Driving off the grid
To be absolutely honest, we were not seriously looking to buy a car in Nov 2013. We’d moved into the largest town in our area and found that the journeys I was doing every day were not great for the cars. I have a 5.4 mile journey to work now and 97% is in a 30mph limit.
In our cars that meant we had a 1.5mile section to get the engine warm before turning it off. This type of driving is not great for petrol or diesel cars: even with modern cars, this is the hardest driving for the engine that’s possible to do for the average driver.
Logically, then, we were looking at a different vehicle for me. I’ve never been a fan of hybrids, for me it always seemed a shame that the weight of carrying round an engine, with all that complexity which you are not really able to get the most from: the hybrids are automatic, the electric motor could be used to help acceleration but none of the current vehicles are set-up that way that I’m willing to buy (let’s face it the McLaren P1 and Porche’s 918 Spyder are not within budget). That’s fine for the average commute, but what about the other types of driving you do?
Electric cars didn’t look any more practical. The possibilities of the technology were promising but the cars were expensive, range degraded over time and they were odd (at least the ones we were willing to take the risk on…)
So we looked at a Fiat Panda 4×4 from Glyn Hopkin in Ipswich. Which is also a Nissan garage. We drove up in a BMW 650i, which is a 361bhp V8 5 litre engine. We were realistic, we’ve both driven small engined, low powered cars. But the experience was not great. Good car, 4×4 drive, etc, but a bit of a culture shock. Terrific fuel economy but no, what do Renault say, “Vavavoom”.
So, was a Leaf available for a test? We were expecting no, but there was one and we filled in the test drive forms and took it out. The Leaf was strange: high torque throughout the driving range, quiet, controllable, reasonable suspension, traditional controls, all round cameras for parking and slow manoeuvring, great satnav, heated seats all round (even the back) and a heated steering wheel. It had the toys the Panda lacked and the controls were much easier to use than our quirky beamer. Interesting.
We went home and did some homework and thought about it. Mid-January, I borrowed one for the commute to work. We have charging points at work, so I had some tests figured out. What would the commute be like, could I charge it while I worked, would I like it in January?
The first shock after getting back to my house was hitting the first 30mph zone. I am passionate about 30’s – you have no excuse to break them and you should do everything you can to keep it slow around non-powered road users. So I am heading up the road, pressing the accelerator as normal and thinking, what am I doing? It wasn’t 30! Quick release of the accelerator and I am back to where I should be (thankfully no-one was behind me). Reasonable engine breaking but then I was in high powered mode.
OK, let’s just get to work. I had borrowed a charging card to allow me to plug it in to charge during the day. Not trivial and being January, it was cold and wet out but I got the plug connected at both the car and the charging end and headed off to do a day’s work. Because I was borrowing the car, I couldn’t make use of the communications technology and check on the progress of the charging, but when I got back at the end of the day, it was fully charged.
I took it home and Jon, my husband, tried it and it looked like a reasonable solution. So we bought one: actually a Leaf Techna with a 3KW charging harness and a boot liner (seriously, most of the toys where completely standard). We were exceptionally lucky we my husband’s trade in – if it had been registered 23 days later, it’s VED per annum would have been £480 instead of £220 which meant it was worth more in trade-in.
Seven weeks on…
Writing a review after a few miles didn’t seem to offer much benefit, so this is our review having achieved 660 miles between us, charging it in town, charging it round relatives and general use. My husband also used it to get me to my sinusitis operation mid-February, so it has been used as a family car.
Mostly we drive in the regenerative braking mode (B-eco) which allows the engine to charge while the driver is not pressing the accelerator pedal. The weirdest thing when driving is not necessarily the fact you take your foot off the accelerator it stops, but that it doesn’t change gear. At all. Which means while the 0-60mph is not impressive, you catch ICE (internal combustion engine) cars off junctions and round-abouts really quickly: they all have a pause while either the driver or the automated gear-box changes gear (obviously there are drivers out there who can do this quicker than the electric car can accelerate, but they are few and far between).
