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Driving The Nissan Leaf

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jeffgilbert Jeff Gilbert
Automotive reporter for WWJ Newsradio 950 and CBS Radio News....
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As one of the jurors for the North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards, WWJ AutoBeat Reporter Jeff Gilbert is spending the weekend driving the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. Since it’s a unique vehicle, he’s chronicling his experiences here.

Jeff spent some time earlier in the Chevrolet Volt extended range electric vehicle. That “live blog” can be found here.

You’ll hear the official Car Chronicles Test Drive of the Nissan Leaf on Friday, December 10, 2010.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jefferygilbert.

Introduction

This job wasn’t supposed to include math!

Since I knew I was getting the Leaf, I’ve been checking out the mileage to various places. I live about 16 miles from work, 28 miles from downtown Detroit, etc. etc. Gotta figure out just where I’m going to travel this weekend, and when the Leaf will be in the Garage hooked up to the wall.

The Leaf’s advertised range is “up to 100 miles.” Pushing the people at Nissan, they tell me in cold weather, on the freeways, with the heater on, the “safe” range is around 60 miles.

I have a party to go to Saturday night in Ypsalanti, and have tickets to the Lions game on Sunday. Do, I take the Leaf? Decisions, decisions.

The other issue is, I don’t have a home recharging station. The Leaf (and the Volt) will charge on standard household current. But it’s a long process. With the Leaf, it’s 20 hours for a full charge.

It’s all about Logistics.

A couple of quick notes. Unlike other blogs, I’ll add new material to the bottom. That will allow you to start at the beginning, and read from there. But, check back, because from time to time over the weekend, I’ll be adding updates.

Don’t expect me to use this blog to compare the Volt and Leaf. That’s for another time and place.

12/2/2010 9:30 AM

They deliver the Leaf on a truck. They don’t want to waste precious miles driving it from Nissan’s technical center in Farmington Hills all the way to Southfield.

img 1687 Driving The Nissan Leaf Trucking the Nissan Leaf to WWJ

But, seriously, I do appreciate this. Because as I quickly learn, with an EV, miles are golden.

Nissan’s Brian Brockman briefs me on the recharging practice. One plug in the vehicle. One in the wall. I don’t have an engineering degree, and don’t think I need one for this.

He also explains how the Leaf’s heater is like a space heater at home. It uses electricity…the more heat, the less miles. Snow is falling. Need I say more. There are choices to be made.

I still figure the 20 miles I’m driving to an assignment downtown, and the 30 miles from town to home should be a piece of cake.

12/2/2010 11:15 AM

img 1706 Driving The Nissan Leaf Leaf’s Unique Shift Knob

I anxiously get into the Leaf for my first drive. I have to remember how to work it’s unique shifter, but it comes back to me. There are a couple of attention lights on the dashboard. I don’t take time to look them up in the manual. I assume that they checked everything out before they delivered the car to me.

The math I was working on before turns to “fuzzy math.” The range on the vehicle reads 83 miles when I get in…within a mile, we’re down to 77, and it settles in in the mid-seventies.

The on board computer recalculates depending on how fast you’re driving (70 mph, or I’ll get blown off the freeway) whether the heater is on (it’s freezing out) and other factors.

I decide that I want to be as comfortable as I would be in any other car. So, I crank the heat. The range keeps dropping. As I near downtown, I turn down the heat. As I get to downtown, I turn off the heat. I get three more miles of range. I didn’t write it down, but we were in the low 50’s when I pull into the parking garage.

12/2/10 2:10 PM

I pull out with fifty some miles to go. I live thirty miles away. I have enough extra miles to spend for heat.

The on ramp to the freeway is one of the trickier ones in downtown Detroit, because you merge from the left side of the road. That means sometimes you need acceleration. The Leaf didn’t let me down…no problem merging with, or passing traffic.

The driving experience itself is otherwise quiet and smooth. Once you’re up to freeway speed, it feels like any other small to mid size car.

By the way, from an earlier demonstration drive, I know the Leaf has an “eco’ mode, which makes your gas pedal less sensitive, making you less likely to floor it. I didn’t like it during the demo drive. But, I will try it out at some point.

img 1695 Driving The Nissan Leaf Time to Recharge

As I’m pulling off the freeway, heading home, a voice comes on and tells me that I’m low on battery. A light comes on, too. It’s a gas tank. I guess that’s the international symbol to tell you that you can’t go much further.

I have 13 miles to go…and a mile or so from home. No problem. I even have time to pull into a parking lot to take a picture of the warning message.

I’m at 11 miles range when I get home, and hook up the recharger. Pretty simple, but the charging light doesn’t go on. I give it another push, here a click, and it’s working. There are three lights on the dashboard, like the bars on a cell phone that tell you your battery charge. I’m at one.

12/2/10 4:35 PM

I’ve finished my work and have to go pick up my son from an after-school event. His school is about three miles away. I look at the Leaf. There’s still one light on the dashboard.

I start the car and am all the way up to 15 miles range. Not a thrill, but enough to pick up my son and take him home.

img 17022 Driving The Nissan Leaf Nissan Leaf Charging Cord

I go to recharge the Leaf and am having trouble making it work. The very heavy cord has pulled the plug part way out of the socket. I move it to the lower socket and it’s fine.

