Canadian Take on Owning a Nissan Leaf

By Steve Lapp

Over 25 years ago, I was involved with the development of fuel-cell powered electric vehicles, during that time I had the opportunity to drive or ride in a variety of electric vehicles, all of which impressed me with the quiet ease with which they moved.  However, they were too basic in my mind, to be considered safe when mixed with mass produced automobiles, some were exotic and unlikely to make it to production levels required for the mass consumer. But I believed they had a future and was determined that eventually I would own an electric vehicle. 

Steve Lapp is a registered Professional Engineer and a professor in Energy Systems Engineering Technology at St. Lawrence College, Kingston, Ontario. He was one of the first Prius owners in Ontario and as noted here has been experimenting with EVs for two decades. He is also one of Ontario’s—and by extension one of Canada’s—solar PV pioneers.

I bought a used Unique Mobility Electrek in 1993, but with only two seats, and a controller that could only be fixed with a trip to Detroit, it would never meet the needs of my growing family and I sold it as the family grew. Aside from GM’s EV1 (never available in Canada), this had remained the situation until late 2011 when Tesla and Nissan’s electric efforts became available. Meeting all required safety standards with warranties and being made in reasonable volumes, the opportunity to own a 100% electric car became more realistic.

With our budget and need to transport 5 people, that meant the Nissan Leaf became the target vehicle to have.  Our decision to go electric was based on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and the cost savings of running on electricity versus gasoline.  For the Leaf at 7 km/kWh,  the calculated gasoline savings of about $1250/year even when compared to our 14 year old Prius, and the over 2 tonnes annually of GHG emissions (Ontario Generation mix), sold us.

[Note: Ontario’s generation mix is among the cleanest in North America. Ontario no longer burns any coal; 22% of their electricity is hydro, soon 10% will be from new renewables. Nearly one-third is renewables, the remainder is nuclear and gas.]

I watched the used car ads for about a year and followed the Canadian Leaf Facebook group and eventually this past spring found a slightly used Leaf for just over $20k. The car was in almost new condition and had the standard Level 1 and 2 chargers but also the quick charge Level 3 that I think will eventually be useful when there are a few in Ontario. 

So, what has it been like actually owning a car with only 160 km maximum range in ideal conditions?  We are a two car family and the first thing we notice is that almost all our trips day to day can be made in the Leaf. We have a 54 km round trip commute to our workplaces and can usually commute together, so our old Prius is being used mainly as a weekend warrior now for the over 150 km trips. 

Of course, the operating cost of the Leaf is so low, it is painful when the range requirement is such that we have to take the gas car. But I want to stress it is financially annoying, not inconvenient. Range anxiety is not an issue as we are a two car family, and the occurrences to date of both the cars having to do over 160 km each in a day have been zero, so the restriction of the Leaf has never been an issue to date. Some trips have required charging at a destination over 100 km away, so that we can get back home, that requires some advance planning, but has not prevented those trips. 

Keep in mind that at Ontario electricity prices, every 100 km travelled by the Leaf saves about $5 even compared to our Prius, so that is enough incentive on a daily basis to always take the LEAF when possible. Every 100 km in a Leaf would save about $10 compared to a midsize non-hybrid car. What we have found is that we actually use the LEAF more than we thought, because previously with 2 cars of similar fuel economy, it didn’t matter which one we took, now we always take the LEAF if the range is doable.

Real world range is of course often less than the 160 km advertised, and varies greatly with the trip details and weather. Travel on freezing days, with the heat on results in greatly reduced range, from a moderate summer day range of 140-160 km to more like 100 km. I expect in the depths of a southern Ontario winter at -20 C the range will dip to 80-90 km on days when we need to use defrosters and space heating. 

These are the realities that must be accounted for if you are considering an electric car with 160 ideal range and do not have easy access to fast charge services, or all day charging at your destination. The Tesla of course has a much larger range, up to 400 km in ideal conditions. 

There are a handful of charging stations in the city we commute to 27 km away, so if winter conditions require, we may have to briefly charge in town if our driving plans for the day change and we require more than 90 km.

