Published on May 4th, 2019 | by Jennifer Sensiba0
A 1200 Mile Journey: Testing The Limits Of The 2018 Nissan LEAF
May 4th, 2019 by Jennifer Sensiba
This is the story of a 1200 mile journey taken in what’s basically the wrong car for the job. I decided to test the 2018 LEAF to the limits, in several different ways. Rapid charging repeatedly, going up one of the steepest interstate highway climbs in the US, some off-highway driving, and long journeys into places with no charging stations were just a few of the things I decided to take on. I thought that after more than a year with the car and almost 50,000 miles on the odometer I knew what the LEAF was made of, but it turned out that I still had more to learn.
This is basically a followup to a previous story I wrote about preparing for backcountry EV trips. That article shows the things I did to prepare. Now I’m going to share how it all worked out.
Day One: Deep Into The Heart Of Arizona…or Not?
Armed with data from A Better Route Planner, I started the journey in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Las Cruces is a smaller city about 35 minutes north of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. I started at one of my apartments with a 100% charge. I had previously picked up a full-size spare tire, a compact floorjack, and various other emergency supplies that the LEAF doesn’t come with from the factory. That added some weight and reduced range a bit.
I started the climb toward Arizona using U.S. Highway 70 instead of Interstate 10 (I-10). The first few miles are quite steep — the climb from the Rio Grande to the flat deserts beyond challenges most vehicles trying to keep up the speed, and I knew it would challenge my LEAF’s battery, both in terms of consumption and heat buildup. Unfortunately, my LEAF is one of the first 2018 models and still suffers from #Rapidgate.
By being careful on the steep climb and watching the rest of the first 50 miles, I managed to keep the battery’s temperature low enough to get a decent (for the LEAF) 43 kW charging rate. It was expensive, but I charged the LEAF to 98% at Deming, New Mexico’s new Electrify America station. I figured that with some ice on the pack and careful driving, I could prevent too much heat buildup, especially when I had hours to go before reaching the next CHAdeMO station in Tucson, after a long, steep drop down Texas Canyon.
I stopped two more times for some level 2 charging at RV parks in Lordsburg, New Mexico and Willcox, Arizona. The stops were largely uneventful, but I did check every small town along I-10 looking for Electrify America stations. Despite still being a desert very similar to El Paso, small Arizona towns like Bowie and San Simon have some very pleasant green patches along their “business loop” roads in small river valleys, but still have no level 3 charging.
I made some mistakes leaving Willcox on a climb up to the top of Texas Canyon, and had less battery left than I hoped for, so I had to do dozens of miles of downhill coasting. I managed to make it to the CHAdeMO near Tucson’s airport with Turtle Mode appearing just as I pulled into the parking lot. I experienced a lot more anxiety than I liked, but I did make it!
It was here that I started experiencing real problems. I knew about the problems with #Rapidgate, but all of my previous experience with it had been driving in the city and not after repeated highway driving. I only got 22 kW from the Tucson station, and had to charge for about an hour to make it. I took it real easy going to Casa Grande, and still got only 18 kW at that station. Considering that outside temperatures were in the 60s, this was the worst I had ever seen. The original plan was to hit 2–3 more stations in the Phoenix metro area and then climb to Cordes Lakes, Arizona. It was already 2:00am, and I knew the brutal I-17 climb was going to put the battery pack well into the red zone, so I had to grab a cheap motel hours short of my goal for the day.
Day Two: Starting A Struggle With Nissan
I knew the car needed to cool overnight before charging further, so I decided to spend the first part of the next day running errands in the Phoenix area. Stop one: the local Nissan dealer.
I’m writing more about this in a separate article, but in short, Nissan is not taking care of the second-generation LEAF’s early North American buyers. When it became apparent that people were unhappy with the LEAF’s charging behavior, they built an upgraded firmware for cars that were sold just months after mine. The new software allows for much better charging speeds without such intense throttling. For European customers, they allowed the early 2018 owners to get the newest firmware. US customers like myself, on the other hand, don’t have this option.
I decided to stop by the local dealer that has a slower CHAdeMO station (to avoid more heating) and make 100% sure that they were not going to offer a firmware upgrade, and they verified that my information was current. No software updates were available for my vehicle. I then had a phone call with Nissan about the issue, and registered my complaint with them.
