My week with a Nissan Leaf

I borrowed a Nissan Leaf for a week, to see for myself what it is like to own and operate an Electric Vehicle (EV). There has been much interest on Twitter in how my week with and EV went, so here's the answer!

I collected the car from IBM's North Harbour offices in Portsmouth. It was plugged-in to a charging point in the car park. Currently North Harbour is the only IBM location in the UK with a charging point, though there is one just a few metres from the Southbank location.

The car charges through a cable plugged-in to a socket under a little flap at the front of the bonnet. There's a big socket and a little socket, the latter being the only one I used, plugging in either to the charging point, or, more often (using a different cable) into a normal 13Amp socket at home.

Off we go...

Starting the car is easy: press the brake and push the On button. Then, like booting a PC, it flashes lots of lights and plays a twee little tune. The Leaf has keyless locking and "ignition", so you just keep the keys in your pocket. The transmission is automatic, so you put it in Drive or Reverse, press the electric handbrake switch, press the accelerator a bit, and you're off!

The first thing you notice is the lack of engine noise. The loudest sound when you're driving is tyre noise on the road surface. Then there's a high-pitched whine from the engine, the pitch of which didn't seem to change with revs. Finally, if you listen carefully, or for some reason are particularly sensitive to such noises, there's the hum of cooling fans at the front of the car.

A quiet car...

I've been saying for a while that pedestrian injuries are likely to increase as EV use grows, particularly in low-speed situations such as car parks. I particularly looked out to see how people reacted, or didn't, to an approaching EV. Mostly, it was just the same as with a normal car: people looked before they stepped-out into the road and saw me. Two notable points though:

People already crossing the road didn't hear me coming and hence hurry or look round: clearly the Green Cross Code's "keep looking and listening while you cross" isn't deeply engrained in everyone!

The other interesting observation was birds. Normally they fly up as you approach and are easy to avoid. With the EV, however, they seemed to fly up fractionally later. They still made it, but evidently they were alerted later than previously.

Creature comforts...

The Leaf is comfortable for driver and passengers. It's a proper sized 5 door, with decent leg-room in the back. The boot is a bit small (there's a boxed-off bit behind the rear seat: I suspect it's to do with the battery, which is under the seats in the floorpan). With charging cables in there too, I just felt it was a bit small in the boot department. It has all mod cons: electric windows and mirrors, air con, sat nav, media centre with radio, CD, MP3 player input and USB port. When you reverse there's a rear view web cam with steering guide lines, which takes a bit of getting used to, but is quite cool.

Under the bonnet...

Here's the thing which genuinely surprised me: the Leaf has an engine!

All the other EVs I've seen have motors attached to the inside of the wheels. The Leaf has an 80kW electric motor which looks about the same as a small petrol engine. There are electric fans and a liquid cooling system. Another surprising find under the bonnet was a regular 12v car battery. That powers the computers and dashboard etc, and is charged from the main battery (which is 400v, so it was a good idea to run the electronics off something lower!). There is also a little solar panel at the back of the roof in the boot door, which keeps the 12v battery topped-up. If it ever went flat, you'd have to jump start it, which amuses me quite a lot!

Efficient driving...

When fully charged, the Leaf said 98miles range. I suspected this was unlikely to be true, and had heard about 80 would be good going, and that 70-75 was actually more likely. I have got quite used to Eco-driving in my Renault Clio, so things like accelerating gently, trying to anticipate traffic to avoid braking, and driving at slightly slower speeds are all second-nature to me already, and all of those have significant impact on the EV range. Regenerative slowing and braking means that going down hills and gentle braking actually puts power back into the battery, and the miles remaining sometimes creeps back up a bit!

There is an Eco mode, which limits the acceleration rate, and apparently makes better use of the regenerative braking. Some people find the car too sluggish in Eco mode, but I found it fine. I'll tell you what, though: in non-Eco mode, the acceleration of the Leaf is AMAZING! I can beat almost anything off the lights, and for zipping round things on the open road, it's brilliant. But you pay the price for hard acceleration and higher speed in reduced range. This may not be a problem: on days when I knew I was just doing the 30 mile round trip to Cowes to get the ferry, I could enjoy the fun side of driving an EV!

EV range fail...

On Wednesday I had a business meeting on the Island in Ventnor. My route for the day was to be: Chale (home) - Cowes (collect colleague from ferry) - Ventnor (meeting) - Chale (home again briefly) - Cowes (take Ben back to the ferry), then home to Chale. Total length of journey was 77 miles. I drove in Eco mode, and stayed at or below speed limits, but apart from that was just driving normally, chatting to Ben, not trying to drive specifically economically, but certainly not flogging it at all. All was fine until the last but one hop: Chale to Cowes. We got to Newport and were sitting in traffic, and I thought about the remaining distance to Cowes and the distance back home (21 miles), and realised the remaining range (19) was not enough. Should we risk it? No, better to head back home (8miles) and go and get a real car. So we did that. When we got home, it said 3 miles remaining. So I think that was a really good decision!