The car itself is lovely to drive, it has great torque to accelerate from low speeds, is as quiet as a luxury car and the handling is secure although not BMW inspiring, with little detectable body roll due to the large battery mass below your seat cushion height. What continues to impress me is how stress free driving the car is, with the quiet and lack of vibration, the whole driving experience is much more relaxed. I often wish the car could be used for all our long trips too, if just to have the quiet relaxing ride. When fast charges do appear in more locations, we will probably be ok with the extra trip time as the savings in money and driving fatigue will be appealing. Lucky those who can afford a Tesla now, they get the power, the quiet and the range, and the fuel and GHG savings! 

Since our April 2014 purchase of the car, we are on track to travel about 20,000 km/year, which at Ontario prices of approximately $0.15/kWh, will be about $430 per year for electricity.  Of course, at the moment, there are a few free chargers here and there, so we have actually spent less, but that will not be a permanent situation.

The other unexpected and slightly weird sensation is that of driving by gas stations, realizing that whole network of business is irrelevant to this car, I even find myself reflexively looking at the missing gas gauge to see if I should be stopping. There is also a reduced sense of guilt I have when driving that has been an unexpected pleasure. Yes, there is an impact to making the LEAF, and mining the battery materials, but I have not found any solid studies that indicate the Leaf has a higher environmental impact due to these issues once life cycle issues are accounted for. 

Each year, the Leaf must go for a battery capacity test at a dealer (free for the first three years), where the charging conditions and charge capacity of the battery are assessed for warranty purposes. The only other scheduled maintenance is at FIFTEEN years for the battery/inverter coolant to be replaced and the cabin air filter when it is dirty. Obviously we will need new tires and brake parts before then, but this has to be the lowest annual cost car to own! As in hybrid cars, the brakes do much less friction work and the rotors and pads last a longer time than in conventional cars. Our Prius has 290,000 km with only one set of front pads changed. 

Lithium battery chronological life is of course a big unanswered question, as no mainstream electric cars are over 3 years old.  Some Leaf owners had early battery capacity loss in cars in extremely hot climate conditions, and Nissan has dealt with a number of owners by replacing batteries. I am not aware of any issues with battery capacity loss in more temperate climates. 

We live in Southern Ontario and do not expect any excessive loss of performance in the 8 year battery warranty window. If the worst does occur and we require a new battery at 8 years, we will be back to the same cost as running the Prius, but will still have received the reduced emissions benefits.

If you want to dig deeper into this issue, the website has extensive material about EV batteries. Different manufacturers are using various lithium based battery chemistries, so it will take some years to know with certainty how they behave in the wild.

You might ask why we didn’t buy a range extender vehicle like a Chevy Volt or other EV like a Mitsubishi Miev, in our case it was simply that we needed 5 seats almost every other day due to kids and friend’s transport needs. A Plug in Prius would have needed to run on gas for 50-70% of our daily commute. The Leaf simply offered the lowest life cycle cost with zero emissions and the carrying capacity. The more recently introduced BMW I3 with a range extender would seem to offer the ideal 160 km of EV with gas range extension, but it would have cost over double the LEAF, so no go there for us at the moment. I am also hopeful that a pure EV, with fewer parts and electronics will have fewer long term maintenance issues. I would expect that with a new battery at some point, the pure EV may well last 15-20 years or more. Nissan recently released the Leaf battery price at $5,500 US.

Our Leaf will require about 2900 kWh/year for the 20,000 km of travel we expect each year. To that end we are going to add about 2.4 kW to our existing grid connected PV system so as to offset this consumption. It doesn’t solve the dispatchable power mismatch of the PV and the requirements of the car to be charged generally when the sun is setting or set, but as an overall attempt to be carbon neutral on travel, it is the best we can do until the car can talk to the grid and deliver power when the grid requires it. Maybe that will be in the next EV we buy.

There’s still a vintage sports car in the garage, but it seems more and more to be an object d’art than a useful machine.