[Editor’s note: Today we have another guest post from long time reader Sjalabais. He is sharing his thoughts on one year of a used Nissan Leaf ownership. While a Nissan leaf ownership might not sound exciting, this detailed article is very interesting. -KK]
The Nissan Leaf was the first truly mass-market EV. Spurred on by tax credits and incentives on all levels of government, the initial price was low enough to make it attractive as a new car, and that seems to carry over to the used car market. Here in Norway, the Leaf was the most sold car for a while, taking the throne from the Golf. The latter one costs 30-100% more for used 2012 models than the Leaf. A Civic is even more expensive, and that’s before you consider running cost: With the average kWh price in Norway, around 0.13 $ everything included, charging the 24 kWh battery from zero to full costs a little more than three dollars.
There you have it, the entire argument for why we got a Leaf. But is there more to it than low running costs? Is this a car to tinker with and hoon and how was the first year with a seven-year-old EV?
MOTOR AND BATTERY
This slightly shouty, dad-joke-infused Motorweek review was very positive to the Leaf when new, even lauding its handling. We need to get this out of the way though: The Leaf is not a fun car to drive. The batteries make it incredibly heavy, the electronic steering is very light and, at low speeds, surprisingly imprecise, reminiscent of Citroën compacts. Both our tired 19-year-old Camry and the Leaf are so soft, they wobble like a blob of jelly if you slam the door too hard. It is a comfy car though, safe and nice, you sit insulated from your surroundings. It is defined by the quietness every EV owner learns to appreciate real quick.
The “sporty” car this hoon can compare to excessively and without mercy, is my former Honda Stream minivan. It is baffling how similar these two cars were in terms of performance, the Stream with its 125 hp engine and 1300 kg weight racing to 60 mph/100 kph in 11.1 s, with the Leaf pulling its 1500 kg weight to the same speed in 11.9 s with 109 hp. The difference to our human perception though is, of course, in torque. A measly 154 Nm and a rev-focused engine in the Honda versus a respectable, for an economy car, 280 Nm in the Nissan, available right away. While my kids asked me to make the van “sound like a motorcycle”, the Leaf provides happy smiles right off the bat.
The power comes from a battery with horizontally aligned pouch cells, coupled both in parallel and in series to achieve 380-400V voltage. That’s a contrast to Tesla’s cylindrical 18650 cells. The Leaf battery arrangement allows great space utilization, but it makes cooling harder. That’s why so many first gen, second battery type cars (32 kWh) had quickly depleting batteries in warmer climates – the air-cooled batteries would get hot, and damaged, eventually holding less charge. Also ‘rapidgate’, basically software-controlled quick charging limitations based on temperature readings, originates here. Google it to open a can of EV worms, but the bottom line is that if you want a cheap Leaf, a 2010-2012 24 kWh car might prove to have better battery health than, and the same range as a 2013-2016 32 kWh vehicle. This varies wildly with driving and charging patterns as well as the climate the car has been used in, but the earliest models are definitely cheaper.
So how do you check the battery? There are two ways to do that, quickly, and a third, dealer option. The easiest is the car’s own battery bars, 12 in number on a fully healthy car, furthest to the right on the driving display. You get 12 bars displaying how much of the battery is charged, and 12 bars next to that displaying the battery health. The first bar of the latter disappears forever when the battery is at 85% capacity (or “state of health”, SOH, in EV-speak). Every following bar removed from the display represents another 6.25% of SOH gone. So that means our 11 bar car is somewhere in the 80%-range.
The most precise way to check your SOH is by using an app called Leafspy, by many forum-dwellers regarded as essential to Leaf ownership. Unfortunately, of my two OBDII-dongles, none wants to speak to the Leaf and gives me the red light of electronic disobedience. A third way is to get a check at a dealer, who, in Norway, will ask for the equivalent of 75$ to use Nissan’s own app and a printer that might yield four lines with five stars in each, if you’re lucky.
