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Ricardo Borba estimates his household has saved about $10,700 in gas costs since buying his Nissan Leaf in 2011. (Paulo Lima)
Ricardo Borba estimates his household has saved about $10,700 in gas costs since buying his Nissan Leaf in 2011. (Paulo Lima)

Electric Vehicles

Canada's first Leaf owner remains committed five years on Add to ...

Ricardo Borba, an Ottawa-based employee of IBM, etched his spot in Canadian automotive history when he took delivery of the first Nissan Leaf on Sept. 23, 2011. Back then, his decision appeared to be a great gamble: He would be in uncharted (and at times cold) territory driving the country’s first all-electric Leaf.

But five years and more than 100,000 kilometres later, Borba’s car is still going strong – and so is his commitment to electric vehicles. We asked Borba to reflect on what he’s learned since becoming Canada’s EV pioneer and what his driveway will look like in the future.

When your Leaf arrived, what changes did it force on your routine that you hadn’t anticipated?

The most difficult one was actually the reduced cargo space. We were trading our minivan after 11 years for the Leaf. We ended up installing a roof rack and cargo box and it worked well in the end. We even managed to go camping with the Leaf.

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How much is cold weather to be feared with an EV?

It depends on how long your commute is. If you have lots of range to spare in the summer, you’ll do fine in the winter. But if you’re already tight in the summer, you have to find a way around it.

Being able to charge at work makes a big difference. Even on a regular 120V [Level 1] plug, the eight or nine hours I spend at the office is enough to bring the Leaf back to a full charge. This gives me enough to drive errands in the evening, even on the coldest days, without having to wait for the car to recharge at home.

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Having a garage at home makes a difference. The car doesn’t get so cold overnight, which helps save energy and improve range on your first morning trip. But there are other tricks to extend your range. If you park outside, you can program your charge timer to start later and end around the time you’re ready to leave in the morning. This way the battery remains warm and performs better. You can preheat your cabin from your phone while the car is still plugged in, using energy from the grid instead of your battery. Using low-rolling resistance winter tires, keeping tires well-inflated, brushing snow off the roof to reduce weight and drag and driving more conservatively will all help extend your range.

You’ve had your Leaf for five years. What’s the verdict on whether having an EV has saved you more money than a gas car?

My back-of-the-envelope calculations on how much we save on fuel, oil changes and insurance compared with our previous car, an already economical Toyota Corolla, are simple: You take the number of kilometres you drove and divide by 10. That’s the number of dollars you saved.

We drove 107,000 kilometres on the Leaf in the past five years, which saved us about $10,700. And that’s how much we paid extra for the Leaf compared with a fully loaded Toyota Matrix or Honda Fit at the time. So that difference is already paid off and we continue to save money the more we drive.

For anyone contemplating buying a Leaf today, the payback would be even shorter. The provincial rebate in Ontario has increased from $8,500 to $12,000 for the Leaf. And Ontario is planning to give free electricity overnight for the next four years. You can also get better deals and discounts from Nissan now that we have more EV options on the market.

Battery lifecycle is a big worry for lot of would-be EV drivers. How has your battery fared?

The Leaf has lost 19 per cent of its original capacity. This is close to the original estimate Nissan gave us five years ago. Our Volt, a 2012, is doing much better. It still has the same 10kWh of usable capacity that it had when it was new.

Talk about range anxiety: Do you ever have it?

I had it for the first two or three weeks we owned the Leaf but it went away once I learned what the car can and cannot do. I learned to plan our trips in advance and not to hesitate to take the other car (a plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt) if I wasn’t sure the Leaf was able to do it. So far, I’m yet to get stuck anywhere.

Your son learned to drive on a Leaf. Does that have any special meaning?

Yes, he did all his driving lessons and his test without burning a single drop of fossil fuel. I don’t think he has driven a gas car yet.

You added a used Chevy Volt to your fleet a while back. Why the Volt?

It was to replace my wife’s Corolla. We were looking for a car that wouldn’t burn any gas during her 45-km commute while at the same time allowing us to go on longer trips. The Volt was perfect for that. Last year, we filled up the gas tank in March, drove the whole spring and summer, and only needed to fill it up again in September. We drove for six months and more than 7,000 km with the same tank of gas.

Leaf vs. Volt. Which is better?

Both have pros and cons. The Leaf is pure electric, perfect for a daily commute with almost double the electric range of the Volt. This means more savings and a faster return on investment. On the other hand, the Volt gives you no worries of running out [of fuel]. In terms of long trips, the Volt is a clear winner. But it costs more than the Leaf and always burns gas on cold winter days. That can be very annoying.

Which car do you recommend to people when they ask?

To friends that have two cars in the family, I definitely recommend the Leaf or any other 100 per cent electric, like the Kia Soul EV. For those who only have one car (and can’t afford a Tesla), I recommend the Volt. It’s an electric car in the city but a hybrid on the highway. But these are simple rules of thumb and have exceptions.

You recently ordered a new Tesla Model 3. Does that mean your Leaf will be put out to pasture?

We don’t know yet and still have a couple of years to decide. We’re planning to get the larger battery size on the Model 3 and access to superchargers, meaning we may not need the Volt for long trips any more. The Volt will probably have a higher resale value, so it might be the one to go. Another option is for me to drive the Volt and give the Leaf to my son. We’ll figure it out.

Borba blogs at canadianleaf.wordpress.com. This interview has been condensed and edited.

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