Please don’t tell daddacool this as he might get bigheaded – but he actually made one of my ambitions come true this weekend. You see I was lucky enough to be taken for a spin in the Nissan Leaf car that he currently has as part of The Big Turn On competition – #NissanLEAFcar21. It gets better though – he actually let me press buttons! Well, more accurately the touchscreen but you get my drift.
So, why am I so excited? Well, this was actually my first trip in a fully electric car. I’ve been in a hybrid a couple of times in different foreign cities where it has been in use as a taxi, but not in something like the Leaf. Ever since I first got really interested and passionate about environmental issues electric cars have always fascinated me, but at the same time they’ve also seemed like something slightly unattainable – mainly on financial grounds – and had a slightly mysterious edge to them.
In particular I’ve seen the great work that Robert Llewellyn has done with electric cars, especially as part of his Carpool project, and I’ve always been left wanting to know more. Now I’m delighted to say that I do.
The car itself
From the outside the Leaf looks remarkably like any other car that you might see parked outside someone’s house – assuming you ignore all the competition branding that’s on this particular model. Alex has already blogged about how roomy it is inside. They’ve had no problems fitting a family of five in it (two car seats and one adult in the back) as well as a buggy in the boot. I have to say that really surprised me. I’d just assumed that it would be a compact car, but in fact it’s wider inside than Alex’s usual Zafira.
As soon as you get in the Leaf the first thing that hits you is just how futuristic the whole things looks. All the main dashboard things are controlled from a nifty touchscreen that is located in the middle of the dash. Not only does this control the usual things like the radio (annoyingly not DAB – bit surprising in such a modern futuristic vehicle) and the sat-nav, but also gives you loads of additional information which really appealed to a geek like me.
One particularly cool addition is the reversing camera. Not only do you get a very good quality live picture of where you are going, but overlaid on this is drawn the trajectory of the path that you are going to take based on the current steering wheel position. Definitely removes any excuses for little bumps whilst reversing into tight parking spaces.
So impressed I was that I’m even going to share with you the view as we reversed out of Alex’s drive. I should add that at the time it was chucking it down with rain, so there are a few raindrops on the camera, but I am assured that they are not normally there.
Once you’ve got the Leaf going forwards the geeky information really does go into overdrive (excuse the pun).
You are presented with the above menu which takes you through to loads of information screens detailing how much energy you are using at any particular time, as well as telling you just how far you can go in it.
When driving around I was impressed at just how responsive the car was. I usually drive a diesel estate so this was very nippy in comparison. The lack of engine noise is strange though at first, but I’m guessing you’d get used to this. Whether or not pedestrians, animals and pigeons do is another question…
How far can the Leaf go between charges
If you’re someone who struggles with the concept of distances and are just more interested in whether or not you have enough charge to get to somewhere in particular then below is the screen that is likely to interest you most.
As we sat in St Albans this map shows you just how far you can go with the charge that is in the car at that point in time. Reading was easily in our reach, Birmingham just on the limits of our range. The inner of the two concentric circles (the white one) shows how far you can travel in normal driving more. The outer circle (the grey/blue colour) indicates how the range increases if you switch on what is called “eco drive”. Eco drive reduces the response and performance, but as payback you can go further on the one charge.
In this case Alex had charged the car three days earlier and since then had done several local errands, but nothing further. You would expect the range after a full charge to be around 100 miles.
The below energy information screen tells you everything you need or want to know about just how much energy the car is using at any one moment in time.
When I took this photograph we were sat on Alex’s drive with the “engine” running, but were stationary. You can see that the motor is not using any energy at that moment in time, and that as climate control is off it is also not using anything. There’s a helpful note telling you that turning on climate control will decrease the range by 17 miles too.
As the car is switched on though we are pulling something from the battery in powering things like lights, the touchscreen itself and the radio. At that point in time probably something in the region of 0.2 kW.
Once you’re actually on the move this information is much more dynamic. The below video was taken as we were driving around. Apologies for the camera shake, but that was mainly thanks to Hertfordshire Highways and their amazing ability to keep the roads full of bumps and potholes!
You can see here what the motor is drawing, as well as the impact of the climate control and other car systems. Interestingly you’re here told that turning off climate control would increase your range by 17 miles (as you would expect as that’s the figure they told you before you switched it on) but the range is now 75 miles, yet it was 89 before. A-level maths tells me that’s only a difference of 14 miles. Somewhere we’ve gained three miles on our range – no idea where from though.
It’s expected that having massively varying loads in the car would also alter the range (from Newton’s 2nd law, something that’s heavier requires a greater force to move it) but this is not something that Alex has seen in his driving experience with the family so far.
