The Truth About Electric Vehicles (EVs) - November 2017
Featuring the Nissan Leaf 30kWh EV
(What the dealers don’t want you to know)
by Nigel Cooper
Having spent four days living with, and driving, the Nissan Leaf all electric vehicle, I am going to do two things. I’m going to write up a review on the car itself and what it is like to live with but, more importantly, I’m going to give you the low-down on battery cars in general. I’m going to flip the coin over and show you the side to EVs (electric vehicles) that the dealers and the makers of these cars do not want you to know about.
The Nissan Leaf:
As far as the Nissan Leaf is concerned, it drives like any regular small to medium sized petrol car such as Nissan’s own Micra, or Pulsar for example. I mention these two models as the Leaf is – in terms of size – about half way between the two: a tad larger than the Micra, but a tad smaller than the Pulsar. The 5-door hatchback Leaf has plenty of room for four adults with a boot that’s about the same size as any other car in this class.
Driving the car isn’t that different from any of the Leaf’s petrol cousins, once you understand the basic differences between an EV and a petrol car that is. The first one that will catch you out is when you start the car for the first time. Like many new cars the Leaf uses a comfort-key system, meaning you don’t have to plug the key in anywhere to start the car, you can keep the key in your pocket and the Leaf knows you’re in the immediate vicinity of the car and allows it to be started via a large start/stop button on the dash. To start the car you simply press the start button twice, once to bring up the display (like key position 1 in a petrol car) and a second time to actually start the motor. This is where things get a little eerie, as although the car is now on and ready to roll, it is still perfectly silent as, unlike a petrol car, there is no engine ticking over under the bonnet. This can be a little disconcerting but once you put the little space-age selector into D for drive and take your foot off the brake the car starts to move – in perfect surreal silence. The little gear selector knob only has three positions D for drive, P for park and R for reverse.
As I first pulled away in this car, out onto the city roads of Cambridge, it really did feel quite surreal, like I was driving something from the future. Not having an engine vibrating and revving away under the bonnet was quite strange. The Leaf felt incredibly nippy as I drove it around Cambridge with a surprising amount of pull – especially from 0-40, which I timed at a tad under 4 seconds. It felt much faster than any equivalent petrol car I’ve ever driven (and I’ve driven hundreds of different cars). I found I could pull away from traffic lights and leave all the other cars standing as they became smaller and smaller in my rear-view-mirror. However, from 40 up to 70 things aren’t quite so rapid. I timed 0-60mph in about 9 seconds – very respectable, but that basically means that getting from 40 up to 60 takes a further 5 seconds – 4 seconds for the first 40mph then 5 seconds for the last 20mph. And, if you drive the Leaf ‘enthusiastically’ don’t expect to get the 133-mile range (the range that the car displays on the dash after a full charge on the 25kw version) on the car’s digital display – not even close. Driving ‘normally’ in the Leaf will cut that range down to about 75 miles and if you drive like a boy-racer who’d just been given a £50 Halfords gift voucher only to find that his nearest store – 25 miles away – closes in 15-minutes, well, you can expect that displayed 133-miles to drop to about 50. Basically, if you’re to get anywhere near the manufacturer’s quoted figure of 130-miles you will have to drive nice and slowly, put the car into cruise control the instant you do reach your required speed’ and while you are building up that speed you must place an imaginary basket of freshly laid hen’s eggs under the accelerator pedal and do your damndest not to crack any of them.
With the current Leaf (as of writing, November 2017) there are two different kilowatt battery sizes to choose from: 25kw and 30kw – both feed exactly the same motor under the bonnet.
Nissan’s official quoted figures are: the 25kw battery pack will give you a range of 120 miles and the 30kw battery pack will give you a range of 155. However, in the real world (according to driver/owner feedback), with the 25kw battery you can expect to get a range of about between 70 and 80 miles under ‘normal’ driving conditions.