So, finally, the all-encompassing question with EVs: How far can you drive with it? The answer is a solid: “Depends”. Our 2012 model, fully charged, had 70-100 miles as the advertised maximum range. Yet, charging the car to 100% is said to accelerate battery depletion – especially if the car sits for a few days. So in everyday driving-and-charging-patterns, 80% is recommended, leaving 56-80 miles. Add in depletion, say another 20%, and we arrive at 45-64 miles. In practice, you will never use all of the battery, just like you never drive a fuel tank empty, so a rough 50 miles is where we are at.
This is a really important point. The car has a range guesstimate on display that is beyond optimistic. It will display about twice the range we can actually drive on a given charge. So if you’re about to buy a Leaf and the seller says: “It has 100 miles of range”, remember, it has not.
The Leaf will also punish every attempt at hooning with greatly reduced range: Heavy acceleration, “antsy” driving with uneven speeds, or even just passing a car or two will deplete guesstimated and real range significantly. Electronic antispin and other gizmos are überaggressive, ready to kill every bit of irrational and, potentially, dangerous behaviour anyway. Given that this gearless car doesn’t really cruise, but either uses or regenerates energy, cruise control is an efficient way to maximize your range. The mighty forums agree that CC ekes out at least another 5% of range even from the most hypermiling-minded human feet.
The early Leaf also comes with two driving modes: D and ECO. The ECO mode, in later models called B mode, has two functions: First and foremost, it creates a way more aggressive regeneration of energy. Taking your foot off the gas feels like braking. Second, taking your foot on the gas feels like…nothing. The car is totally dead in ECO and requires a half-way pressed pedal for ordinary forward motion.
One well-known factor in the range is the weather: Cold weather makes the battery less effective, you will also want more heat in the car, seats and steering wheel (all standard features on the Tekna trim for Nordic countries). A cold winter day guarantees that our seven-year-old Leaf will have a maximum realistic range below 40 miles – but cold weather also has the advantage that charging to 100% is less strenuous for the battery, as cooling isn’t an issue anymore.
From 80% charge, driving 4.4 miles to the nearest town makes the display inform us that we will need 90 minutes to charge to 80% again…which shocked us the first time, as the charging time appears to be 13-fold of the driving time – but it isn’t. An around six-hour charge at our 250V/10A outlet will fully charge the car at 8A. The Type 1 charging cable that follows the car can also half that time at 16A. We haven’t invested in a dedicated circuit yet, the slow charge is enough for us, so we charge the car at off-hours with cheap electricity, with as little as 1$ for a full charge. In its first year with us, we have driven the Leaf only about 5000 miles, mostly on my wife’s short commute to a train station anyway (6.5 miles/day).
DESIGN & INTERIOR
I consider the Leaf maybe not a pretty car, but quite pleasant to look at, without the conflicting extravaganza and wild lines of more recent Japanese vehicles. Front, side, and rear come together well in flowy, kind lines, totally devoid of the testosterone-dripping design language you’ll find on your neighbour’s pickup. The first-generation Leaf also managed a neat trick: They gave a vehicle the size of a minivan the deceptive shape of a hatchback. The Nissan is only 1 inch lower than the Stream minivan, but it looks smaller from afar. The interior is much more cramped though, with the batteries located under the floor between the front and rear wheels. There’s little space to jam your feet under the seats in front of you from the second row, so the rear seats should be tested if you’ll be carrying adults regularly.
The Interior is reasonably well laid-out and still firmly in The Era Of The Button, despite having three screens: A driver’s screen mostly for battery info, cruise control and such, a mid-mounted speed and temperature screen, and the console. The mid-console is limited to information, entertainment and navigation control, as well as a few settings. The only issues I have are some setting overrides – like switching from window to feet air will always turn the AC on – and that the cruise control is almost impossible to turn on with gloves on: I do honk at trees and vast emptiness a bit, even with my leather driving gloves on.
The screens work well in all sorts of conditions we have experienced so far. There is even a hidden menu on the center screen and this is how to get there:
Press MAP 3x
Press RADIO 2x
Press MAP 1x
A few Bond-or-Batmobile-like features would have been adequate for this sequence, but it’s just a diagnostics screen with a few test options (for microphone and speakers as well as the driveline). If you’re looking for a used Leaf, this “feature” will pop up a bit though because the Leaf displays the full extra 10% of the speed that is the lawful deviation from true speed. There’s a “speed calibration”-option here, it’s for GPS calculations though and does nothing to the speedometer. Interestingly, the odometer shows a number in direct conflict with the speedometer. If you see a Leaf going too slow: They might not be aware of it.