I want to get as much “juice” into the vehicle as possible for the next morning, because I want to take it to work. I email our chief engineer, who will give me a parking spot next to a plug when I get to work tomorrow.

Just to be on the safe side, I make the decision that I won’t take it to work, unless the range is over fifty miles in the morning. I’ll check in the 7 O’Clock hour.

I have to run out to the store. But, I need to make a logistical decision. Driving to work tomorrow is a priority. The Leaf stays on the charger. I burn gasoline to go to the store.

12/3/10 6:18 AM

I’m an early riser, and am up a little after 4.  First thing I do is check the charging status, and see I now have two of three lights on.  Remember, owners will have an actual charging station, which will do the job in about 7 hours.

I read about a surprise snowstorm in Buffalo (if that’s not an oxymoron, but I digress) where some motorists are stranded in their cars for a day.  I think of the advice that Nissan gave me if I became stuck in a traffic jam…turn off the heater to keep it from draining the battery.  Not something you can do in a snowstorm.

12-03-10 9:58 AM

I can report that after 15 hours of charging on household power, I turned the key, and the Leaf’s range was up to 70 miles.  I put on the heater, and it went down to 60 miles.

img 1714 Driving The Nissan Leaf Leaf Recharging In WWJ Lot

The twenty mile drive to the station was uneventful.  Accelerating on the freeway was fine.  I still haven’t been noticed, which surprises me.

I turned the heater on when I needed it, and off when I didn’t.  It was sunny during my drive in.  So, that helped.

New math.  The 20 mile drive to work (with a one mile detour to drop my son off at school) brought my range down to 38 miles.

We have no outside power plugs.  But our engineers were kind enough to run an extention cord outside to let me fill ‘er up with electricity.

12-03-10 3:22 PM

My four and a half hours of charging got the range up to fifty miles.  A quick trip to pick my son up at school wasn’t too hard on the batteries.  So, I’ll actually have some time to run a few late-afternoon errands.

Nissan is allowing me to let some other people experience the Leaf.  My son’s teacher is a young man, a few years out of college.  So, he had his shot.

Like many people, he was surpised that an EV actually had some power, and at how quiet the vehicle is.  A lot of people think of an electric vehicle as being under powered.  But, remember, electric motors are used to run subway cars and some trains.

12-04-10 4:30 PM

I’ve spent the past 24 hours mostly tooling around my general area with the Leaf.  And this is where it performs best.

No problem going to several stores shopping last nite.  They were all within about five miles of my house.  Even after driving home from work, I still ended up with about 8 miles or range when I parked it for the night.

By the way, you can go shopping with little problem.  The area in the hatch has a pretty deep well.  So, no problem with groceries.

While the back seats will fold down…you don’t get a large flat floor like you do in other hatchbacks…because of the way the well is arranged back there.  There is a cover, so people don’t see your stuff.

Now the answer to the question, “Why would you drive an all electric Nissan Leaf into a gasoline station?”

Yea, I admit it’s a trick question.  I was driving to our church this morning and as a turned the corner, I saw a black book sitting in the middle of the road.  So, I pulled into the nearby gas station (trick answer) to run out and see what it was.  Turns out it was a Bible, owned by somebody I go to church with.

I returned the Bible to my friend, and pulled out of the gasoline station, not having to worry about using any of the pumps.

December 5, 2010 10:42 PM

I decided not to take the Leaf on either of my longer trips.  Instead, it remained on the 110 charger for almost 24 hours.

That gave me the first shot at seeing the Leaf at 100 per cent charge.    The range meter read 100 miles.  Then, I turned on the heat and it went down to 77 miles.

I did a few quick runs around the neighborhood, and returned to the garage.  My final trips, before Nissan takes the Leaf home, will be Monday morning taking my son to school, and doing a little video shoot with the vehicle.

We’ll wrap this up Monday with a few thoughts, prior to my official “test drive’ review on Friday.

12/06/10 11:04 AM — Closing Thoughts

Nissan has it’s Leaf back, and it will be passed on to other journalists, who will give their feedback.  Here’s mine:

While I admire all of the work that went into developing this vehicle, and feel that electric vehicles are the long term future, we’re not there yet.

I’m somebody who–theoretically–would be a perfect driver for the Leaf.  I’m married, one child. and a pretty short commute, less than 20 miles each way.

That’s the theory.  My weekend with the Volt showed me the reality.

Commuting is just one part of the driving people do every day.  There are shopping trips, taking kids to lessons or sports, and surprises that come up.

Pure electric vehicles are very unforgiving when it comes to surprises.  You have to plan out your travel.  Most people don’t want do do that.

I’m also concerned about the choices that you have to make.  Turning off the heater to conserve miles is a tradeoff that few will want to make.

While the technology has advanced from the more “experimental” EV’s of the 90’s, one thing hasn’t changed much…the range.  Until that range can be improved drastically, the universe of people who can adequately move to an electric future will be small.

No knock to the Leaf.  But that makes the Chevy Volt a better option for most people, at least for the present.

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