On The Road To The Electric Car Revolution — 10 Days With An “Almost New” Nissan LEAF

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You Teslaholics can stop reading right now. The Nissan LEAF is a pale imitation of the mighty Model S, Model X, or Model 3. It won’t dust off Mustang GTs in the stop light grand prix. It doesn’t even have Autopilot, Summon, or charming Easter eggs embedded in its touchscreen. What it is, is an all-electric car with a modest amount of range. And it has an actual hatchback and 38″ of width to swallow bulky things. Try that in your fancy, schmantzy Model 3!

Nissan LEAF

I have been writing for CleanTechnica and Gas2 (as well as several other publications in the vast Important Media empire and beyond) for about 5 years now. During that time, I must have typed half a million words about every form of EV known to humanity — hybrids, plug-in hybrids, 48 volt hybrids, and electric cars of every description. I have driven electric cars in Dubai and Portugal. I have had a Chevy Volt, a Kia Niro plug-in hybrid, and a Honda Clarity plug-in hybrid on short-term loan. But I have never owned an electric car — until now.

It’s Hard To Commit To An Electric Car

Let me tell you, it is one thing to write about electric cars and quite another to reach down deep into your wallet to pull out the cash you need to buy one. The discussion about getting an electric car is all well and good at the theoretical level. It is something else entirely when it comes to actually doing it. Then it is like any other car buying decision. How much is this going to cost? What about depreciation, repairs, trade-in value, financing vs leasing, and all the other details people go through when they are deciding what is in the best interests of the family budget?

My wife and I have been bantering about getting an electric car since we got back from Dubai in January. I leaned toward a plug-in hybrid like the Kia Niro PHEV or the Honda Clarity. Having an engine under the hood means never having to say, “I’m sorry. We’re out of range and have to call a tow truck to get home.” My wife, on the other hand, is more of an “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of person and wanted a fully electric vehicle. After reviewing our finances, only the Nissan LEAF ticked all the boxes for us — all electric, good inventory of available used cars, and not a lot of money. We spent the next few weeks culling though the cars available within 50 miles of our home.

In late July, we found what we were looking for — a 2015 LEAF S with 22,000 miles at a dealer in Groton, Connecticut. The asking price was $11,400, but every car dealer these days slips a little surprise called a “dealer documentation fee” into the transaction. Typically, it is $495 at most dealers in my area. It is supposed to compensate the dealer for the “chore” of filling out the bill of sale and endorsing the back of the title. Plus, they are required to keep records of every transaction for about 100 years or so in case there is a warranty claim in the future. But its just a way to add $500 worth of extra profit to every transaction. So, $11,900 out the door.

We set off for Groton to check out the car. The first pleasant surprise was the dealership had one person on its sales staff who was actually trained in the LEAF. He was knowledgeable, friendly, and professional and was able to answer all our questions. So brownie points for Girard Nissan.

Like At First Sight

We had never driven a LEAF before, but took to it immediately as soon as we got in. With the battery mounted low in the chassis, the seats tend to be higher off the ground in an electric car — a plus for older people with creaky knees and cranky vertebrae. Although the car was a base-model S, it still came with heated outside mirrors, heated seats, a heated steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity for our smartphones, a USB charging port, intermittent wipers, rear window wiper, and controls on the steering wheel for cruise control, radio functions, and hands-free telephoning. Not a strippo special, in other words. What it did not have was the optional quick charging feature, and that became an important consideration in our deliberations.

The car was not a cream puff. It had some minor paint chips and scratches. Frankly, as a former used car manager, I would not permit this car or one in similar condition on my front line. Nothing serious, you understand, but not blemish free. There was another factor in our favor. The car had been in inventory for 156 days. At the dealership where I worked some years ago, I was required to take any vehicle that had been in inventory for more than 60 days to the auction. Fresh inventory was considered more important than losing a few dollars at auction among top-tier dealers.

Let The Games Begin!

So … we liked the car. Now it was time to talk money. Here are some hints if you are shopping for a car: The car business is driven by monthly sales. The owners are always on the phone to the general managers demanding a few more sales for the month. You can use that information to your advantage. If you are ready, willing, and able to do business near the last day of the month, that’s when the really good deals happen. We deliberately timed our visit to the dealer for the last Saturday in July for just that reason.

Here’s another tip: You won’t get your best deal until you politely stand up and start heading for the exits. In the business, there is a process known as “first pencil, second pencil.” You make a ridiculously low offer and write it down. The salesman says, “I’ll take it to my manager and see what I can do.” The manager immediately strikes through your offer and writes down a higher number. That’s the “first pencil.”