All early Leaf with the 24 kWh battery had a beige-grey interior, as opposed to later models in a black-grey hue starting in 2013. It is reasonable to wonder how the light interior of the first generation is holding up. The beige seats are covered in a great, recycled fabric that tolerates dirt exceptionally well. It is easy to clean, often enough with a vacuum cleaner – even for soil and other typical kid dirt. The plastic bits inside are worse though. They seem to get both discolored and scraped up easily and there is no easy way to get them clean.
The rear seats fold a standard 60/40 split, but since this is a Japanese car, the 60 is on the wrong side, where the LHD pilot sits.
The seats fold flat on the same level as the rear battery control module hump that eats into the boot. Nominally, you have 370 up to 720 liters of loading space in the Leaf, which is quite good, with a great height from a deep boot. But the loading sill is high, and space utilization is bad because of the aforementioned hump, the narrow depth of the boot and the round hatch leaning forward. The Type 1 charging cable should be in the car at all times, too. It comes with a bag, but that, of course, requires origami-like folding skills. So, every Leaf boot I have seen looks something like this:
The electric oven is a quick remedy to turn on 10 minutes before going anywhere on a cold day, in a car without a heater. Wait, no heater?
USABILITY AND QUALITY
Pioneering the first mass-market EV brought with it surprisingly few issues, the heater setup is the biggest. Remedied in later versions with a more efficient heat pump, the 2011-2012 models have a coolant-to-air-heat exchanger. This is basically like a conventional car, but it, of course, lacks the excess heat every ICE vehicle produces. Accordingly, our Leaf will heat its water to almost 160 F nonetheless, drawing up to 5000 W, in order to be ready to heat the cabin. It might then start to cool the cabin with the AC instead. This also happens on the shortest of rides.
This hilarious setup cannot be turned off without shutting off the HVAC completely. While Nissan added a “HEAT”-button to do just that in 2013, we had to modify our car ourselves with the only useful modification we have made so far:
Remember my wife’s short commute? The heater really ate into that. After adding the heat switch, we charge the car once or twice in a regular week, instead of every 2-3 days. It makes a real difference. The HVAC system, in general, is a little undersized and owners complain about foggy windows all over the world.
Two other examples of Nissan’s strange choices in engineering are the cabin filter and the rear brake caliper design. In order to change the cabin filter, the simplest of routine tasks on most cars, you’ll need to remove half the right-hand-side dashboard. Then, around a corner and out-of-sight for everyone except for tiny snake people, there’s a lid. It is smaller than the cabin filter, so you’ll have to roll up the filter, smooch it inside, and hope it rolls out as intended. Worse, the lid is held into place with a plastic clip designed to break upon use. Despite having read about that beforehand, I broke mine and lost a lot of respect for usually decent Japanese engineering in the process.
Not quite as bad, but with less room to understand how and why, the rear brake calipers are designed in such a way that if you want to grease them up, the upper screw will be blocked by the brake line that is mounted to the same part. I have never seen anything like it, and it’s a routine part – every car has brakes, and they have been essentially the same for 40 years.
There are a few smaller issues diminishing the feeling of owning a quality product. The metal and paint quality on the Leaf is very poor. Like most Nissans, it will rust after a few winters in Nordic climates. I am not quite used to the thin sheet metal yet, and washing it feels like cleaning a soda can:
This snippet has the quality of a toddler filming a bouncing ball, but it’s all about the sound.