By this time, the battery was getting toward full, so I stopped by several other places in Phoenix where I needed to gather information for other stories.
The Big Climb
After hitting one other slower CHAdeMO station in northern Phoenix, it was time to start heading up one of the steepest Interstate highway climbs in the United States. With battery temperatures slightly elevated, I knew there would be some minor problems, but I did time things to make this climb later in the evening to avoid overheating. When I left Anthem, Arizona, the air temperature was around 70°F, and the battery was just one tick above the middle.
As expected, I was passing semi-trucks repeatedly. The steep grades, especially after Black Canyon City, are just too much of a job for even the biggest diesel engines when carrying 80,000 pounds of cargo and vehicle. Strangely, though, I saw two SUVs, a sedan, and a motorcycle all on the side of the road, overcome with a tragic combination of deferred maintenance and extreme conditions. Small clouds of steam billowed from under each vehicle’s hood.
As I got toward the top, I saw that the LEAF was starting to struggle. It had reached the red zone on the battery temperature gauge and was starting to limit power output to prevent damage. I never needed the extra power to climb, but it cut about a third of the power by the time I reached Cordes Junction. It never slowed me down, but it’s clear that doing full speed charges down in The Valley followed by a summer daytime climb would likely make it fail before Cordes Junction.
As planned, I stopped for the night at a nice place with both hotel rooms and an RV park. It’s right behind the truck stop, and also has a bar and ’50’s style restaurant. The owners were really nice, and the rooms were great. At this higher elevation, in the spring, temperatures were around 60°F, so the car would have no problem cooling down overnight while using level 2 charging.
The car and I both rested and prepared for the next climb up to Flagstaff. I was starting to get a cold, so it’s debatable whether I or the LEAF was in worse shape. For at least a few hours, the LEAF was probably suffering more.
Day 3: Heading to the Grand Canyon
I ended up starting this day a little late. Not only was I a little tired from the day before, but the cold was progressing and getting worse. I slept a bit more than usual, and ended up hitting the road around 11:00. I needed the rest, but I’d come to regret it later.
The car easily made it up the rest of the way to Flagstaff. There were still a few steep climbs, and a few disabled cars on the side of the road, but I didn’t build up too much heat after a cool morning start. I managed to arrive with some range left and relatively little heat buildup.
Not too long ago, the Swift truck stop near the Flagstaff airport installed a 50 kW CCS/CHAdeMO charger, so that was going to make the trip a lot easier! When I pulled up, I was pretty impressed with the appearance of the station, and it looked like a nice place to hang out while getting enough electrons stored up for the next leg of the trip.
Sadly, though, the heat did have an impact, and I could only get a 25 kW charge rate from the LEAF’s computer. I expected that, but I didn’t expect that the charger was going to die every few minutes and require that I restart the session. Despite the challenges, I managed to get enough juice together for the rest of the trip. ChargePoint was pretty cool and gave me a partial refund for my trouble. After almost an hour, I was ready to head on.
I passed through Flagstaff and started my way up US-180. At this point, I was a little nervous. I knew I had plenty of range and even had 20% to spare according to ABRP, but I also knew there was a lot of up and down on the route I was taking. Google Maps and Waze both recommended going through Williams and then up to the Grand Canyon, but ABRP showed much less consumption taking the more direct route. I knew that there was a big drop not long after Flagstaff, but the first few miles were lots and lots of uphill. Finally, after reaching over 8,000 feet of elevation, the drop began. For much of the way down to the end of US-180, I was able to coast the LEAF in N-mode and got a lot of “free” miles.
The rest of the trip to the South Rim went fairly easily, and I made it to the charging spot I had picked out with about 12% to spare. Waiting 6 hours to charge on level 2 wasn’t a big deal at this point, though. I walked to a nearby shuttle bus stop and managed to see a good chunk of the South Rim before it was time to pack up and go. I saw everything on the Hermit’s Rest shuttle route and most of the places near Bright Angel Lodge. Later this year, I hope to come back and see more of the park!
When I left the Grand Canyon, I had 98% battery and the cool temperatures made heat buildup less of an issue. Most of the first few miles were coasting and light power, right up until I got to the intersection with US-180 again. The climb after that led to some pretty good heat buildup, despite the temperatures approaching freezing as I reached the 8,000 foot high-point. I reached the ChargePoint station in Flagstaff with temperatures elevated enough to get only 25 kW again.