The salesman brings it back to the table. Now you strike through the manager’s number and write down a lower figure. Back to the manager it goes. That’s when the “second pencil” happens. The process is little more than a slow motion written auction. Be patient, polite, and firm.

One of my conditions was I refused to pay the documentation fee. I should pay someone to print out the paperwork? I called BS on that idea and that’s where the negotiation stalled. So we got up and headed for the door. As if by magic, the price instantly dropped an additional $1,000 and the deal was done. “Write it up, sonny!” We drove away in our “new to us” Nissan LEAF for a nice round $10,000.

Getting To Know Our Electric Car

In the 10 days since we got the car, we have learned a lot about the electric car experience. One thing we learned is that range is a theoretical concept that is strongly influenced by terrain, wind, temperature, and speed. We have driven the highway on the eastern edge of Connecticut hundreds of times and never knew it was mostly uphill from Groton to Putnam. We watched in horror as the range indicator went down, down, down on the way home.

Fortunately, I had asked our salesman to plug the car in when we finished our test drive and we started with 84 miles of range. Google said it was 55 miles to our home, but when we got there, lights were flashing on the dashboard to warn us we were running out of battery power. We breathed a sigh of relief as we crept into our driveway with only 8 miles of range remaining.

We immediately added the ChargPoint and PlugShare apps to our phones and found there aren’t many public EV charging stations in our rural area. We actually went to the ChargePoint charging station at a local shopping center just to see how the process worked. It was a bright, sunny day and we couldn’t see the screen on our phones clearly. We also couldn’t see the screen on the charger. We couldn’t figure out how to free the charging cable from the charger, so we called the customer service line and got walked through the process.

First lesson? With a Level 2 charger, we can only add about 10 miles of range for each hour of charging. This is definitely not a road trip car. But that’s OK. We still have a gasmobile in the driveway, a rather nice Honda Civic Si with 6 speed transmission and i-VTEC technology. We both work from home and 85 to 90 percent of all the places we go during a typical week are well within the range of the LEAF. It is now our daily driver, with the Civic reserved for things like going to the beach in Maine or visiting family in central Connecticut.

The LEAF Is A Real Car

After my brief acquaintance with the LEAF, I am quite delighted with the car. It’s not a glorified golf cart. It rides and drives like a new car. It is solid and rattle free. It has a generous amount of carrying capacity, thanks in large part to the hatchback and folding rear seats. The air conditioning is powerful enough to keep up with some especially hot weather we have been experiencing in New England lately — for some reason. It does everything we ask it to do, provided we don’t ask it go more than about 40 miles from home.

The LEAF has a few settings that take some getting used to. “D” is for normal driving with little regenerative braking when you roll out of the throttle, but regen does kick in when you touch the brake pedal. “B” is another drive mode that dials in more regen when you lift off the throttle. It’s not quite suitable for true “one-pedal driving” but it adds a noticeable amount of range in city driving.

“Eco” is a setting accessed from the steering wheel. What it does is limit the amount of power going to the motor during acceleration. The idea is to conserve range, but it makes the car feel like a 1952 Nash Rambler instead of the spritely electric car you thought you were getting. My advice is leave the Eco button alone and enjoy the car the way it was intended. That satisfying push into the back of  your seat from the instant torque of the electric motor is one of the reasons people like electric cars. Cancelling that out spoils the fun.

Expectations Exceeded

All in all, the LEAF has exceeded our expectations. Personally, I would love to have a Jaguar I-PACE in the driveway, but I don’t really feel like spending $90,000 to own one.

There is another feature of a used car that can’t be overlooked: It’s a used car, ya know? If it gets a ding or a scratch, you might not be pleased, but you won’t be heartbroken the way you would be if some gorilla opens the door of his Belchfire 5000 into the side of your Model 3. You don’t feel the need to park at the extreme edge of the parking lot at the mall and call an Uber to take you to the front door.

In the end, a car is a tool, a transportation device, and nothing more. Unless you have an original Ferrari Testarossa or McLaren F1 in your garage, a car is just about the worst investment imaginable. The LEAF will meet the vast majority of our driving needs for the next 2–3 years. By then, who knows what electric cars will be available? For the present time, we are as pleased as we can be with our bargain basement LEAF and proud to know we are driving around without adding any tailpipe emissions to the environment. I doubt we will ever again purchase a car that is not electric and that’s a good feeling.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

Steve Hanley has 5406 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley