The dull red Mazda Miata was 17 years old. I’d spent many sultry summer afternoons cruising around winding roads, feeling the breezes waft around me, and sinking into a relaxed flow of road and car. But a late afternoon wait for the AAA tow truck reminded me that Miata repairs now loomed. It was time to move from the abstraction of writing about sustainable transport to owning my first all-electric vehicle (EV).
Surveying the EV options for all-electric and hybrid cars, I realized that new EVs with higher prices would offer more technology options and range. But I was seeking a second car, as I already own a reliable, peppy, low-mileage black Honda Civic SI. I looked to the previous generation of battery-powered rides, understanding that I’d be choosing an operating range of fewer than 100 miles on a charge. The more I searched, the more I came to the conclusion that earlier EVs make great second cars in a family’s fleet — their low costs to purchase and operate make them a fine entrée into the world of EVs.
And the decision was (drumroll — poignant pause — big smile) a used 2015 Nissan Leaf, Cayenne Red, with around 22,000 miles on it. I liked the low mileage, and my research indicated that used all-electric vehicles tend to be driven fewer miles than the norm, which means they’ve typically endured less wear and tear.
I found it at a dealer in the next state and took it for a test drive. I was immediately impressed by the sturdiness of the vehicle and its handling. It wasn’t a tin can on wheels! With excellent pick-up, I zipped into traffic and switched lanes with confidence. No, it didn’t have the lane assist or traffic assist cruise control features of 2018 EVs (nor those price ranges), but it did have enough modern features to suit me: backup camera, center console screen with navigation system, heated seats and steering wheel, auto-dimming mirrors, Bluetooth phone pairing, and USB port for music.
A few hours later, I was driving my new-to-me all-electric vehicle home on the highway.
Learning the Nissan Leaf Regen Features: ECO and D/B
Regeneration is an opportunity for maximizing mileage in an EV, a feature that isn’t available in an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. “Regen” utilizes an onboard generator — usually the primary drive motor — to slow the car while converting the deceleration power back to electricity. Done well and consciously, it’s a practice that can have an impact on the range of an EV. As you step on the brake pedal or decelerator, the car engages the motor backwards to slow the car down and, at the same time, generates power. A 10–15% increase in range is a fair estimate of what you can expect from regen.
I took a quick primer at the dealership and chose the ECO mode to maximize regen for the 54 mile drive home. The 2015 Nissan Leaf has different driving modes. Dots on the dash indicate if you’re using power or creating regen — white for power, green for regen.
A Nissan Reddit page explains the modes as follows: With ECO on, it feels more like a slower start at the low end, a somewhat deadened response in the middle, and a big zap as you reach the full extent. In B mode, your car begins slowing as soon as you let off the pedal. It takes a bit of practice to feather the throttle accurately enough to coast. If you’re using B to recover energy from traffic speed changes, a light touch on the brake pedal does engage re-braking before the actual pads hit. Staying in D allows you to coast without losing as much energy or expending as much concentration.
When you drive in B mode and lift off the accelerator, you get up to 4 dots of regen depending on speed. If you use D mode, then you usually get 2 dots until you apply some brake. I went ECO and B mode all the way home, wanting to be as sustainably conscious as possible.
First Experience with Range Anxiety
I left the dealership in my new all-electric vehicle nicely charged and quickly merged onto 95. The indicator gauge read that I had 82 miles remaining. With 54 miles to my destination, the math seemed to be in my favor.
As the miles unfolded, I meandered from the dealership’s low elevation near to Connecticut shoreline and climbed gradually up hills to the slightly higher ground of interior Rhode Island. With few opportunities to engage regen on the highway, I realized that the driving range indicator in the LEAF, which I have since learned is lovingly known in the LEAF community as a “guess-o-meter,” is notorious for predicting mileage that is not achievable.
The range indicator is most accurate on level ground, not on Connecticut’s rolling hills. My usage on the ride home from the dealership was double the anticipated miles. Hope faded fast. Could I stop for a celebratory dinner and relax? What does someone do when an EV runs out of energy? Ah, call the tow truck, I realized. While I had downloaded the Nissan Leaf app at the dealership, it was now early evening on a Saturday. Would the DMV or the regional car dealership charging points be accessible then? Uncertain, and not wanting my first foray in my own EV to be remembered for a tow, I skipped dinner and limped home, braking after I exited the highway every time I had a clear road behind me. I probably looked like an old person or tentative new driver — braking at every hill and turn.
The range indicator flashed continually and permanently once it dropped to 11 remaining miles. I coasted into my garage and breathed deeply. I had made it home and experienced range anxiety firsthand. It framed my understanding of my new EV explicitly. No wonder dealers will arrange to bring all-electric vehicles to potential buyers — they can’t be driven home to many locations, as the distance is too far!
Living with My New All-Electric Vehicle
Weekly trips to the gas station have now been replaced with daily plugging in at home, which is both faster and more convenient. The Leaf has a limited range of 80–100 miles, so it’s essentially a drive-to-work or haul groceries kind of car. That suits most of my driving, as I work primarily from home. For road trips or longer drives, I’ll continue to depend on my Civic SI.
To the dealer’s credit, the salesperson was absolutely clear that the all-electric vehicle I was purchasing did not have a fast charger option. I rely on overnight home charging, building in at least 8 hours to return to full charge. It’s very easy to charge, too — push the charging button on the dash and the charging portal below the hood opens. Remove the plastic cover and place the charging hose (which comes with its own tidy bag for charging away from home) vertically straight in until it clicks. Look up at the front windshield, and you’ll see the blue car icons blinking with charging. When all three icons stop blinking, the charge is complete.
I may have a Level 2 charger installed at home — a move that may not be necessary but adds to convenience and peace of mind. It would enhance my current practice of plugging into a wall socket. Right now, I’m waiting for a visit from my local electrician for advice on this — and waiting, and waiting…
The Leaf has no transmission or starter motor, so its electric motor makes only a quiet, light humming noise when backing up. Because this is an all-electric vehicle, there’s not much to maintain other than the brakes, tires, and a periodic battery check-up. Unlike ICE vehicles, there are no oil changes, spark plugs, or timing belts. This means the Leaf is cheaper to run than conventionally powered models, as it has inherently lower maintenance costs.
Yes, it’s a little sluggish when driving in ECO mode, which maximizes regenerative braking to preserve range. I find the acceleration particularly a bit wanting, and ECO reduces the amount of AC I can crank on those rare, humid New England summer days.
As I become accustomed to driving my all-electric vehicle, I’m starting to perceive it as “normal.” I find myself thinking about my destination instead of the electric power. I’m waving at the gas stations as I drive by. I’m appreciating the storage room with the hatchback, and enjoying what’s known as the “neighborhood effect.” Many people have already asked about my all-electric car, and I’ve owned it less than a week.
I believe we may all be surprised by how quickly electrified transportation really takes off. And, for lots of people, the move into all-electric transportation may come by dipping the proverbial toes into the EV pool with a used model, like I did. With many of the tens of thousands (soon to be hundreds of thousands?) of Tesla Model 3 buyers upgrading from a Nissan Leaf, expect to see a lot more used Nissan Leafs hitting used markets in the coming months.
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