PlugShare along the way.
The first was in Newburyport and even though it was about 20 miles from Lawrence, my 65 miles of range had been reduced to 15 by the time I arrived. I slept and charged from 12:00am to 2:00am. I left at 2:00am, next stop in Portsmouth NH, just 19 miles away and 65 miles on the dash but I arrived with just 15 miles to spare again. The last station was in Kennebunkport Maine and you can guess how it went. I left there at 5:30am after charging and called my wife. This EV-enture of 84 miles had now lasted about 24 hours (less work and dinner) and was wearing on me. I made it home and we decided to evoke our 4 day, 200 mile return policy at Berlin City Nissan of Portland.
The next day we went in and spoke to our amazing rep Eric. He brought his DM in the conversation and it got a bit dicey. My ev-enture had put us 70 miles over the 200 mile limit. We could tell that this was going to be a headache for us and them but at the risk of having a leased car for 2 years that would only take us 35 miles on the highway, we had to object. After about 30 minutes of speaking to everyone at the dealership including a mechanic that has a Leaf of his own, it was obvious something was off. He had been getting 75 miles of actual range with all the accessories like heat and seats turned on and we discovered that other Leaf owners are reporting the same or better range. We concluded by accepting the car for another 4 days of testing after they adjusted a setting that was preventing the car from charging to 100%.
That night we tested it and the car worked as promised. We drove from Portland, ME to Freeport, ME and the milage issue had been corrected. Every one of the 30 or so miles to Freeport were converted from estimated range to distance traveled for a total of 75 miles like clockwork. No more 2 miles range = 1 mile of distance. We made it there and back with room to spare. It didn’t change the fact that we still couldn’t keep the car but it helped lessen the blow. We now knew that for our twice a month trips over 100 miles to see family, this car couldn’t work because of one reason. There are no Chademo stations in Maine. In fact, until I pulled in to Nissan of Lawrence, there was not a marked Chademo station north of Boston. And that my friends is the only thing holding back the Nissan Leaf.
If Nissan had installed Chademo chargers at all of their dealerships and incurred the extra expense (Chademo’s are about $8k-$15k based on my research compared to $1-$2k for normal fast 220v chargers) then we would have kept the Leaf. Especially if there was a company wide policy to not shut down chargers at night that drivers like my wife and I were depending on to get home. Charging an electric car in 20-30 minutes was science fiction a few years ago and for a brief moment, it was in my had as reality. Tesla is building a network of SuperChargers from east to west coast in the next 9 months for road trippers but Nissan has not announced any such plans.
In fact, for the 5 days we had the car, we had to send letters to local municipalities to see if there were plans to install Chademo stations at rest stops on the highway. You can imagine how pumped city and governments are about putting in electric car chargers at $15k to let travelers charge for free or low cost. They were not pumped at all.
So back it went. We returned it and bought a gas car. No more two electric cars any more. It was sad and I still wish we could have made it work. Even though the Versa Note we ended up buying gets 40mpg it is not the same. There is nothing like the satisfaction of plugging in an electric car and knowing that you can get your fuel from any outlet, that you’re not pumping fossil fuel, and that you are not one of the dirty tailpipes driving down the road. This experience made me realize the true sad reality of how great of a product that gasoline is. Apart from it being dirty, it has A LOT of energy in it and you can buy it ANYWHERE. Most people are probably 5 minutes from multiple gas stations and their car gets about 300 miles of range that is not effected much by cargo or weather. The Leaf made me realize that for all the benefits of an electric car, that the range and the unlimited energy of a gas car is very difficult to give up. I love thinking about my electric car and planning my charges each day but when we take my wife’s car, I don’t have to think about any of that, you just leave whenever and go where ever. In their current state, electric cars require a lot of planning and thinking ahead. Regardless, every time I see a Leaf, I remember the feeling that I had when I found that Chademo and wonder, what if those Chademo stations were as plentiful as gas stations… wouldn’t that be something; would that be all that it would take?