The second thing is how quickly the car is able to go: there is no turning over the engine. You press “On”, you put the driving mode selector in the direction and mode you want to use and go. Actually, it has a number of “bongs” it will happily chime if the parking brake is still engined or the driver and/or passengers are not wearing their seatbelts but these are the only noises apart from the radio. The first few journeys were a bit stilted for that as both of us waited for the car to say it was ready. You get over that pretty quickly.
The direction mode (for want of a better word as the car has no gears) switch is laid out like a slightly unusual gear automatic stick: you press the centre button to put it in park and move it to the right to choose reverse (right and up) or forward is down, in either drive (mode D) or regenerative drive (mode B). I get why, this is the convention used for automatics, but it seems very strange that forward isn’t forward and backward isn’t reverse. My instinct here is that the Leaf doesn’t really feel like a normal car, the dash is more like a computer simulation and few programmer’s would make a joy stick pull backwards to move forward. Thankfully, you get the hang of it in the first five seconds of driving.
It then has accelerator pedal for the right foot and brake pedals both operated by the left foot. The brakes can feel very sharp and need only gentle pressure although it does an emergency stop amazingly well.
The parking brake follows American convention and is operated by the left foot. Again, something we are now completely used to though I wish it had an electronic parking brake – it’s obvious that having a purely mechanical device to holding the car in position is necessary, but it seems a missed opportunity.
The steering is really light (after all there no ICE sitting above the front wheels) and for a car which sits four comfortably the steering feels pretty sharp. At low speeds it has a camera which builds an image of all around the car as well as either the front or back depending on which direction you are heading. This is great for parking up next to a charger as the connector is sited at the front of the car.
The past 6 months, I have had chronic sinusitis or been recovering from an operation to alleviate or fix the issue and the Leaf is beautifully quiet. Getting it when we did meant that when Jon drove me home from the hospital, I didn’t get my usual “journey home after general anaesthetic nausea” – the car doesn’t shake while moving (understandable in an ICE powered car as it generates forward motion by exploding an oil based liquid). Many new cars cut the engine when stationary, but the shudder when the ICE is running is completely absent and that is such a boon. Since the operation I haven’t done anything more than a 10 minute drive, but it’s been lovely either as passenger or driver.
Some weird things are done to save power. All the passenger seats are electrically heated as this is more effective than warming the cabin air, but this is a great extra for the back seat. Climate control is standard. There’s a power efficient in car entertainment system and LED lights both externally and internally. The steering wheel is heated. All to save power. There are front and back fog lamps, and the setting one down from the automatic headlamps setting is off (which is annoying when it is foggy).
The front seats are manually adjusted, but the mirrors do fold, although only when the car is “switched on”. There’s no sun roof and the parking brake is very manual. There are cameras instead of parking sensors (again more energy efficient). The cameras actually give a top down view too which takes a lot getting used to
The seating position is very high but it is comfortable.
Charging it up and range anxiety
I don’t miss getting petrol. For most of our use, we get to charge it up most journeys: Waitrose has installed many charging points and there’s one at work (just as I have been either away or working from home).
There was a deal for us to get a charging point fitted for free at home (one of the reasons we didn’t upgrade to the higher power public charger) which gives a full charge from zero in less than five hours. The thing is, it is not like a petrol station, it doesn’t have to be open and I don’t need a reserve to get to it, so for everyday driving, I typically have more than 50miles charge available to me, including 20 minutes at 70mph.
The first weekend we had the car, we took it 46 miles to see my parents. Getting there only used 55% of the battery, but being winter, we wanted to make sure we could get home so we charged it at my parents using the AC charger. In two hours (and two short journeys) the car hadn’t got beyond 55% (it takes longer to charge when cold). It was going to be touch and go, but a frost was likely, so we didn’t want to wait around too long. We also reasoned that if we could get within 5 miles of home, we could always pick up the diesel and tow the Leaf home.