Better the second time...

On Friday, I had to drive a big chunk of that journey again, so I decided (in the interests of Science) to drive exactly the same route that we did on Wednesday. I was more careful this time, the main thing being to be lighter on the accelerator. I used the power meter on the dashboard to try to keep at no more than 2 clicks on the gauge for as much of the journey as possible. There were a few hills, so I had to use a bit more there, but let the speed decrease as I gained height. I accelerated slowly from each stop, using the power meter as a sort of acceleration limiter. The car gets up to speed: just takes longer to do it! I stayed just under all the speed limits, turned the aircon off (though the computer said it would only have reduced the range by 2miles).

This time, not only did I complete the whole 77mile route (i.e. got back home after the final trip to Cowes), there were still 11miles left on the gauge when I got back! So this showed that there are new skills to learn to get the most out of an EV, and that with those skills, you can pretty much spend a day pootling around the Isle of Wight on a single charge.

A colleague who already owns a Leaf said that was impressive for a newbie, and that he normally reckons on 75 being a good working maximum range.

Information is key...

There is lots of information available while you're driving the Leaf to help you understand how much of the battery power you've used, how much is left, and how efficiently you're using it. There are numeric and graphic representations, some on the dashboard and some on the media centre screen if you select that view.

There's a weird gauge in prominent view next to the (digital) speedometer. The best way to describe it is that it makes Christmas trees! As you drive along, if you're being economical with the power, and use regen braking a lot, and accelerate gently and keep the aircon off, it grows a tree, branch by branch, and then parks that as a "trophy", and starts growing the next one! How many trees can you save on your journey? Best I did was 3! Interestingly the explanation of this prominent display was hidden deep in the very thick user manual. I mused about how much power was going to be wasted over the lifetime of the car, lugging those huge manuals around! Maybe Nissan should ship the manuals on a Kindle?!

Things that bugged me...

A few little things annoyed me about the Leaf. Silly little things, but whenever I get a new car, I always make a list, as you get totally used to them after a while. As I said, silly little things, but they were things I noted.


The Leaf has a 24kWh lithium-ion battery, and charges at a steady 10Amps. This means that a full charge takes 10 hours. You don't have to fully charge the battery, but if you don't your subsequent range is proportionately less. One of the problems I foresee is that in busy weeks I'm not always at home for 10 hours overnight. Sad but true, and it also means any fancy notions of Demand-Side Management of the charging by avoiding peak times while we're all cooking dinner, and reducing loading on our local electricity sub-station by scheduling my charging relative to my neighbours' (when they all get an EV once they've seen mine!), go out of the window.

You can get a charging point installed at home. They appear to come in two flavours currently (oops, sorry!): 16Amp and 32Amp. Clearly they both require a separate circuit from your fuse box, and must of course be fitted by an electrician. The 16Amp one would reduce charging time to 6 hours, and the 32Amp to 3 hours. Note not all EVs can charge at the higher current yet. I think the new Leafs (Leaves?) can do the rapid charge. With a higher current charging point, Demand Management becomes more important (as the loading is higher), and the shorter charge time would make scheduling possible.

And some numbers...

During the week I had the leaf, I recharged it 3 times, putting in a total of 61 kWh of electricity. I pay Npower 11p a unit, so that cost £7. I drove 245 miles, so the cost per mile was 3p. Compare this with the 14p per mile it costs to drive my diesel Renault Clio.

The best distance I got from a full charge was 77 miles with 11 remaining on the gauge. The worst (the first day I had it) was 64 with 5 remaining.

In conclusion...

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of looking after a Leaf for a week. Much better than just hearing what others think of their EV, and much more informative than a short test drive. Range is a problem for me. Although my "normal" commute is a 30 mile round trip to Cowes, and then by train to wherever I'm going, I have to use my car to drive somewhere more than 100 miles away often enough that I'd still need another car, or make frequent use of a hire car.

If I got a Leaf (or any of the current generation of EVs that reasonable money can buy) it would be an expensive novelty: I don't believe it would save me any money at all, compared with the fine service my ageing but trusty Toyota Corolla gives in its role as my "ferry car". I am confident that the Day of the Electric Vehicle will come, but it's not quite there yet.

If you have any comments or questions, feel free to tweet me @andysc.

Andy Stanford-Clark    9-Sep-2013