Driving the electric Nissan LEAF in Colorado

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editors-blog-entry3I hopped into our trusty 1994 Toyota Camry with my wife and two daughters on another beautiful and unusually warm September day here on Colorado’s Front Range and added another 70 miles to our 280,000 mile Camry odometer to take part in Nissan’s 2nd Drive Electric Tour (the first tour stopped only in LEAF rollout states, of which, as you might recall, Colorado was not one).

The 70 miles we travelled roundtrip from our Aurora, Colo. home to Drive Electric in Broomfield, Colo. is about the same as the single charge mileage total you can expect from a LEAF, at least with the mostly highway driving we did.

But this column isn’t about the LEAF’s range. Instead, it’s a collection of musings about this LEAF “virgin’s” first date — OK, it was a very mini-date — with a Nissan LEAF. [Also, please check out the slideshow running at the top of this entry :-)]

uuKids and EVs. I’ve got my two young daughters really excited about electric cars, solar, and cleaner air – and they were really stoked to head up to Broomfield. But there was some disappointment. Kyra, our five year old, couldn’t quite grasp why we weren’t able to buy one of the LEAFs and drive it off the lot right away 😉

Kids and EVs II. Kids have short attention spans, or, at least mine do, and, while they enjoyed riding in the LEAF – Kyra just had to ride in a blue one – the pre-ride background information delivered by a Nissan representative on the LEAF was, at best, unappreciated, and, at worst, a special form of kids torture 😉

Range anxiety and battery pack replacement. From an adult’s perspective, the 10- to 15-minute overview of the LEAF, its battery pack, plug-in cars in general, was decent, if unspectacular. The guide who led our age-diverse group of about 10 LEAF test drivers – the youngest appeared to be about 19, the oldest, in his 70s, focused quite a bit on range and range anxiety, but, generally, didn’t over-do it. And he was honest: “If you drive 100 miles or more every day, this is probably not the car for you,” he noted. However, he did dodge a question I asked about battery pack replacement ease and cost after about 10 years by saying, “If you’re worried about batteries, lease a LEAF.”

Lots of interest in EVs – but from comparatively few people. Attendance was steady, but also unspectacular, with a regular flow of people trickling into the Nissan tents set up on the southwest side of Broomfield’s Flatirons Mall. Of course, directly outside the Drive Electric tents – within clear sight of them – hundreds and hundreds of people were going through their daily lives totally oblivious to, and seemingly completely uninterested in, the unfolding EV “revolution”.

qqFunny looking cars. I had to wonder: Did anyone even notice the funny looking, pure electric cars, sometimes three or four clustered together, driving in an approximately two-mile loop in the neighborhoods surrounding Flatirons Mall? As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I’m guessing 95% of folks didn’t. This is a big reason I want to ad-wrap our LEAF – the other is because I’m starved for attention and stardom 😉 Seriously, though, the other reason is because I want to the world to know you can drive a car on sun.

LEAF peppy. As advertised the LEAF’s quick from a standing start to about 35 or 40 mph, but, I’m told, not as peppy from 40 to 60 mph — I was only able to push it to 46 mph (in a 35 mph zone) on my too-short, approximately two-mile test drive.

Driver visibility not great. Compared to our hatchback 1992 Integra – which has to be one of the best cars ever for driver vision – the LEAF takes some getting used to, and I doubt I will ever feel as comfortable in terms of what I can see from the driver’s seat of the LEAF as I do in our Integra.

Dash visibility not great. Yes, the LEAF’s most important dash element – the speedometer – is fairly visible, though, of course, my old-school, dial display preferences made it difficult for me to adjust to the digital display. Also, the lower half of the LEAF’s digital display – which includes data about the battery, range, etc. sometimes gets blocked by the steering wheel.

Soft, somewhat squishy ride. Maybe it’s because I’m used to the relatively stiff suspension of our Acura Integra – although our Camry isn’t as stiff – but the LEAF felt a bit loopy going over bumps. To be fair, it might have been that we hit some especially loopy bumps.

leaf-blue-sunRoomy interior. The LEAF’s got plenty of space for a family of four – Kyra really enjoyed getting to sit up higher than normal, and, unfortunately, she also enjoyed playing with the back window, and the door (luckily the LEAF has window and door looks 😉

A quiet EV. “Tommy”, the Drive Electric Tour temp worker assigned to ride shotgun with me in the blue LEAF I drove, told me the LEAF’s artificial noise making system had been turned off in our car. It was nicely quiet, though, of course, I could hear the whine of the tires.

My wife likes the LEAF – mostly. While I was pushing a blue LEAF pretty hard with five-year-old Kyra strapped into a car seat in the back, my wife, Christine, was zippnig around in a silver LEAF with our six-year-old daughter, Alina. Christine generally liked the LEAF, though she, like me, also wasn’t that comfortable with driver visibility out of the car.

Coloradoans will get LEAF in about five months. Nissan representatives told me Coloradoans who reserved a LEAF back in April 2010 should be able to order in about a month with about a four month wait after that before the car arrives. By my count, that means we’ll be getting our LEAF in March or April 2012, about two years after placing our original $99 reservation (wonder what Nissan’s been doing with our money?)

leaf-transport-truckRandom Nissan Drive Electric Tour ironies. A loud, smelly gasoline generator powered the fancy electronic displays, plasma TVs, etc. that are part of the Drive Electric Tour set up. Hmm … Nissan personnel I spoke with were friendly, but not always as knowledgeable as I would have liked. This has to be partially because Nissan is using local folks as shotgun LEAF riders rather than hiring LEAF experts who go along for the full tour. This saves Nissan money, but costs the company in lack of expertise. As I was leaving at about 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, the last of three days for the Drive Electric Tour in Broomfield, a large 18-wheeler turned into the Drive Electric parking lot – taking out about 20 of the plastic cones as it did. Yes, Nissan’s burning a considerable amount of gasoline to move the 16 or so LEAFs crossing the country in its unique effort to sell electric driving to the public. Unavoidable? Almost certainly. Still, it’s worth noting that in Europe and Japan, LEAFs could conceivably be moved exclusively by electric trains for a similar tour. Finally, we – and most of the other folks who came to Broomfield — also burned a lot of gasoline to get there, although I did meet one test driver who rode his bike 15 miles to get there.

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LEAF just a car. Yes, a LEAF is fully electric and, yes, it can run on sun. In the end, however, it’s just a shiny metal box on wheels. That might seem like just a plain silly and even banal observation, but it’s something I was thinking about as I left the Drive Electric Tour lot. As excited as some of us get about EVs and as revolutionary as they are in terms of how they could change the auto fueling playing field, they’re not going to fundamentally change what is often the highly inefficient way we move ourselves around in modern industrial society. A traffic jam is a traffic jam, whether it’s a 100-percent EV traffic jam or a 100 percent ICE traffic jam. Okay, the EV traffic jam is a helluva lot easier on our lungs and, if sanity eventually prevails on artificial EV noise, it’ll be easier on our ears too – but that doesn’t mean it’s much easier on our psyche. We’ll have to wait for 100-percent computer driven EVs to eradicate human driver inefficiency, error, and idiocy and the traffic jams that come as a result of these in order to improve our air and our individual and social mental well-being.

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