As an aside, I have a theory as to how Nissan came up with their official figure of 155 miles for the 30kw battery version of the Leaf. Over the four days that I had use of this car, I monitored the ‘tree’ symbol on the dashboard. This little tree symbol has five branches that taper to a point, similar to five bars on a mobile phone’s battery indicator. The harder you press the accelerator pedal while driving the Leaf, the faster those branches disappear, telling you that you’re not being kind to the environment, or your displayed mileage range. Ok, let me just cut in here to explain that ‘environment’ part. So, there is no engine to speak of, so driving the car is very healthy for the environment, at least in your immediate vicinity that is. However, when you charge the car, be it at home or at a charger in a petrol station or Nissan dealership, things aren’t so good. That power is supplied via a power station, and power stations are not good for the environment so although there are no poisonous gasses coming out of the exhaust (which the Leaf doesn’t have, by the way) there are poisonous gasses belching into the air somewhere a few hundred miles away. That is basically how I interpret the ‘tree’ symbol on the Leaf’s digital dash.
I drove the Leaf pretty much like most people would their regular petrol cars and I was getting about 85 miles on the 30kw Leaf that I had. For me, this isn’t really a viable option – more on this later.
Charging the Leaf is a very long and drawn out affair, especially if you only use the supplied power cable that plugs into a domestic electrical outlet in your home. This way, the Leaf takes a full 12 hours to be fully charged from almost empty. If you purchase one of the Nissan Home charger systems it will manage a full charge in about 6 to 7 hours (based on there being about 20 miles of charge left in the battery), so about half the time. Finally, if you use a superfast rapid charger at a petrol station or Nissan dealership you can get your car charged up to 80% in just 30-minutes. However, there is a caveat – a big caveat. Although Nissan say you can charge your car for free using their chargers at a dealership (and not all Nissan dealerships have them), this might not always be the case. And for charging with a rapid charger at a petrol station you have to download an app and sign up with a company called Ecotricity. Using the app you sign up and fill out your name/address and bank debit card details. Then, and only then, can you use these rapid chargers at various petrol stations and designated places around the UK. So, how much does it cost to actually charge and run the Leaf, when compared to a regular petrol car?
I’ll start with the Ecotricity rapid chargers. At the time of writing it will cost you £5 for a 30-minute charge at one of their rapid charging points. This 30-minute rapid charge will get your car 80% charged. However, if you want to get it charged to 100%, you can’t; it will only charge to about 95 to 98%. And, to get your Leaf charged from 80% to 95% Ecotricity will charge you another £5 for the privilege. They round it up to the nearest £5 so, with this in mind, most Leaf owners would simply charge their car to 80% for £5 and ‘Leaf’ it at that. Now, let’s not forget that when Ecotricity started putting chargers in petrol stations a few years back, they were free to use, but now they have scrapped that (which we all saw coming) and they now charge £5 for every 30-minutes of charge time – and this will go up in the future, that’s just how life is. I can see Nissan scrapping their free use of units at their dealers too, once sales really get going and more people own EVs. Back to Ecotricity, apparently, they will let you use their fast charge points for free, but there is a caveat, you have to sign up to Ecotricity for them to supply your domestic electricity to your house, which means switching suppliers for your home. And, Ecotricity are far from the cheapest so while they give with one hand, they take away with the other.
At the moment the infrastructure isn’t really there. Although there are plenty of rapid charging stations dotted around various car parks and petrol stations in the UK, as more and more people start to buy these EVs it will get harder and harder to find a rapid charger that is ‘available’. Sure, they will probably build more in time, but what happens if you get to a charging station and they are all plugged into other EVs, and you only have 8 miles left and it is still 20 miles to your house? You’ll have to wait until one of the other EV owners returns to their vehicle, unplugs it and drives off. But, said owner might not be standing on the corner drinking a cold Costa coffee from the petrol station’s machine; he/she might have buggered off into town shopping for a few hours. Just because the charge only takes 30-minutes, it doesn’t mean the said EV owner and his wife are only going to take 30-minutes with their shopping. You could be in for a long wait.
As for charging at home, this is a nightmare, due to the 12 hours it takes, even 6 to 7 hours with the Nissan home charger (which has to be bought and hard wired in and then bolted to the wall on the outside of your house – very close to where you’ll park your car). Basically, during the time your Leaf is not being driven, it will be plugged into an electrical outlet in your house, or the Nissan home charging system if you opt to buy one, which I’d highly recommend.
