Test-driving a preproduction version of the Nissan Leaf electric car here this week, I was reminded of the old story about the guy who installed so many fuel-saving devices on his car that when he started it up and drove away, his gas tank overflowed.
After a 12-mile test drive, the Leaf wound up with 98 miles showing on its range indicator than it had when I started. I began with a range of 97.
How was that possible?
The compact-sized Leaf, which has an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack that generates the equivalent of about 107 horsepower, has a range of about 100 miles before it needs recharging. But that range can vary a lot — to as little as 62 miles to as much as 138 — depending upon factors like weather, traffic, accessory use, load and driving style.
The vehicle has a helpful package of gauges, dials, meters and other digital readouts that can help coach a driver to maximize the car’s electrical usage.
After I took off, I switched into “Eco” mode, which boosts the car’s range by about 10 percent by dialing back the power available. The car’s normally peppy performance (0-60 miles per hour in less than 6 seconds; top speed: 90 miles per hour) becomes rather sluggish, though still tolerable. I suspect most drivers will choose Eco mode most of the time.
Beyond that, I kept my throttle use conservative. I stayed at or slightly under the speed limit. I tried to time traffic lights. I braked gradually, keeping some drag on the pedal to get maximum energy recapture from the regenerative braking system. And I coasted whenever I could. I was helped by ideal weather (mild temperatures, and little wind). The Leaf’s enemies are temperature extremes. The worst, I was told, was very slow, very cold driving conditions.
I look forward to a full, weeklong test of the Leaf (priced at around $33,000, before tax credits) closer to its official on-sale date in December, but it was interesting to have a sneak preview of how it works and to have a real-world demonstration of its viability as a new type of gas-free, pollution-free urban transportation.
Public places to charge the Leaf are (pun intended) scarce, so maximizing range to one’s destination becomes a matter of survival. During my drive, I passed a number of California’s mostly useless “Electric Vehicle Charging Stations;” the state is trying to allocate funds to convert these units from obsolete “conductive” types to the “inductive” kind of charging that the Leaf (and Tesla’s Roadster) require.
Initially, most recharging will be done at the homes of Leaf owners (16,100 people have placed $99 deposits, as of this writing). They will need to install 240-volt, 30-amp chargers in their garages. Nissan said it will cost a little less than $3 on average to recharge the vehicle (assuming a price of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity), and recharging can easily be done overnight (when electricity rates can drop further). An optional fast-charger can provide an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes.
The Leaf will obviously run out of range eventually and need recharging, no matter how much you baby it. But it was fun to fantasize, for a few miles at least, that I could drive forever.