These delays, combined with my late start in the morning, made me arrive way too late at an Arizona state park near Winslow. People around were all asleep, and even quiet attempts to set up camp were too noisy for the nearest neighbors. We ended up having to sleep in the car until morning. This was basically the low point of the trip, but we survived it.
Day 4: The Petrified Forest
When we arrived at the Petrified Forest, we still had a little bit of charge, but not enough to start exploring the park. At the north entrance, the portion dedicated to the Painted Desert, we found a working ChargePoint level 2 station. Sort of. After a few times connecting and disconnecting it, we got it working and got a charge for a couple of hours while checking out the visitor center, a short film, and the gift shop. This gave us enough charge to go ahead and drive around the park and explore it more fully.
We knew that the south entrance visitor center wasn’t communicating with ChargePoint’s network, but were hoping it was at least working disconnected. That would have made it easier to spend a lot more time doing the hikes on that end without disruption to our schedule, but we found the station to be stuck in some sort of reboot loop. Every time it would be looking like it would come up, it started the boot process again. We would have to wait until later in the trip to spend good time down at that end of the park.
On the way back, we ran into a really skilled beggar. He was short, had very dark hair, and piercing eyes. He’d look at us with the most pitiful look, and we knew he wanted some of our Cheetos. We threw some on the ground and he flew down from his little perch to grab them. He swallowed them all in one bite and flew away. He had obviously done this before, as he was one of the heaviest crows we had ever seen.
We enjoyed the rest of the park as much as we could, including taking in the sights. We saw plenty of fossilized trees, wildlife, and tons of tourists. It was fun. But then we needed to go back to the north entrance visitor center to get a charge to make it out to our motel for the night and have enough charge for the next day’s exploration in the desert.
We spent the night at the Day’s Inn in Chambers, AZ. Despite being the only business at the exit, it was a good place to get some rest. We managed to run an extension cord out to the car for some level 1 trickle charging, and the hotel management didn’t mind at all. The onsite restaurant had a good breakfast, and after sleeping in the car the previous night, we slept extremely well.
Day 5: The Rural Land Loop
This was the part of the trip I was the most nervous about. We needed to visit several plots of land in the area for one of my photography clients, and the best property was located a good ways away from pavement. With all of this unpredictable consumption ahead, I was glad to know I was starting the day with 100% battery. It just helped reduce the stress a bit.
The most obscure property was south of the Navajo Travel Center exit on I-40. We started on pavement, then went through a gravel construction zone. After 11 miles or so on pavement, we went onto a well-maintained gravel and dirt road. After 3 more miles, a sign read “regular county maintenance ends.” The last house we saw had a big picture of a gun at the end of the driveway and a warning to not come up the driveway unless one was offering free beer to the owner. 4 miles later, we went from that washboard road to a simple two-track road with weeds in the middle.
Through all of this, including some short sand patches, the LEAF did just fine. Occasionally, some short weeds would brush along the bottom of the car, but that didn’t harm anything. Even when the path got somewhat uneven and bumpy, the LEAF had plenty of articulation and never even came close to bottoming out. I didn’t even have to disengage traction control. It was like a little Dune Buggy and just trucked right through anything that got in the way. It was so surprisingly good on uneven terrain, that I wondered whether I should buy an older LEAF and make an off-road vehicle out of it.
Don’t get me wrong, though — I have a lot of experience off-roading and know that you have to pick your lines carefully. I always kept the car’s limitations in mind, and knew how to work with them. That having been said, the car did a lot better than other small cars I’ve taken into the desert.
At this point, we were truly in the middle of nowhere. There was nobody for miles around, and no houses or other infrastructure of any kind within sight. Even the drone at 400 feet couldn’t see any signs of humanity other than us or the dirt roads. It really doesn’t get much more wild or remote than this, at least within range of a round trip to a charging station.
When we started heading back to the highway, we noticed the only error I’ve ever seen the LEAF show on the dashboard. After gently bumping a small sand dune, the car’s forward collision avoidance feature was disabled. Some sand had blown into the sensor embedded in the Nissan badge on the front. Once we got onto the nicer dirt roads and got above 20 MPH or so, the error cleared and went away. Apparently, the air rushing by was enough to clean out the sensor and make it go back into operation.
