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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Year and a Half With a Nissan Leaf (Part 1): The Acquisition



When I lost my job in late 2011, I suddenly found myself in the market for a new car. Now that may sound strange, but I used to be able to walk to work because the office was less than a mile away from my house. The office for the new job I landed was a bit over eleven miles away, so I wasn't about to continue my daily walks to work, especially in the winter. Because I used to always walk to work, my family was able to survive with one car quite comfortably. Now we needed a second one.

Deciding on a Leaf


I was intent on getting as fuel efficient a car as I could that would still comfortably seat four people - two of them in car seats - for the times that we wanted to use it instead of our aging Corolla. I briefly looked at the Mazda3. A fun, nice looking car, but 40 mpg wasn't going to be good enough. I also considered the Prius, but I wasn't impressed with how they had started cutting corners on the high-tech feel of the car. Among other things, they had replaced the color display of the car's fuel efficiency information with a monochrome display next to the speedometer. Toyota has recently revamped the Prius, bringing back the color display as a touch screen, and we did eventually trade in our Corolla for a Prius in June of 2013. But at that time I wasn't too excited about it.

While researching the new car market, I learned that the Nissan Leaf was the first fully-electric car available that didn't cost a fortune. It was still pretty pricey, but with the government rebate, it was affordable. The Leaf could go about 100 miles on a charge, which was more than enough for me to get to work and back a couple times. I didn't need a car that would go long distances because it would be our second car. I was intrigued.

There was one problem. The Leaf was not being sold in Wisconsin, yet. The 2011 and 2012 model years had a limited roll-out because Nissan was making sure that states had adequate charging infrastructure in place before making the car available for sale. They weren't going to take orders on Leafs in Wisconsin until March or April of 2012, and first deliveries would arrive in June or July. I needed a car in early January. Even though I wasn't sure that I could get one, I decided to take a trip down to Chicago to try one out anyway, and see what I thought.

I was blown away by the test drive. The Leaf was everything I wanted in a car. It was quick, quiet, and full of high-tech goodness. Even better, it was actually roomier than our Corolla, except for maybe the trunk. Even though the Leaf is a hatchback, it's hard to beat the Corolla's trunk. It is just freaking huge for a car that size. Anyway, I wanted the Leaf. Now I had to figure out a way to get one and get it back to Madison.

Trying to Buy a Leaf


That may not seem like it should be that difficult, but it would have been if not for a lucky break. First off, the car's limited range severely limited the number of dealerships within range of my house, namely one in Rockford, Il. For the dealerships around Chicago I would have had to get the Leaf to Milwaukee and charge it before I could get it back to Madison. Even that would have been a stretch because it was the middle of winter, and the Leaf's range is reduced in cold temperatures. There was the option of having the car delivered, but I didn't want to resort to that because it was pretty expensive.

Getting the car home wasn't the worst of my problems, though. The real problem turned out to be buying the car. I had assumed that I could go to any dealership in Illinois and buy a Leaf, but that was wishful thinking. Nissan was only taking Leaf orders through their website, not from dealerships. Every car was built-to-order and shipped to the desired dealership with a three month lead time. The lead time was trouble enough because I needed a new car quickly, but it turned out that Nissan wouldn't even take your order if your address was not within the designated states where they were selling.

I tried calling a number of dealerships in northern Illinois to see if anyone could help me buy a Leaf. No one had any immediate options that were viable. They couldn't even sell the demo Leafs off their lots because Nissan wouldn't allow it. This all struck me as a rather strange predicament. Here I was trying to buy a car off of any dealership that could get it for me, and I would be paying MSRP because Nissan was selling them at a fixed price. It was an easy, guaranteed sale. I'm sure any dealership would have loved to sell me the car, but they couldn't because I lived 50 miles north of the Illinois border!

I got a phone call a couple days later with some great news. The dealership closest to me had received a cancellation because the customer needed a new car and couldn't wait for their Leaf to arrive. The Leaf was already in transit to the dealership, so the order couldn't be cancelled from the factory. It was arriving on the lot on Friday, and I could have it if I wanted it. Now, it wasn't exactly what I wanted. It was an SL, which added a solar panel of dubious value and a quick charge port that I was certain I would never use, and it was silver instead of blue. I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and said I'd be there on Saturday to pick it up.