The lack of attention to detail is even obvious on the Nissan logo, that looks as if it was ordered off AliExpress for 0.15 $ SINGLE’S DAY SALE BUY NOW COME ON PLEASE:
I am 10 years or later to most innovations in cars. With the Leaf holding its own speed, not encouraging much interaction, Bluetooth-connected entertainment-spitting devices and more – it is really easy to be inattentive. I used to laugh away the need for laneholders and beep-bop-sounds everywhere, but I now understand that modern cars foster inattention. Once “driving” is nothing but pointing the steering wheel, there are new issues to consider and after owning the Leaf, I am more positive to the future event of self-driving cars – just as long as we are allowed to drive at will, still. For now, though, the Leaf has a lot, a lot, of beeping sounds for all sorts of things. Sometimes, after parking it, it will beep like a movie bomb one second before the explosion – and I still have no clue as to why.
This thing beeps. All. The. Time.
Otherwise, there are few issues to look out for with used Leaf. The chassis seems built to tolerate the car’s heavy weight, even though the suspension starts to moan after about five years. The only known issues are failing charging ports on the car – an expensive fix – and a few hiccups that Nissan has had service calls for. This includes stuck START buttons, auto-headlight issues, and rusting battery mounts. In other words though, as long as you identify the battery as being fine, these are pretty safe purchases used.
One feature I haven’t been able to try is the app “CARWINGS” that followed the Leaf when new. It is supposed to show the battery level and it should make it possible to program the climate control timer from our living room. I could log into it with the former owner’s user name and password on a PC, but not in-app. Nissan doesn’t answer requests. The dealer says “I can’t help you with this, only Nissan can”, and external apps require a dongle to work. So I am working hard on staying 10 years behind.
You can’t really talk about EVs without getting lofty, also, social isolation affords me way too much time to write. My wife and I as consumers are not decided on the overall, long-term benefits of EVs yet. Mining for necessary minerals like lithium and cobalt, especially, creates conundrums that are not easy to shrug off. Some convincing studies claim you’d need to drive a fair distance to make EVs more environmentally friendly than a modern gas car. All this electricity doesn’t come from or is delivered via a void either – Norway’s second city, Bergen, has increased its overall electricity consumption with the equivalent of Norway’s third city, Trondheim since the onset of the EV craze less than a decade ago. Even in a hydropower country with presumably “green” and “endless” power making up over 90% of the total production, more power stations, and transmission lines mean more destruction of natural habitats.
What is a tenable benefit though is reduced local pollution – inversion, recognizable to everyone who lives in a mountainous area with lots of water and cold winters, is less of an issue now that more than half of all new cars have been EVs for a while.
The absence of regular fluid changes creates a simplicity that I appreciate a lot more than expected. And for those more mechanically inclined than me, electric motors and batteries are easy to understand, fix and mod. The batteries might be the least point of resistance to eternal life, too, as they can be swapped, exchanged and improved upon (40 kWh update in Europe: https://www.muxsan.com/; 62kWh update in Canada; Fenix Power’s 380 miles of range Leaf). Yet, the power remains the same and apart from a few suspension parts, the aftermarket for the Leaf focuses entirely on batteries. Nissan has shown the Leaf Nismo RC racecar in two generations, but it hasn’t inspired aftermarket tinkers so far.
But the biggest change in my mind is how I value the energy that goes into driving. Let’s say we charge the car for 5-6 hours at 8A, an energy use about the equivalent of using a washing machine. That is about 2000 W of continuous power for quite a long time, yielding only about 50 miles of driving. That just makes me re-evaluate and appreciate the efficiency and independence you can get out of any worn-down beater even more. I take the ability to move about as freely as has been the norm in my life less for granted, and that thought predates the pandemic. In a modern car, a spoon of fuel is enough to propel it to 60 mph once, which is crazy to think about given how fast you get that amount of fuel into its tank.
So that’s a real thing, then, “rethinking mobility” is more than a Powerpoint slide on every carmaker’s and tech company’s meeting circuit. EVs, even though they might be a stepping stone to something else, play a part in that. At least in Norway, public charging infrastructure has become very good close to and in cities, and this car can recharge on basically every outlet we come across (Type 1 + CHAdeMO quick chargers). A Tesla 3 can recharge at up to 250 kW compared to the 2 kW we use, speeding up the process considerably. EVs seem to be here to stay and they offer a way to conserve our way of transportation for a bit longer.
The Leaf is a decent mobility appliance providing comfy, safe and extremely cheap transport.