After driving the penny-pinching and surprisingly good Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and the best motor vehicle I have ever driven in my life, the Tesla Model S P85+, I decided that my next San Francisco Bay Area trip ought to be battery-powered as well. I picked up a 2014 Nissan Leaf SL at the Oakland Airport and hit the road.
You can charge the Leaf using plain ol' wall-outlet power; it's not fast, but an overnight charge will top off the batteries.PHOTO BY MURILEE MARTIN
The first thing I did was drive the few miles over to my parents' place on The Island That Rust Forgot, where I plugged the power adapter into a 120VAC household wall outlet in order to top off the batteries. The adapter wasn't upset about the Victorian-grade power provided by the knob-and-tube wiring in my 125-year-old childhood home (unlike the i-MiEV's adapter, which had to be plugged into multiple outlets on different circuits until it found one with electricity it liked) and the whole process was pretty simple. Of course, if you owned a Leaf, you'd almost certainly install a much quicker 240VAC charger at your home, speeding up at-home from-zero charge time from overnight to about five hours.
This is thelargest range number I saw on the Leaf during my several days of driving.PHOTO BY MURILEE MARTIN
The largest range number I saw on the dash display was this: 94 miles. As it turned out, driving this car in the real world (i.e., leadfooting it on Bay Area freeways) reduces the actual range by quite a bit.
Here's the Leaf on an ex-runway at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, Bay Bridge in the background.PHOTO BY MURILEE MARTIN
There was no 24 Hours of LeMons race happening on this trip, but we had a special pre-race planning meeting of the LeMons HQ staff at Faction Brewing, located in a former hangar at the ex-Alameda Naval Air Station. Driving the Leaf on city streets, I was impressed with its great torque pulling away from stop signs. The Bluetooth-enabled audio system did a good job of reconnecting with my (Android) phone after shutting off/restarting the car, although the 6-speaker audio system (standard on the SL trim level) seemed to lack the sort of boom that I've come to expect from modern cars. Perhaps Nissan judges the typical Leaf-buying demographic to be uninterested in blasting proper Bay Area car music.
This is the sort of thing you'll see every day in Alameda.PHOTO BY MURILEE MARTIN
While I was snapping a few shots of the Leaf, a very typical-for-Alameda trio of trucks rolled into Faction's parking lot. Naturally, I talked the owners into posing their vehicles for me.
Well, there are some emissions at the power plant.PHOTO BY MURILEE MARTIN
One thing about driving an EV in the Bay Area is that nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to it. Leafs (Leaves?), Volts, Teslas, i-MiEVs, Spark EVs— you see them all on the streets of this region. The Leaf drives like a real car, holds four adult occupants like a real car, accelerates better in real-world circumstances than most sensible hatchbacks (thanks to the big electric-motor torque), and doesn't exact much of a compromise for its greenness (beyond the limited driving range, which we'll get to in a moment).
On the highway, the Leaf drives like a regular hatchback, just more quietly and with more instantaneous engine power.PHOTO BY MURILEE MARTIN
The next day, I decided to take a trip to one of my favorite Bay Area self-service wrecking yards: the North San Jose Pick-N-Pull. With a stop at the Newark Pick-n-Pull on the way, I was looking at a round-trip of about 100 miles, or six miles beyond the Leaf's self-proclaimed 94-mile range. No problem, I figured, I'd stop at one of the many quick-charging stations on the way. Heading south on I-880, I made no attempt to conserve power (though I did leave the car in the power-restricting "Eco" mode), and I saw that the range-o-meter was dropping about 15 miles for every 10 miles driven.
At this point, I reacquainted myself with the hypercomplexity and general suckiness of charging-station-finder smartphone apps. PlugShare, Chargepoint, whatever, I felt like smashing my phone with a '79 Buick starter motor until it was a satisfyingly unrecognizable heap of powder. The Leaf uses the impossible-to-capitalize-the-acronym-correctly CHAdeMO system for quick-charging, and so I struggled with online searching for a while and found a Whole Foods that offered CHAdeMO chargers in the parking lot. No dice— Leafs stacked up five deep with owners waiting to use one of the two available spaces, and I didn't feel like waiting for everyone to finish their half-hour charges At this point, I was thinking that my 41mpg beater '92 Honda Civic seemed like the wiser green choice. Eventually, though, I found a Nissan dealership in Fremont that had an eVgo CHAdeMO charging station, and it was available when I rolled up.
Soaking up the juice beneath a palm tree.PHOTO BY MURILEE MARTIN
Minutes after I showed up, another Leaf owner appeared and began waiting for my charge to finish, a ritual he said he had done many times before. When EVs become more commonplace, there will be more charging stations (and more standardization of charger types), but for now there's a certain amount of hassle if you go beyond a short-ish urban commute.
During the half-hour CHAdeMO charging cycle, I realized that the Leaf's requirement to be shut completely off during charging was sort of annoying— what if it had been cold outside and I'd wanted to keep the heater going? Or listen to the audio system? Or just watch the range-o-meter and cut the charge short when I had all the amp-hours I needed? Instead, all you get is a set of indicator lights atop the dash, something like a large version of the charge lights on a 1990s laptop computer.
I got to the junkyard, had my traditional excellent taco-truck meal (Bay Area junkyards have some of the best taco trucks you'll find anywhere), and ventured inside to see what interesting inventory the yard might have. I found a scarily biohazardous '72 Ford Econoline camper van, a super-rare Volkswagen LT28 panel van, a '77 Chevrolet Nova coupe, and some other stuff I have yet to write about. A very worthwhile junkyard trip, and all that remained was to get the Leaf back to base.
Somedaysoon you'll see EVs in ordinary parking lots everywhere.PHOTO BY MURILEE MARTIN
In the end, the Leaf turned out to be a very useful, decent-driving hatchback with good acceleration and a comfortable ride. If I had a short daily commute— say, 25 miles or less each way— and wanted to go electric, I'd be happy with this car as a daily driver. Where I live (Denver), the idea of charging an EV with rooftop solar cells has great appeal, although the price tag of this car (the one I drove was priced at $37,090 with destination charges, though tax incentives in your area may drop that significantly) means that you'd be paying a premium for greenitude (and if you live where your power comes from coal-burning plants, you wouldn't be able to pat yourself on the back too hard for your planet-saving contribution). For long drives, I'd go with an efficient internal-combustion car… or wait for the promised 2016 Leaf with 186-mile range.
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