Owning a Nissan Leaf is like being in a bad relationship with an incredibly ‘needy’ girlfriend. The Leaf nags you for attention, morning, noon, and night, to be plugged in and charged. It’s almost as if the Leaf is a drug addict, and I’m its dealer. I plug her in, charge her up for several hours then get in and drive, and within 30-minutes she gets all twitchy and has withdrawal symptoms and starts hassling me for another fix. ‘Charge me, charge me,’ I can hear the Leaf demand. So I have to quickly find a rapid charging station, or drive home just so the Leaf can get all ‘charged’ up and high again. But I have to do this quickly before the Leaf has a meltdown. If you buy a Leaf, after just a few short days you’ll find yourself waking up at two in the morning in a pool of sweat, wondering if you plugged in your Leaf. You’ll throw the quilt off – waking your real wife in the process, who’ll probably divorce you soon out of jealousy for all the attention you’re giving your needy new Leaf – and rush off to check. If you buy a Leaf you won’t own it, oh no, the Leaf will end up owning you. It will become an albatross around your neck, a ball and chain.
I really did find my experience living with the Leaf to be an anxious and negative one. I could forgive her if she was attractive, but she’s butt ugly. I mean, the white Leaf I had for four days looks like a kitchen appliance. It would look perfectly at home in my kitchen between my fridge/freezer and washing machine. I mean, let’s face it, the Leaf spends most of its life plugged in there anyway. The Leaf needs to be plugged in via the power chord like a foetus needs to be connected to the womb via an umbilical chord – cut it, and the Leaf will die in a very short period of time.
Back to the driving. To give you an idea of the ‘accuracy’ of the remaining mileage indicator on the Leaf’s digital dashboard I took a short trip that I know to be exactly 11-miles. When I got into the Leaf and started the ‘motor’ it showed 63 miles remaining on the display. However, after the 11-mile journey the remaining mileage showed just 28 miles. So, somehow my 11-mile trip had used up 35 miles – and I was driving pretty much as I’d drive any other car, not being careful, but not being a boy-racer either.
I found driving and owning the Leaf for four days to be a stressful and anxious experience. I found myself looking at the ‘remaining mileage’ indicator every 30-seconds or so, literally. And you’ll be surprised at how quickly those few precious miles start to drop away. Turn the electric heater on and 10% will vanish, pull away from the lights enthusiastically and you’ll lose half a mile, and so on and so forth.
When it comes to Nissan’s ‘official’ claimed figure of 155-miles for the 30kw Leaf, I figured they must have configured the on-board computer system based on the driver doing no more than 28 mph while driving with that imaginary basket of hen’s eggs under the accelerator pedal and then putting the cruise control on when you reach your speed (of no more than 28 mph) and, preferably, with the wind behind you. While I had the Leaf I watched the ‘tree’ symbol and, using the cruise control, I gently tapped the speed down in 1 mph stages until the tree symbol had all five branches. When this happened, I was doing exactly 28 mph with the cruise control on. With this in mind, the Leaf would be a suitable car for a granny to womble about town in, annoying the hell out of all the other drivers for driving so damn slow.
I found the Leaf to be a frustrating and anxious experience. Always worried that it needs to be constantly charged and always anxious about that mileage dropping and not being able to get home, or to a rapid charge point. If you suffer from anxiety, even mildly and are considering buying a Leaf I’d book an appointment with your GP first to get stocked up on Citalopram and/or Beta-blockers as you’ll need them.
The ‘Real’ Cost:
Now let me flip the coin over and talk about some of the ugly costs about buying and owning a Leaf (and this could well apply to most EVs out there), the side that the dealers and Nissan don’t want you to know about.
