Electric Cars

Nissan Leaf long-term update: Frosty hypermiling

A 148 mile drive in a car with 150 miles of range, on a snowy, 35-degree day? Sounds like a good time.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Last month we introduced you to our brand-new 2018 Nissan Leaf SL. At $38,115 it's a relative bargain for an electric car, and given how rare the term "value" is applied to EVs these days, we wanted to see just how it shakes out in the real world. So that's exactly why we're spending a year with this one.

But first, I had to get the thing home. I picked up the car a few months back in New York on a particularly cold and blustery day in the 2018 Winter That Would Not End. As you may know, cold temperatures and electric cars go together like peanut butter and asphalt shingles... that is to say, not very well.

Why? Well, to start, low temperatures inherently decrease the efficiency of a lithium-ion battery pack, lowering the maximum range a car can offer. Active thermal management of the pack could help in this situation -- if the Leaf had it. It doesn't, sadly, but even if it did there's only so much you can do when it's 35 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

Beyond the pack efficiency, there's the not-inconsequential matter of keeping the driver warm. In a normal, internal combustion-powered car, there's so much waste heat generated by the engine that warming the cabin just requires a few fans. Electric cars, on the other hand, actually have to run electric heaters to keep the occupants from freezing. That, too, kills range.

The 2018 Leaf's 40 kilowatt-hour pack is rated for 151 miles by the EPA, and indeed that's what the dashboard was showing when I hopped in the car in NYC. While that was theoretically greater than the 148-mile highway drive home ahead of me, I was pretty sure I had a charging stop or two along the way.

The Leaf has an EPA-estimated 151-mile range.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The first stop

Despite a day that called for extreme hypermiling, I was determined to treat the Leaf like a normal car. After all, if we're to take EVs seriously, we shouldn't be expecting owners to stuff their shorts with chemical hand warmers before heading off at 15mph below the posted speed limit on a cold day.

So, I set the HVAC temperature to my usual 72, enabled the seat and steering wheel heaters, set the cruise where I wanted it, spun up John Prine's latest release through Android Auto and made my way up to the New York State Thruway. It was only 20 miles later, when I'd already burned through 50 miles of indicated range, that I yielded to my burgeoning range anxiety and turned off the heat while backing the cruise control down a few notches.

Disabling the HVAC system immediately netted an indicated five miles of indicated range. Decreasing my velocity added a few more into the mix. I was reasonably comfortable relying on just the heated steering wheel and seat, only popping the heater on every 20 minutes or so.

I made it to the Woodbury Common quick-charger with just less than 50 percent charge remaining. That was a place I'd selected in advance due to what I mistakenly believed was a selection of nearby restaurants where I could grab lunch while the Leaf supped on DC.

As it turns out, the restaurants are on the absolute opposite side of the complex, requiring a 15-minute walk past posh pseudo-bargains and factory rejects, leading to the sorriest Chipotle burrito I've ever had the misfortune of ingesting.

After 45 minutes the Leaf had consumed 17.464 kWh, leaving me at 95 percent. As is normal for a DC fast-charge, the pack raced up to 80 percent and then slowed down after that. With 143 miles showing on the clock and 98 miles left, I thought I had plenty of range to spare. On went the heater again as I merged back onto the Thruway.

We've found the Leaf to be a comfortable, pleasant companion over the past few months.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The second stop

I probably made it 10 miles this time before turning the heater back off and slowing down again. It was properly snowing now, temperature dropping even faster than my once-comfortable range cushion. Soon, that cushion was completely gone. I wasn't worried, I'd scoped out another fast-charger on the way, and so I prepared myself for a second, hopefully quicker stop to top off the pack.

As the snow approached blizzard proportions, the front of the car began to ice over, and so too the radar sensor. With a plaintive bleep and a dashboard warning, ProPilot Assist disabled itself, and for the rest of the trip I was without cruise control.

Now, I understand that in such a situation adaptive cruise must be disabled, as the car can no longer accurately determine distance to the cars ahead. But it is incredibly frustrating to me that the car doesn't simply fall back to standard cruise control, which requires none of those sensors. (And while I appreciate that you shouldn't use cruise in a blizzard, even later, after the snow had stopped, the system was still disabled.)

I stopped at the Malden Travel Plaza, home to one of New York State's fast-charging stations, which amounted to a single charger tucked back near the diesel fill-up area. It was really snowing now, so I jumped out of the car, slotted the beefy ChaDeMo plug into the nose and fumbled with my phone to authorize payment for the charging.

Fast-charging ran for a good two, maybe three seconds before stopping itself with an error. It wouldn't restart, so I had to disconnect the car, return the charging cable to its holder, lock it, then start the whole procedure again, all while being pelted by icy snow. Charging started... then promptly stopped a second time.

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I called the Greenlots customer support and the agent had me go through the process a third time, now with numbing fingers, only to receive the same result. He apologized and promised to send a representative to check out the problem before offering to route me to a level-two charger that was about 20 miles away. 20 miles the wrong way, of course.

Not wanting to make that much of a detour, nor spend a few hours at a slower charger just to get enough range to go home, I decided to risk it and hypermile the rest of the way.

With no heat, idling along at five below the speed limit, I made it home. Barely. The car was showing zero range for the last five miles or so, a distance that, blissfully, is mostly downhill. Hello range anxiety, my old friend...

Our Leaf SL stickers for $38,115.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

An ignominious introduction

Were it not for the bogus second charger my trip home would have been a lot less stressful. Clearly Nissan bears no fault there, but I present this story as an example of the sorts of compromises an EV early adopter will need to consider when road-tripping.

When not trying to squeeze every kWh out of the Leaf's pack, the car has been a very comfortable companion, with good road manners and a deep trunk easily able to swallow anything I've thrown at it. But it's not perfect. We'll delve a little more into that next month.