We were careful heading home. It was dark, so dipped and main beam headlamps had to be used, but there are 20 miles of 70mph dual carriage on the route and that meant we had to go at least 50mph on these sections. The radio was off, but hot air was required to keep the windscreen clear (though the back stayed demisted right from the off). Everyone was over taking us on the A47, but we held our nerve and reached the A140 with 46% of the battery charge remaining.
Within 15miles from home we hit the 50mph limited dual carriage-way linking the A14 and A140. It’s a bit of a upward slope (more than I’d appreciated) and we hit the 8% and a range of less than it was going to take to get home. We took the back route, hitting the A14 at Claydon (most of this road was 40 or 30 mph respectively and I was 10% under the limit in each case). Thankfully, there were no other cars around so nobody was made to over take us, though it did mean on the 4 miles of 60mph we had to use main beam headlamps.
We reached Norwich Road in Ipswich with only 2% of charge left. At this point, our route home took us past three petrol stations and none with a charging point. It was also up hill most of the way home. We all held our breath (which was good for keeping the windscreen clear without the heater going). Few cars were about and we didn’t have to wait at any of the junctions (green lights all the way down Norwich Road :)). We got the big 0% as we were 1.5 miles from home.
We made it, with enough residual charge to get the Leaf in the garage. But it felt pretty fraught. We think in practice we could have travelled for another 5 miles as the Leaf is very conservative in its estimation of range, but I’m glad we didn’t need to do that.
Ironically, if we had done the journey on any day but a Sunday, there is a fast charging DC point (0-80% full in 30 minutes) in Norwich at the Nissan garage. Being a Sunday though, everything was shut.
Of course, with the operation and everything, we haven’t done any thing like this and Nissan do actually include 2 weeks free hire of a petrol/diesel to all Leaf owners. But I’d have no qualms about doing the Home to Norwich journey on a week day, but unfortunately I have gainful employment. Heading south to London, there are a stunning number of quick charging points, but in East Anglia there are far fewer. Waitrose is amazing (every Waitrose seems to have a charge point offering 3KW or 7KW points), but there are not Waitrose’s everywhere. Nissan have promised to offer free charging at all their dealerships: there are three Nissan dealerships in Suffolk, 1 in Norfolk and 1 in Essex and one in Romford/London.
The DC charges are amazing, the nearest one to us is at a Nissan garage in Colchester (the picture at the top shows the car plugged in), as per zap-map, although not all points are created equal. It hums while charging, 50KW providing approximately 3% a minute charge. These points provide their own cable which fits in to a different charging point on the front of the car. Before you attach the cable to the car, you need to specify either the length of time you wish to perform the charge or a limit on the battery. As a standard charge, the charging point is set to 80% and if the car has 20% left on the battery that happens in 18 minutes. Looks wise, the fast chargers look much more like traditional petrol pumps. The first time I used it, I did need to be walked through the connection procedure, but it is pretty straight forward.
In Suffolk, many charging points are attached to offices. A great example of this is the Suffolk County Council car park. This is not used by office staff at the weekend yet there is no access to members of the public (is there a business opportunity here?).
We do a lot of our shopping in Waitrose now. An hour’s shopping time (and coffee) gives us 20% charge. Cards are needed, the same Source East ones which are the ones I use at work.
Work has a pod-point too, using the Source East card. Now I am using the charge point often, it normally works though I do find people use the charge points as normal parking. If I’m at 15% when I turn up to work at 9am, I am back to 80% by midday. I do this a couple of times a week.
We also charge the car at home with our charging pod installed by British Gas, shown to the left, which has a permanent cable and charges at 16A unlike the normal AC charging cable which charges at 10A. Either way, a charge from 0%-80% is circa 16 units of electricity, so costs around £2 and takes around 3 hours.
Yes, we like it and we’re happy we have one. In fact given the power delivery and the economy, I love it. I don’t know of any diesel or petrol focus sized cars that can give a weeks worth of commuting for less than £2 today.
It’s just different. I actually find the diesel we also have a bit annoying, having to go somewhere periodically to fill it up. In the Leaf, the petrol stations on my way home are always busy and I just don’t need to do that with the Leaf.
Posted: May 23rd, 2014 under Driving off the grid.