The Leaf costs £24,000 to buy new, ok, £20,000 after the so-called government grant scheme (don’t even get me started on the truth behind that one), which is £10,000 more than the Leaf’s petrol cousin, the Nissan Micra, or £9,000 more than the slightly larger Nissan Pulsar. So, basically, the leaf costs £10,000 more than a similar size/spec petrol equivalent. But wait, the Leaf doesn’t have an engine, nor does it have a gearbox. Admittedly, it does have a large battery pack and an electric motor. But surely a battery pack doesn’t cost as much to build and manufacture as a complicated gearbox does? And surely the simple electric motor doesn’t cost as much to build and manufacture as a complex 4 cylinder internal combustion engine? I mean, electric motors are nothing special, they have been around for, well, the first commutator DC electric motor capable of turning machinery was invented by the British scientist William Sturgeon in 1832. The electric motor that sits under the hood of the Leaf is a glorified tumble-dryer motor, be it larger and more powerful. So, why does the leaf cost £10,000 more than the petrol equivalent? R&D, yup, the EV buying public are paying for all that R&D, with a vengeance. By my reckoning, EV cars (not just the Leaf) should cost about the same price as the petrol equivalent (Micra or Pulsar in Nissan’s case), not 50% more. I also managed to find out the cost to replace the electric motor in the Leaf. My local Nissan dealership (Glyn Hopkin) told me the cost of the motor alone is £7,000 plus vat, and on top of this there would be labour (serious labour) to actually remove the old motor and install the new one so, including vat you’d be looking at a bill of around £11,000. So, if you take the £7,000 plus vat for a new motor (part only) and another £5,000 to replace the battery we have a cost of £14,000 including vat, just for the parts, not including fitting. For your information, a brand new engine (part only) for a new Nissan Micra 1 litre model cost just £5,000 plus vat in comparison. So, the electric motor in a Leaf cost £2,000 more than the petrol engine in the Micra. I’ll let you ponder on that one.
So, how much will it actually cost you to buy and own a Nissan Leaf over the period of say, six years? Well, you’ve just spent £10,000 over and above the price of the Nissan’s petrol cousin, the Micra (or Pulsar if you want something slightly larger). So how long will it take to get that £10,000 back in petrol saving – never! That’s right, you’ll never get it back. Allow me to explain. If you opt to buy a petrol car of similar size and spec it would be something like Nissans own Micra model, which will return a combined mpg of about 60. Based on the national average of 10,000 miles per year, which is what we all do, you’d be spending a little under £900 per year. So, as you can see, it would take about 10 or 11 years to ‘break even’ before you start getting into any saving territory. But who owns their car for 11 years? If you sell before 11 years you will be out of pocket, way out of pocket. But, there’s more, the battery. Sure, if you phone a Nissan dealer they will tell you that they have only had a handful of Leafs back to have their battery pack replaced, but let’s not forget that the Leaf has only been around since 2011 – that’s just six years. Anybody who knows anything about battery technology will tell you that they don’t last forever. Think about your laptop, iPhone etc, notice how when it’s new the battery standby time is great, then after a year or two it’s not so great anymore? I know, the battery packs in the Leaf are a little different, but not that much different and over time they will get less efficient at holding charge and, eventually, they will all pack up and when that day happens Nissan will clobber you with (at today’s prices, in the future things could change) a bill for £5,000, minimum, to replace them. So, if you add that £5,000 to the £10,000 above and beyond the petrol equivalent that you spent on the car to start with, you’re now £15,000 out of pocket. But I’m not going to stop there. Yes, you’ll be saving money as you won’t have to buy petrol anymore, but electricity is not free and if you charge your car at home your domestic electric bill is going to sky-rocket and when that happens you’re going to find yourself digging out a calculator to work out exactly how much money a Leaf is costing you per mile in electricity costs. Well, let me save you the time and trouble.
Based on today’s (in the UK) petrol prices at the pumps and based on the average electricity suppliers charges, the Leaf will cost you about 2 to 4p per mile in electricity costs, if you charge at home. If you’re on an economy 7 plan and charge your car during these nightly hours it will be closer to 2p, if you’re on a regular electricity plan, like me, and charge your Leaf anytime, it will be closer to 4p per mile and if you charge at a rapid charge Ecotricity charge point at £5 for half an hour to get 80% charge then that equates, on average, under ‘normal’ driving, to about – bearing in mind that 80% charge at normal driving gives you a range of about 60 miles on the 25kw battery version of the Leaf – it will cost you a tad over 8p (8.3p to be exact) per mile. Now, as a comparison, if you drive a small (comparable to Leaf) petrol car it would cost you a tad over 8p (8.8p to be exact) per mile – basically, the Leaf EV car (if charged at an Ecotricity fast charge point) will cost you exactly the same as petrol for your similar sized petrol car. And, with the petrol car, you’ll save £10,000 on the purchase price and not have a £5,000 battery bill a few years down the line.
