25 January 2012

The Leaf, Part II (Still Not a Landscaping Post)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Nissan Leaf test drive we had signed up to take. Now that we've done it, here's the scoop.



The test drive began with a short presentation about the car and included this visual to answer the inevitable question, "Where's the battery?" (plus a bunch of much nerdier questions).



There are actually 48 batteries, and they are arranged under the car, as shown in the display.



The batteries on the left are under the front seats, and the row standing on end are under the back seats.

The 48 batteries provide about 100 miles of range. For that reason, while an all-electric car is really tempting, I don't think we would buy a Leaf. (When we go on road trips, we take our newer car. If we bought a Leaf, we'd be stuck taking our (much) older car on road trips, which we don't want to do.) I asked about the future prospects for increasing range, though, and was told that it's just a matter of the price of batteries coming down, which they eventually will. (I had thought it might be an issue of the size or weight of the battery pack, but the much-more-expensive Tesla can drive about 250 miles on a charge, so apparently it's not.)

To answer another frequently asked question -- "How do you charge it?" -- we moved on to an actual Leaf. Adorably, its hood has a hood -- and that's where the charger goes.



The mini-hood has two charging ports:



The port on the right works with the gun-like plug shown that goes to the 120-volt charger that comes with the car or with a 240-volt charging station. The 120-volt charger charges so slowly that it's not practical to use on a day-to-day basis (it's mostly to keep in the trunk for emergencies), so most owners would get a 240-volt charging station:



It takes about 7 hours to fully charge and can be programmed to charge at night (to take advantage of lower off-peak electric rates -- which Austin doesn't currently have -- or just to alleviate demand at peak hours). Although this charger usually costs about $2,000, Nissan has an arrangement with the charger manufacturer so that they will only cost about $700 plus installation. It has to be hard-wired on a 240-volt outlet, but since our garage already has a 240-volt outlet on its own circuit, installation likely wouldn't cost anything.


But remember how the mini-hood had a second outlet (the big one on the left)? It's for a 480-volt quick charger like those that are starting to appear at gas stations (mostly in California for now). A quick charger takes 30 minutes to get the battery pack to an 80% charge. Theoretically, quick chargers at gas stations (and elsewhere) could be the answer to the road trip problem, but I wouldn't want to count on it.

So that covers the mini-hood. Under the main hood, the Leaf looks pretty much like any other new car, right down to a regular old battery (for the air conditioning, radio, etc.).



And once we started the test drive, it actually felt like a regular car, too. Here's the car we drove:



And the interior:



It had the same kinds of electric feedback displays as hybrids (showing how much energy you are using (and generating -- braking actually returns some power to the batteries), etc.):



The only thing that was really pretty weird about it was the shifter. You just tap it whichever way you want to shift, but the shifter stays in the center:



On the road -- a set course of about a mile in downtown Austin -- the "gas" pedal was actually more responsive than a gasoline car (since nothing has to combust before the wheels start turning faster). Otherwise, it felt like any other car. No complaints here. (Except for the range issue.)

Even though a Leaf isn't in our future (at least, not for a while), Steve followed up his test-drive with a test-drive of the battery packs:


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