Nissan Leaf diary: Living with an electric car

We've borrowed a Nissan Leaf for a week and we'll be updating this diary every day to give you an idea of what it's like living with an EV.

We're big fans of the Nissan Leaf -- the all-electric car impressed the hell out of us when we tested it in Portugal last year, but it would be fair to say the jury is still out on the world's leading electric car. Some people absolutely adore the thing, claiming it's the future of motoring, while others -- mainly in the media -- have given it a hard time over its price, limited range and debatable eco credentials.

Here at Crave, we can see both sides of the electric coin, so we figured we'd try to put the debate to rest once and for all by commandeering a Leaf for a week, subjecting ourselves to its every whim and documenting our experience in excruciating illuminating detail.

Hopefully by the time this diary reaches its conclusion, you'll have an idea of what it's like to live with the Leaf and help you decide whether EVs in general are a good idea for you -- either today or at some point in the future.

Day 1: Range anxiety is real

Hopping into the Leaf, we were soon reminded of just how good a driving machine it can be. Its interior is comfortable, its steering is light and its suspension is supple, all of which contributes to it being one of the most well-mannered cars on the road. You can keep your luxury saloons -- if it's a quiet, calming ride you want, the Leaf is difficult to beat.

Sadly, that was the calm before a storm of anxiety over the car's range, as we began to doubt whether the Leaf had what it took to get us home. It shouldn't have been a problem -- our ultimate destination was a mere 60 miles from the car's delivery point and at the start of our journey the Leaf's onboard computer estimated the battery had 85 miles of total range. Those estimates, however, can vary quite wildly.

After completing the first leg of our journey -- a 13-mile stint via the the A41, the Leaf's range estimate dropped some 24 miles to indicate 61 miles remaining -- a massive drop. We still had enough in the 'tank' to complete the rest of our 40 mile journey (in theory) but given how dramatically the car had changed its estimate over the course of just a few miles, we'd begun to doubt its accuracy.

Fearing the worst, we switched the car from its standard drive mode to the more frugal eco position. This, as we'd discover, transforms the Leaf from a very nippy hatchback (you'll murder people at the traffic lights in normal mode if you so desire) into something a 50cc moped could embarrass. We didn't mind too much -- this slow-motion mode was barely noticeable in city traffic and staying in eco mode helped ensure we got home with 9 miles of juice to spare.

All in all, we'd say our first day's adventure in the Leaf was successful. We very much enjoyed driving the thing on a variety of road types, and we didn't end up stuck on a roundabout in the middle of nowhere -- always a bonus.

Day 2: Recharger palaver

Having exhausted the Leaf's battery, it was time to recharge at home. This process, in theory, should have been relatively painless -- we've all recharged our mobiles, shavers and toothbrushes before -- but topping up an electric car isn't always straightforward.

If you have a garage or a driveway with an external power outlet, you're laughing. Simply connect the car and Robert's your metaphorical dad's proverbial brother. But if, like us and many other more normal folk, all your plugs are indoors and you don't have a driveway, you'll have to jump through a few hoops.

Using an extension lead is not an option. Nissan strictly prohibits this -- the amount of power drawn by the Leaf can cause many extension leads to fry, taking your property along with them. (You need a cable that can support sustained 13A rather than a 13A peak, if you do insist on using an extension.)

Running the Leaf's charger from your hallway, through your door and on to your driveway is an option, as the cable is a generous 6 metres in length. Sadly that didn't work for us either, as the transformer brick is massive -- about the size of two or three masonry bricks, in fact -- and didn't fit through our letterbox.

Installing a cat flap had crossed our minds, but time being of the essence, we went for the easier option of running the cable through an open window. This worked fine, except the Leaf takes 12 hours to charge from empty on a normal household socket, and leaving a downstairs window open through the night wasn't something we felt comfortable with in our part of the world .

As a result, we had to split the charging session across two days -- six hours between 7pm and 1am to get it up to around 50 per cent and another six hours the following day to take it to full capacity. What's interesting to note was that our slightly unorthodox through-a-window charging method meant we couldn't take advantage of any cheapo late-night charging rates -- not without feeling nervous about intruders anyway.