Ok, so the Leaf is tax exempt and you won’t have to pay a congestion charge if you drive into the city of London, and the service charges are reduced a little due to the lack of an engine and gearbox (but they still have fluids and need servicing and things can, and will, go wrong with the motor, battery packs and electronic gubbins), but who, in their right mind, would want to fork out £10,000 (above the price of a regular petrol car) just so they can save themselves £60 per year on car tax and the odd tenner here and there for the London congestion charge? Oh, and let’s not forget about that ugly word in the world of cars, ‘depreciation’. In the case of the Nissan Leaf I regret that in three years time a 25, 30 or 40kw Leaf will have a similar used value to those very first ever mobile phones made by Nokia back in 1985, remember those? They were the size and weight of a house brick, had a standby time of about 12 hours and a talk time of about 55 minutes – try selling one of those on eBay today. In three years time when you can buy an EV that has a range of 500 miles, that can be achieved via a single rapid-home charge of just 2-hours, well, who in their right mind would want to buy a current Leaf with it’s laughable range of 80 miles on a 12-hour overnight charge.
Yes, the Leaf is the most popular selling EV in the world, with sales reaching about 250,000 (20,000 of those in the UK) at the time of writing, so they can’t be that bad can they? Well, actually, yes they can. All this tells me is that 250,000 irrational people didn’t have the intellect to flip the coin over, do the research, and ‘really’ look into the costs involved in buying and owning a Leaf. Any intelligent and rational minded person will come to the same conclusion I have. Also, anyone who thinks they are saving the planet by buying a Nissan Leaf is deluded. And, if you are thinking of buying a Leaf (or any other EV) do not listen to the dealers, or the owners of these cars as owners have a habit of justifying their purchase, no matter how bad. This is human nature, we justify bad purchases and stand by them, but not me. If I purchase something and then learn that it was a bad decision, I’ll put my hands up and say, ‘Yup, I screwed up there,’ and sell it, at a loss, and move on. Let me give you an example of a man justifying his Nissan Leaf purchase. I recently watched a Leaf owner talking about his car on YouTube and he justified it by saying that he doesn’t have to worry about waking up in the morning, getting into his petrol car, only to find that the fuel is low and having to find a petrol station, wasting valuable time to fill up, on the way to work, potentially making him late. And, he said he doesn’t have to worry about getting ‘mugged’ on the petrol station forecourt anymore. ‘Mugged’, really, he actually said that. Who ever heard of anybody getting mugged on a petrol station forecourt, ever, I mean, really? So yes, he doesn’t have to worry about being two minutes late for work while he filled up with petrol, or getting ‘mugged’ while doing so. But he does have to constantly tend to his ‘needy’ Leaf’s needs with regard to being constantly plugged into an electrical outlet, and he does have to constantly worry about running out of miles on his journey, and about a dozen other things too. But, he won’t get mugged, at least not in a petrol station.
The New 2018 Nissan Leaf:A note on the new Leaf that will become available early 2018. Nothing has changed. Sure, the battery pack capacity has gone up from 30kw to 40kw and it has an ‘Official’ mileage figure of 230 miles on a full charge, but the real world figure will be closer to 150 to 170 based on ‘normal’ driving conditions. And, as the new model Leaf will be 40kw instead of 25kw or 30kw, it will take longer to charge and at Ecotricity rapid charge points as it simply has more battery cells, which means you’ll be paying £10 for a charge instead of £5 – if you want to get it to, or past that 80% point at least, which will make it more expensive than petrol when using one of these charge points as Ecotricity rounds the price up to the nearest £5. The fact is, bringing out a 40kw version of the Leaf isn’t really doing that much to advance EVs. If this is all Nissan are going to do with the technology a few years from now they will end up with a car the size of a stretch limo, just so they can cram more battery cells into it for the 100kw version.
In my opinion, the Leaf (both current model and new 2018 model) or any other similar EV car like the Renault Zoe, BMW i3 or similar, are not viable options, at least not yet. For me, they will not be viable until you have a range of at least 400 miles under ‘real world’ driving conditions with a home-charging system that will take less than 3-hours to get a full charge to get you those 400 miles. I suspect that the first car like this will drop off the production line in 2019/2020 and then, and only then, will EVs be a viable alternative to petrol. For now, they can keep it.