Picking up the New Leaf


Come Saturday my wife and I piled the kids in the Corolla and we all drove down to Rockford, Illinois to get Daddy's new toy. It was an especially warm January 7th, with a high of 60℉, which was a good thing because to get me home the Leaf was going to need all the help it could get. When we arrived at the dealership, the salesman apologetically told me that they somehow dropped the ball, and the Leaf had not been charged the night before. What?! But not to worry, they'd been charging it since he got in that morning. Again, what?! The Leaf kinda needs to be charged to go anywhere, and it takes 7-8 hours to fully charge. How do you mess that up? I wasn't about to push it back to Madison. It looked like we would be staying a while.

That turn of events gave us plenty of time to go through all of the paperwork and the Leaf tutorial and what not. We also had a nice look at all of the other Nissans in their showroom. The kids particularly liked hanging out in the 370Z Roadster they had. Nice car. By the time the Leaf was charged, detailed, and ready to go, we were more than ready, too. The kids were beyond squirrely by then, and I think the sales staff was glad to see us go.

The Drive Home


The Leaf helpfully reported that it could travel 96 miles in ECO mode, and it was only 72 miles to Madison according to the navigation and avoiding freeways. I thought 24 miles to spare should be plenty of margin. My wife would follow in the Corolla, and my daughter really wanted to ride with me in the new car. Fair enough. It was late afternoon, and we had to get a move on while it was still warm, so off we went.

I learned an awful lot about the Leaf in those first few dozen miles of driving. For instance, it's not too efficient with a combination of 55mph highways and stoplights. Pretty much the whole route to the Illinois border was like that, and I must have hit every perfectly-timed stoplight. I did my best to accelerate slowly and coast into the stops so that the regenerative braking could recover as much charge as possible, but it's quite a lot to ask the braking to make up for that kind of extreme constantly varying speed. By the time we crossed into Wisconsin, I was down to about 16 miles of margin and I'd only gone about 18 miles.

The stoplights ended at the border, but then the hills began. From the Leaf's perspective, hills look almost like stoplights. It recovers some charge going downhill, but not as much as it consumes powering uphill. I was watching the navigation system and calculating options in my head almost constantly, but there really was only one route to take for most of the trip.

When we were within 15 miles of home, I actually only had 5 miles of margin to work with, and the temperature was dropping as the sun went down. My hands were going numb, and I seriously regretted leaving my coat in the Corolla. The weather had been nice and warm when we left the dealership, so I thought I wouldn't need it. I couldn't turn the heater on because I needed the miles to get home. Luckily my daughter had fallen asleep in the back, and had her jacket, so she didn't notice the cold.

Now I actually had a choice in the route. I could either take the freeway, which was a couple miles shorter but at higher speeds that would likely sap more of the little battery power I had left, or I could go through the town of Verona, which was a bit longer with more stoplights but had some stretches of 25 and 35mph roads. I decided to try Verona.

It was actually dark enough by this point that I had to turn on the headlights, but happily they did not seem to impact the distance left on the battery much, if at all. Thank you, Nissan, for the LED headlights. It turns out that Verona was the right choice. I avoided a big hill on the beltline that I would have had to climb otherwise, and the stoplights didn't hurt too much at the lower city street speeds. I actually recovered 5 miles of estimated distance - which I would later learn is quite substantial when at the end of the battery's charge - and pulled into my garage with 10 miles left. Home, sweet home.

Overall, that was quite an exciting and nerve-wracking experience. It probably wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world if I had run out of juice. I could have called AAA and gotten towed the last few miles, but boy, would that have been a hassle at the end of a long and trying day. It was good to end the adventure on a positive note, and I gladly turned the car off and plugged it in for the first time.

That was my very first experience of owning a Leaf. Everything since then has been fairly uneventful in comparison, but I won't get ahead of myself. Next week I'll talk about what I thought of the car and all of its high-tech features as I broke it in and really got to know it better.


The Rest of the Leaf Series:
Part 1: The Acquisition 
Part 2: The Summer Drive 
Part 3: The Winter Drive
Part 4: Frills and Maintenance
Part 5: The Data
Part 6: The Future
Part 7: The Energy Efficiency Meter