After all this, we made it to the Petrified Forest visitor center again with about 20% charge. The last little bit of power I had gathered up at the motel the night before kept us from getting to “low battery warning” territory, and greatly reduced our anxiety. We did need to charge for a lot longer than we had hoped, especially when the ChargePoint station quit on us part way through a charge. Once again, the phone support gave us a partial refund, so that helped soften the blow a bit.
This time, we had a lot more energy than we had on our previous visit, so we took some hikes. Nearby, I knew there was an old alignment of Route 66 that passed through the National Park territory. It was a little tough to find at first, but once I found the old pavement, the hike turned into a miniature archaeological expedition! We found tons of old bottles, some car parts, and even beer cans.
It dawned on me that we are at a crossroads of history. My electric vehicle was charging nearby closer to Interstate 40, and I was walking where generations of travelers had come before on Route 66 in cars that were much different from mine. Even the laws had changed a lot. For example, today you’d be in a real mess if caught drinking and driving, or even having an open container of alcohol in the car. Just throwing a soda can might bring hundreds of dollars of fines. The people of half a century ago? They were throwing their beer cans out when they were done with them.
But at the same time, I was out here testing some relatively undeveloped technology and had to make frequent stops, just like the travelers did in the old days on 66. In an era of closing gas stations and abandoned rural interstate exits, I was more similar to the old road’s users than most of today’s travelers.
After hiking, we had lunch at the little restaurant next to the gift shop and I sat and worked for a while. The food was pretty good. The international-style architecture of the building and complex, combined with pleasantly colored blue and orange tables, plus good decoration, made it a nice, relaxing place to eat, rest, and charge the car up. When not tired and wired, it was also a good place to get caught up a bit on emails, article writing, and checking on social media. It’s nice to get out and set up office in such far-flung places.
If you ever travel through the area in an EV, it’s worth noting that using the charger doesn’t require paying the park’s admission fee. It’s located in the parking lot before the admission gate, so it’s a generally nice place for anybody needing a few more miles of range.
Once we had enough charge saved up, we took one more drive through the park and back to US-180 outside the south gate. It was nice to see all of the sights around sunset, and we even saw some wandering wildlife. Rabbits and hares were common, like anywhere in the desert, but we also managed to see some pronghorn antelope. Before the park closed, we finally had a chance to walk out to the Agate House on a trail that was a road just a few years ago.
From there, we drove to Lyman Lake State Park, where we had a cabin reserved for the night. Arizona State Parks is really cool, and puts a full set of RV hookups next to most of their cabins, and they didn’t charge us extra to use that plug to charge the LEAF while we slept.
Day 6: The Journey Back to New Mexico
By this point, we were more than ready to be home and sleep in our own beds again. The trip had been rough on us, and we were sleeping less than we needed each night. While the LEAF had dependably gotten us this far without being stranded, it wasn’t doing as well as we felt it should when we bought it. I’ve always been the adventurous, early adopter type, but my partner is not. The stress was finally starting to really eat at her.
We drove through Springerville, Arizona, and on to Alpine, Arizona. Alpine is one of Arizona’s highest towns, but the climb was spread out over many more miles on lower speed roads than our earlier climb up I-17. Heat wasn’t really an issue, and we arrived at the trip’s highpoint with about 55% battery. This left us with about 2.5 hours of charge needed to reach the next charging stop.
I had been to Alpine a few times before, so I was somewhat familiar with it. I grew up in a Mormon family, and the town started long ago as a Mormon settlement. I had friends who had lived there, and family who frequented the area. It was also a lot of fun heading up to nearby Big Lake during summers as a kid. My partner had never been there before, so we had a little fun exploring the shops and checking out the scenery as the car charged.
Having not stayed a member of the Mormon church and being in a relationship they still consider sinful, I was a little nervous hanging out in a small Mormon town, but it turned out to be nothing to worry about. Just like most of the rest of the world, the people of Alpine seem to have made progress and treated us as kindly as any other travelers passing through. I was glad to see that a place I enjoyed as a kid was someplace I can still enjoy today.
The next part of the drive was a lot less nerve-wracking than most of the previous couple of days. We were headed on a steep downhill for most of the next leg of the journey. It was at this point that I learned a lot about the LEAF’s e-Pedal system.