Thankfully, it's possible to make charging more convenient and significantly faster by installing a dedicated unit. This will set you back an extra £1,000, but it'll reduce the charging time to 8 hours and you'll sleep more easily at night.

Day 3: Cabin tech fever

We're three days into life with the Leaf and the electric novelty is wearing off because, to its credit, it's a very normal city runabout. It doesn't look as weird as some electric cars (in this black colour scheme, at least), nobody stares at it (except when the recharger cable is dangling through the window), and it gets us from A to B (provided B isn't too far away and there's not a huge need to get back to A at the end of the day).

So what other tricks are up its sleeve? Quite a few, as it happens. It packs a substantial entertainment and information package, which helps it upstage many of its fossil-fuelled rivals.

The whole shebang is controlled via a 7-inch touchscreen display in the centre of the dashboard. From this hub, it's possible to access a host of settings, including a sat-nav that's tailored specifically to the car's electric propulsion system. This shows where your remaining battery power will take you, where your nearest charging points are located relative to your position and it'll store any new charging points as you use them.

Usefully, the sat-nav will also warn you if you're trying to reach a destination beyond the battery's reach. As a result, we found ourselves using it even on journeys where we knew the route -- it's a good way of double checking you can make it to your destination and back again.

The Leaf's much publicised ability to start and stop accepting charge based on a user-adjustable in-car charge timer is handy for topping up during cheaper off-peak charging times. It proves less useful when charging from empty, however, due to the time it takes to fully charge the Leaf. Most people will probably find they have to start charging the second they get home.

There are plenty of fun features in the Leaf, including an impressive stereo. One might expect the radio in an electric car to be weedy and shy of consuming power, but that's really not the case here. The Leaf's six speakers chuck out a respectable amount of noise and a graphical equaliser lets occupants fiddle with the level of bass and treble to suit their music tastes.

The number of audio sources is fairly limited. There's no DAB radio for a start, but you get USB, iPod and aux connectivity, and there's a slot-loading CD drive behind the mechanically folding touch screen.

Bluetooth A2DP streaming audio makes an appearance, so you can play music wirelessly from your phone. The Bluetooth module also lets you place calls over the car's speakers or access your phonebook via the touchscreen. Voice control is present, too, but it's limited to voice dialling numbers or accessing names in your phone book.

If you really want to geek out, the energy information menu is the place to do it. Here, you'll find a host of gauges showing how much power is being consumed by the 80kW motor, a history of your energy consumption per mile and, usefully, an estimate of how much power is being consumed by each of the car's systems. Curiously, the Leaf's LED headlights appear to consume around 0.02 kW, which is basically nothing, so there's no excuse for driving in the dark with your lights off.

The air conditioning, on the other hand, can consume almost 1.5kW of energy at it's peak, according to the energy monitor. That may not sound like a lot, but using the air conditioning system can result in a considerable drop in range -- between 13 and 20 miles in our experience, based on the Leaf's data readout.

In all, the Leaf really does tickle our geek glands and there are few compromises on the entertainment and information front.

Day 4: Space, comfort and safety

Many people assume electric cars are tiny and toy-like , but that really isn't the case with the Leaf. It's comparable in size to a small family hatchback such as a Volkswagen Golf, so it's more than big enough for most day to day tasks.

There's bags of room up front (both seats are remarkably comfortable, despite being made of recycled water bottles) and there are three seats in the rear, though the central seat is only big enough for a small child.

Boot space is fairly decent, too. There's 330 litres of space -- that's around 20 litres less than a Golf -- and the rear seats fold down to create yet more space for those bank holiday trips to Ikea. Sadly, a large protruding lip prevents the seats folding totally flat. As a result, the Leaf's maximum seats-down storage is only 680 litres -- way less than the 1,300-odd you'd get in many family hatchbacks.

Speaking of families, we don't have any qualms about transporting our precious, fleshy offspring-shaped cargo in the Leaf. The car comes with Isofix points for securing a baby's car seat and has a five-star Euro NCAP rating, which makes it comparable to larger cars such as the Audi A6 and the Mercedes Benz C Class. It feels extremely sturdy, too, with fantastic confidence-inspiring build quality.