Today, I’m cutting the electric umbilical chord and taking this ball and chain back to the dealership, and not a moment too soon. I can’t wait to get back into my BMW 320i petrol car, where I won’t have to worry about ‘range’ and if I’m going to get there before running out of battery power, or having to charge it up overnight when I get home. The feeling you get when you fill up a petrol car of similar size to a Leaf (such as a 1 litre Micra) for £50 to get a range of 400 miles is bliss, especially when it would cost you £40 (at rapid Ecotricity charge points) to get the same distance in the Leaf, and staggered at that as the Leaf would need charging five times to get a total range of 300 miles.
My BMW 320i petrol has a remaining miles left indicator and it is accurate, very accurate. If it says I have 80 miles remaining I can check it against my trip computer and my satnav and it is totally accurate, and those 80 miles don’t disappear anywhere near as quickly as 80 miles indicated on the Nissan Leaf would. The leaf seems to have some sort of electronic Bermuda Triangle that just swallows up miles. One minute it says there are 80 left and you look away for a split second to navigate a roundabout and by the time you look back it has lost half a dozen miles. Well, ok, a slight exaggeration, but the miles just seem to get sucked out of the Leaf quicker than you can say, ‘WTF, I only charged it up last night!’ Another thing, if my petrol BMW says I have 20 miles left on the range indicator, I know for a fact that I have 20 miles left and I know I can get to a petrol station in time to fill up. If the Leaf says there is 20 miles remaining and the nearest rapid charge point is 14 miles away, I’d be doubtful I’d be able to make it as the Leaf seems to shave about 20 to 35 per cent off the figure shown, depending on how you drive. It Leafs indicated range really does lull you into a false sense of security as the range you’ll actually get is always much lower than that stated.
At the time of writing (November 2017) there are pros and cons to both petrol cars and EVs. But there are more cons than pros with EVs and more pros than cons with petrol cars and until it gets to the point that EVs have more pros than cons they simply won’t be a viable option.
In The Meantime:
There is a very viable alternative in the meantime. A hybrid car, no, not the Prius, I’m talking about a proper hybrid car, like the BMW 330E plug-in hybrid. The BMW 330E plug-in hybrid has been around since 2016 and it is possible to pick up a used one-year old one with less than 10,000 miles on the clock for about £20,000, the same price as a brand new Nissan Leaf – and I know what I’d rather be driving.
Just to give you some idea of the cost of running a BMW 330E hybrid and how it works. It has a regular 2-litre petrol engine and a 7-speed automatic gearbox. Now, BMW fans will be wondering why it’s called a 330 when it only has a 2-litre engine, surely it should be called a 320, based on BMWs naming strategy? Well, let me explain. BMW named it 330 as the combined power of the 2-litre petrol engine and the on-board electric motor equates to the same power and performance as a 3-litre petrol model BMW 3 series, which means that this hybrid is fast, really fast. It does 0-60 in just 6 seconds (5.3 if you opt for the M Sport version), with a top speed of 140 (the Nissan Leaf has a top speed of 99mph). The BMW hybrid will do a combined mpg of 47.9 in petrol only mode, more on a run. In electric-only mode (engine off) the car has a range of 20 miles. Now, this isn’t much, admittedly, but it will do most people’s commute to/from work and it only takes 2-hours to charge at home using a regular electrical outlet, way faster with the BMW home-installed rapid charger. Also, if your daily commute is up to 20 miles, you can drive to work and plug in when you get there and have another 20 miles to get home. So, you can be using EV mode during the week, then at the weekend if you want to go further afield, or take a holiday to the Lake District or Cornwall, flip over to petrol mode. The third driving mode on the BMW hybrid is a combination of both petrol and electric, combined you get blistering performance and if you put the car into sports mode it will actually charge the on-board battery while you drive – the faster you drive, the quicker it charges the batteries ;)
That brings me neatly to the end of this review/article. I hope it has been an education in the ‘real world’ of EVs and given you all the information to help you make an informed buying choice, be it an EV, hybrid, or good old petrol car. Me, I’ll be sticking with my BMW 320i petrol car for now, but I’d like to buy a BMW 330E plug-in hybrid and own it for a few years until BMW bring out the full EV version of a 3 series (no, the i3 is just as bad as the Leaf, I’m afraid, with it’s limited 90 mile range and same infrastructure issues as the Leaf), which, I would hope, will have a range of 500 miles on a single 2-hour charge.
Take care and remember, research thoroughly, do the math and leave no stone unturned.