Factors affecting range
Before going on this test drive I’ve had quite a few discussions with some of my friends over on The Green Living Forum about electric cars and the various pros and cons. One thing that most of them seemed very keen to understand was just how the range of the vehicle can be affected by external factors.
Weather is one thing that comes to mind. On a cold morning you may well need to turn the heaters all on to defrost the car and it’s true that this is likely to drain more from the battery than if you didn’t have to do so. One little gem that Nissan have come up with though is the ability to communicate with your car from your smart phone. I understand that there is an app for both android devices and iPhones which allows you to turn on the heaters from the warmth of the house. Now, assuming you’ve been charging the car overnight it’s still going to be plugged in at this point so you’ll be powering the heaters from the mains rather than draining the battery.
We’ve been fortunate recently not to have very cold temperatures so it’s not been possible to see the effect of the cold weather on how much charge the battery actually holds, but depending on battery technology it is possible that the range would be decreased when the outside temperature is very cold, but then during a journey it may well be the case that things warm up so some of this “missing range” is returned to you.
Range will also be affected by the way in which you drive, but not totally like in a car with an internal combustion engine. In an ICE car it is more fuel efficient to brake slowly, but due to the regenerative brakes in the Leaf you’d actually do better from a driving efficiency point of view if you were to stomp on the brakes – not a driving style that I’m suggesting you adopt.
The above screen had us puzzled a bit at first, but I think what this is saying is looking at the rate of using the battery power over mileage, but at the current point in time and as a driving average. In other words when I took this photo we had just turned the car so it would have a higher rate of using the battery power (0.5 kWh/miles) compared with the average once you are driving (0.125 kWh/mile).
The headline figure in Nissan’s adverts is that the Leaf only costs a daily amount of £1.91 to charge. Now this figure could be a bit meaningless unless you know which electricity tariff you are on. The £1.91 figure is based on a national average of British Gas economy 7 rates in January 2012. Obviously if you were to choose to have an electric car you would want to study the various tarifs very carefully to ensure that you get the best one for you in your area.
The way that diesel and petrol prices are going at the moment does suggest that in terms of daily fuel costs alone there is no doubt that an electric car if cheaper to run, but what I’m not yet clear on is just how that changes when you take into account all the other costs involved. As the Leaf is a Zero Emissions Vehicle you are currently entitled to a government grant of £5000 towards buying one and you are also exempt from paying the London Congestion Charge. The batteries will need replacing at some point and I’m also not completely clear on whether or not all Nissan garages can service the car or whether only a subset of them can at this point. If you have to travel further away to one then the costs (both in terms or time and charge) need to be factored in.
On the environmental front I am told that the batteries themselves can be recycled once they are taken out of the car, but I’m yet to understand all the factors to be able to work how the manufacturing and recycling eco-footprint compares with that for a modern efficient internal combustion engine vehicle of a similar size.
Where to charge the car
With all this talk of batteries you need to take into account how and when you charge the car. Now this can be done from a simple 13 Amp socket and if you’re only doing local journeys then it makes most sense to just charge it at home overnight. If you need to stop whilst out and about on longer journeys you might need to plan a bit more carefully. As part of my research I did find this map, but what it doesn’t appear to differentiate between (unless you drill down to look at individual sites) is which charging stations have an annual cost associated with them – another factor that you may want to consider.
The big question – would I buy a Leaf?
Hmmm – a hard one to answer straight away. I was very impressed by what I saw, but being a bit of a nerd there’s much more that I would like to understand too, especially in terms of detailed running costs over a longer time period.
We are a one car family and the majority of our driving is in and around St Albans. For this a Leaf would be ideal. We could charge it overnight and probably wouldn’t need to worry about it at other times. But, and it’s a big but, I do regularly go to visit my parents who live 120 miles away. I normally do this journey with LMC in a couple of hours. It’s mainly motorway and I can just keep her entertained in the car for this long without having to stop.
Those of you that will have paid attention will realise that 120 miles is more than the range of the Leaf after a full charge, making this journey impossible without stopping – not something that I’d been keen to do, especially with a toddler. If there was just a bit more on the range then I think I’d consider it (finances allowing) but for us this becomes a bit of a deal breaker.
I’ll be watching the electric car technology very closely though to see how things move forward from here.
Surely no one buys a new car without looking under the bonnet – so here you go!
Disclaimer: Alex is currently taking part in the Nissan Big Turn on Competition where he stands a chance of winning a Nissan Leaf for his family – you can vote for Alex here and also find out much more about how he’s been getting on with the Leaf over on his blog – www.daddacool.co.uk Alex kindly gave me a ride in his Leaf and allowed me to ask lots of questions and play around with it.
I have received no financial payment from Alex or Nissan for this blog post. Although Alex has promised that if he wins the car I can use him as a taxi service! 🙂