Sadly, the Leaf lets itself down slightly with its climate-control system. The air-conditioning works well enough, cooling the cabin to a decent level, but it can reduce the car's range by around a dozen miles or so, according to the car's on-board range calculator. As a result, we mostly kept cool by opening the window, reserving AC use for short bursts when we needed to demist the windscreen.

The heating system doesn't do itself many favours either. Its use doesn't dramatically affect the car's range, but it's slow to get going, blowing tepid air for about 5 minutes before it gets hot enough to warm the cabin. Luckily, it's possible to use the Leaf's onboard climate timer to heat the cabin every morning before you get inside, or remotely using the Carwings iPhone app.

Day 5: Long-distance drama

Range anxiety may have reared its ugly head on our first day with the Leaf, but subsequent days with the car, which have involved short 16-mile round trips to and from the office, have gone without a hitch. Our journeys were so successful, in fact, that we'd begun to trust the Leaf's range indicator almost implicitly.

Growing in confidence, we decided to push the boundaries slightly and take the Leaf on a slightly longer trip from our starting point in South Norwood, London to Little Hay Golf Complex in Hertfordshire. The journey, an 83.4-mile round trip, is longer than our average commute, but it didn't seem especially ambitious in a car that claims to be capable of around 100 miles, so we bit the bullet and went for it.

The trip started well enough. The Leaf seemed to think we had 94 miles of juice in the batteries and, once we'd slid it into Eco mode and started 'hypermiling' for all we were worth, that figure climbed to an indicated 108 miles. We were, it would seem, on to a winner, with the sat-nav indicating we could make it damn near to Cardiff, Birmingham or Norwich.

Sadly, the estimated range dropped like a stone the minute we encountered traffic. Being stationary wasn't so bad, as this barely uses any power, but asking the Leaf to repeatedly haul its own bulk from a standstill up to 10mph before stopping again a few metres down the road and repeating the process a few dozen times began to take its toll.

Six miles into the trip, the range indicator had dropped from an estimated 108 miles to 93, and it continued to fall when we hit fast-moving A roads. Despite cruising at around 10mph below the 70mph speed limit to try to recoup some juice (and being overtaken by lorries and mopeds in the process) the range indicator continued its sickening descent.

By the time we'd reached the golf course, some 41.7 miles away from the start of our trip, the car displayed a remaining range of just 36 miles -- a worrying statistic given the fact we still had to drive another 41.7 miles in order to make it home. Part of us believed we could defy the Leaf and cruise at ultra-low speeds all the way back, but once we'd entered the postcode, the Leaf's sat-nav made the sickening announcement: "You may not have enough power to reach your destination."

We were, it would appear, a litle bit stuck.

Day 6: Battery flattery gets you everywhere

On day 5, the Leaf had gotten us in a position where we were unable to make it home on the car's remaining level of charge.

Feeling stranded, we began to consider our options for getting home at the end of the working day. Our first thought was to throw caution to the wind. We'd defy the range computer and drive home at extremely low speeds, praying we wouldn't encounter stop-start traffic or the police. Ultimately, this wasn't a realistic option, as the most direct way home involved using a motorway, where driving at sub-30mph isn't particularly safe.

Our second option was to drive to the nearest public charging point located 30 minutes and 11.8 miles away in an NCP car park. Sadly, leaving the golf course at at 8pm as planned would mean getting to the public charging point at 8:30pm and waiting there until nearly midnight before we'd have enough charge to make it the rest of the way home.

Neither of those options was particularly appealing, but we soon got lucky. After some investigation, we discovered the golf course uses a fleet of electric golf buggies and that the lady on reception was partial to a bit of flattery. After some sweet talking, we convinced her to let us park the Leaf at the rear of the club house and connect it to an external plug while we disappeared to conduct our business elsewhere.

Three hours later, the Leaf was sufficiently powered up to complete the return leg, which left us with mixed emotions. Partly, we were annoyed we ended up in this situation, but also happy we could make it home on what was essentially free fuel. Sure, the fuel was only equivalent to a few pounds worth of petrol, but we definitely got a kick out of scoring extra juice for basically nothing.

Obviously, we'd rather have avoided this situation entirely, but it taught us an important lesson: just because the Leaf says it can get you somewhere and back doesn't necessarily mean you should listen to it. There are many outside factors that play havoc with its range estimation.

Check back soon for the last update in our Leaf diary. 

 

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