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Living with Leaf: Living With Limitations

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author photo by Autotrader May 2011

Just like Clint Eastwood’s character, Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Evidently, so does a woman. And as a new owner of Hal, my Nissan Leaf electric car, my first lesson on limitations was immediate.

Only days after purchasing my Leaf, I confidently set out to take my first longer range trip. With a purported 100 mile range on the car, this 74 mile round trip should be child’s play, I thought. Living in Orange, CA, I set out for Torrance – a suburb of Los Angeles. No problem. The range distance map on my dash told the same story – Torrance was well within my 100 mile range of distance for a round trip.

Starting the car, my estimated miles were only showing around 90 miles available – this is because the miles estimated are constantly changing as the internal computer gauges the way you drive. Still, doing the math, I saw it as a prime opportunity to test the car’s range in a real-world situation. As I left my home and headed north on the highway, I used the air conditioning, drove in normal Drive mode and got there with 56 miles left on the gauge.

But around 3 miles into the ride back home from lunch (a lunch that was spent praising the world of electric car ownership), the meter suddenly dropped by 10 miles. Instantly, I only had 46 miles and I knew 35 or so were needed.

This was my first experience with range anxiety. I felt a bit of a cold sweat forming on my brow. My brain started going into overdrive – I immediately put the car in ECO mode and got behind a large truck, trying helplessly to ‘draft.’ Perhaps I could get to a public plug – no, I hadn’t gotten that information yet. Perhaps I could go to my sister’s house for an impromptu ‘visit’ and use her plug. No, that’s humiliating during my first week of electric car ownership – plus I’d have to stay for several hours on a trickle charge. So I just held out faith that math, technology and logic would rule and the 35 miles I needed to get home would not suddenly drop down to 25 miles with no provocation.

I imagined all manner of embarrassment – dead at the side of the road, and didn’t the salesman at the Nissan dealership tell me that you couldn’t tow this car normally? You need some special tool because it doesn’t have a front bumper. What if I almost made it home, but I was still 10 blocks away? Would I have to ask neighbors I’d never met for an extension cord? In all cases, there would be other human beings around judging me for buying this crazy car.

When I finally did get close to home, I had 10 miles left to get only 3.5 miles when a voice came on stating, “your charge is low – please get to a charging station soon.” The gauge was true to the miles this time… and I got home with 7 miles to spare.

In all the reviews and test drives I’ve read about the Leaf, the reviewer has not been the owner of the car, only the borrower. In most cases, they cannot wait to disprove Nissan's 100 mile range claims – and typically they do, but I also know that many of the green car bloggers have been able to get more than 100 miles out of the car. So what I really had to face, was my own driving style.

The truth is I want to drive this car like I normally drive. Quick acceleration, keeping up with traffic, using heat and air conditioning and taking whatever route has the least traffic. These habits, it seems, have cost me approximately 17 miles. I suppose that’s only fair in the bigger picture, but it’s the difference of being comfortably close to home and uncomfortably close to being stranded.

Since that day, I’ve made a few other trips that neared the 10 miles left point, but I now know my limitations… as Clint Eastwood so aptly suggested.

Being smack in the middle of Orange County, I can pretty much get to and from any OC locale, but some further cities are challenging. My biggest lament is that I can’t really get to downtown Los Angeles and back and at this point, the city doesn’t yet have a Charge Point public charger.

Doing the math, in theory, I should be able to make the trip (round trip of 82 miles), but I’m not going to risk it – it’s range anxiety waiting to happen. You’ve got to have a buffer and now I know that, for me, it’s coming home with at least 15-20 miles left on the readout. This, in addition to my driving habit penalty, takes up to 37 miles out of the game, making my true comfort level at 63 miles for a round trip on one charge. I must admit, however, that I’ve experienced range anxiety on a 60 mile round trip (see below).

Based on my experience thus far, here are the trips I’m willing to take and my comfort level with each:

Comfortable:

  • Orange to South Coast Plaza (Costa Mesa): 25 mile round trip
  • Orange to Fashion Island Mall (Newport Beach): 37 mile round trip
  • Orange to Laguna Beach Hotel: 48 mile round trip
  • Orange to Downtown Long Beach: 53 mile round trip

Uncomfortable:

  • Orange to San Juan Capistrano: 60 mile round trip
  • Orange to Torrance: 74 mile round trip
  • Orange to Downtown Los Angeles: 82 mile round trip

With gas prices rising quickly, the cost of range anxiety along with range limitations overall seem worth the pain since most of my driving is around town and I still have not yet seen a difference in my electrical bill. But, would I recommend this car to someone who has no other gas-oriented cars in their family fleet? Not unless they lived in an area with excellent public transportation or abundant charging stations. Otherwise, you’re limited.

Want to learn more about living with an electric vehicle? Follow our long-term test of the 2011 Nissan Leaf.

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Used 2011 Nissan Leaf SL
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Living with Leaf: Living With Limitations - Autotrader