On some steep downhills, I’ve noticed that the e-Pedal system likes to skip regenerative braking at times. I’ve seen it on a full battery, which doesn’t surprise me, but I’ve seen it attempt to go down steep hills riding the friction brakes at a variety of battery levels. I would understand if the LEAF threw in the occasional friction brake for a few seconds to prevent rust buildup or something, but riding the friction brakes for extended periods is the perfect recipe for disaster.
To force the car to do the safe thing, I had to turn the e-Pedal off and shift to B mode. This made the car reliably use regenerative braking down every following steep downgrade and kept the car from overheating the friction brakes. If you’re a LEAF owner and find the car behaving this way, be sure to do the same.
I knew I had to try something different to protect myself, but drivers who don’t know what to watch out for here could get themselves killed with e-Pedal on a mountain road. If it runs friction brakes for long enough, it could cause the brake system to stop working at all, leaving a driver in a very bad position. I really hope Nissan takes a look at this and corrects whatever poor coding causes this dangerous behavior.
We stopped for lunch at the Catwalk Recreation Area near Glenwood, New Mexico. We didn’t need a charge at this point, but we were ready to eat and stretch our legs. On the way in, we went through two river crossings on the access road. Stream flows in this area were much higher than normal due to higher snow melt this spring. One of the crossings had temporary warning signs saying it was passable only by high-clearance vehicles.
Despite water touching the LEAF’s doors, we easily crossed the river at the concrete crossing and came up the other side. This probably also gave our battery a quick cool-off that it really needed.
After we were done eating and hiking, we drove the rest of the way to Silver City. We arrived there with only about 8% battery left, despite ABRP predicting we’d have about 20%. After looking into this, I realized that ABRP relies on OpenStreetMap data, which often has incorrect speed limits. At this point, I was really glad that I had given myself extra margins and didn’t plan to arrive anywhere on the EV equivalent of fumes.
After dinner and charging for a couple of hours in Silver City, we were ready to head on to Deming, NM. After two days of relying on nothing but level 2 charging, we were glad to finally make it to another rapid charging station. Despite all of the downhill driving and river crossings, the battery had heated up again and only gave us 28 kW of charging power. But compared to 6.6 kW, we were still happy to have it. We only needed to stay in Deming long enough to use the restroom, and we were able to easily set the cruise at 80 mph and drive the last 50 miles back to Las Cruces.
This was a HARD trip. Describing it to my mom, she told me she’s not sure she’ll ever want an EV. I explained the limitations of the Nissan LEAF to her, and she chilled out a bit, realizing that these issues were mostly confined to one type of EV, but it scares people. When we are trying to help get more people to drive electric to help save the world, cars like this don’t help the cause. Giving US customers the software update would go a long way, but the way the battery overheated leaving Phoenix on a spring night still shows why EVs need an actual cooling system.
I once had a friend who got stranded in her 2013 LEAF and was afraid to tell others about the experience for fear that it would hurt EV adoption. I disagree. We need to tell the truth about EVs that are sub-par so people don’t get a nasty surprise buying one and decide to never try one again. We need to hold manufacturers accountable and get them to do the right thing if long-term EV adoption is the goal. For now, we need to send our friends to buy Model 3s, Bolts, and others with the right stuff.
I still really like the car, though. For most of my driving, it does the job fine. It gets the kids to school, takes me out to run errands, and makes for a fun drive. It’s a shame that something as relatively cheap as a cooling system would have made the car so much more useful.
I’m still glad I took the trip. I hadn’t pushed the car so hard with rapid charging in the past, and didn’t know what a pain it could be on trips, or how quickly it would turn on me and delay me. I’m still hoping to take a 4,000 mile trip later this year once more Electrify America stations are put in, and knowing these limitations helps me know that it won’t be feasible until Nissan issues a proper software update like the company did for European customers. I’m glad I didn’t find myself stuck out somewhere in west Texas later this summer!
Despite the big drawbacks I found, it still proved itself to be good in most other respects. The car did a great job going out into the desert on unpaved roads. It did a great job taking me from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon and back. It has plenty of room for road trips, and was very comfortable the whole time.
The thing I really hope to gain from doing all of this difficult testing is to get Nissan to help me make this car a better vehicle, not just for me, but for all of the other drivers who trusted Nissan enough to sign on the dotted lines last year. I hope we can work together to make a great vehicle even better!