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Living with the Leaf, Part 4: Spring sees a budding improvement in range

The Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt.

Michael Bettencourt/michael bettencourt The Globe and Mail

2012 Nissan Leaf owner's log

  • Electricity used in March: 148.3 kWh (153.876 adj.)
  • Current mileage: 3,046 km
  • Total cost of electricity for March: (est.) $30.32; (updated February: $33.97)
  • Average cost per 100 km: (est.) $2.48 ($0.02477/km)
  • Observed maximum March range: 102 km
  • Estimated maximum March range: 140 km

Extra warm temperatures in March prompted extra warm feelings for our all-electric Nissan Leaf, as we watched our range jump up, our electricity usage (and therefore costs) go down, and gas prices continue to climb. We could now leave the Leaf parked in our driveway for two or three nights in a row, unplugged, without worrying about running out of juice for the next day's commute and errands.

This became especially handy when the Green Goddess fractured her left foot. She needed to wear a big ski boot-like brace for six weeks. In our relatively narrow single-car garage, this made squeezing out the door from the driver's seat a little tough, so leaving the Leaf outside was a welcome option.

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Granted, that meant that we stuck with 100 per cent charges every night. Nissan says this is fine for the battery, but may degrade its longevity over time. Instead, they recommend charging to 80 per cent.

With the warming temperatures, it was nice to see a full charge promise 160+ km regularly – even 181 km one morning!

We had no battery-depleting, nail-biting close calls this month. Our furthest observed distance on a charge was just over 100 km, and two bars left on the display promised another 44 km. We wanted to keep going, but suspected we'd need more than that the following day.

Meanwhile, excited tales of 140+ km drives started appearing online from Canadian Leaf owners, many of whom also received their Leafs in the depths of winter. As usual, how fast you drive make a huge difference to the overall range, with max range coming from folks who rarely strayed over 90 km/h.

Among Leaf owners, you're an aggressive driver if you do 120 km/h on the highway with the heat on. Not sure when the Canadian actuarial tables will catch up, but in the U.S., some insurance companies already offer discounts for EV drivers.

As I found out while writing the last Leaf update, driving an electric car also means learning much more about your electricity bill. Toronto Hydro's advertised electricity rates were used for the Leaf's energy consumption calculations, but these rates did not include HST and other special charges on Toronto Hydro bills – for example, a debt retirement and regulatory charges, among others. These charges are added to Toronto Hydro's stated off-peak, mid-peak and peak electricity prices of 6.7, 9.2 and 10.8 cents, respectively, making the actual prices currently closer to 12.1, 15.5 and 17.3 cents per kWh.

For this month's figures, these other costs, delivery fees and taxes have been added, to make costs as representative as possible. The figures also include the Ontario Clean Energy Benefit (the 10 per cent McGuinty discount) that's applied to all Ontario electricity bills, a discount set to run until Jan. 1, 2016.

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As announced in the recent Ontario budget, if your household or business uses over 3,000 kWh a month, you'll lose that 10 per cent discount on energy over that threshold. But even though we plugged in the Leaf regularly for my wife's normal commuting – in addition to a Chevrolet Volt press car that I tried to run exclusively on electricity for a week and our normal home rates – we still didn't surpass the 1,500 kWh mark for the month.

On a percentage basis, over the past three months, the Leaf has added between 21 and 24 per cent to our overall electricity bill. We're expecting that number to drop in the spring and fall, and are curious to find out whether A/C degrades range in the summer as much as heat does in the winter.

What that Volt press car unfortunately did was slightly inflate the electricity cost figures above, as someone forgot to leave the 110V plug-in connector in it, so we had to plug it in using our wall-mounted 220V EVSE.

Sure, to keep our Leaf electricity cost calculations pure, we could have run the Volt on just (premium) fuel. But if you're going to drive a Volt, or any plug-in car, the 80 to 90 per cent savings on fuel when running on electricity is hard to ignore.

We actually looked closely at buying the Volt at the same time we looked into the Leaf, and put ourselves on the waiting lists for both well before they came out. Both my wife and I preferred the Volt's powertrain flexibility: that meant no range issues to worry about, thought there were still lots of savings to be had with regular charging, and it didn't even seem that difficult to plug it into a regular wall outlet – potentially saving thousands in EVSE installation costs.

The packaging of the Volt's batteries and engine combination is what didn't work for us; we needed the fifth seat in the back, even if we didn't use it often. The sloping hatchback seemed to cut into cargo room, as did the higher floor necessitated by the gas tank lurking underneath.

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On the other hand, the Leaf's interior seemed more futuristic, as did its overall slick integration with the standard navi system as a pure electric car, not a Cruze converted for EV duty.

We knew there'd be times we couldn't take the Leaf as far as we wanted due to a lack of range and public charging infrastructure. But the Volt seemed a convenient automotive bridge to the future, while the Leaf felt like the future itself.

So it was interesting to compare the two now back-to-back, after living with the Leaf for three months, to see if our feelings had changed. After a full charge, the Volt's battery offered 55 km of stated battery range over the last week of March, with about 0 degree temperatures in the morning, though we saw closer to 30 to 40 km of battery range with normal driving.

My dentist loves his Volt, and hasn't put any gas in it since picking it up in November. And I can see why. Compared directly to our fully loaded Leaf, it has useful front and rear parking sensors and a handier plug door button, and a slightly quicker to warm (but noisier) heater.

On the down side, the lack of a quick HVAC on/off button means the climate system tends to stay on longer, hurting pure electric range. The driver's side fender plug meant that my 25 foot EVSE cord was a shade too short to reach it while parked in the driveway.

But even the Green Goddess did enjoy the extra confidence of being able to drive anywhere without having to Google Map any destination to make sure we have enough power.

That said, the Volt seems to enjoy staying in its own part of town, with highway driving quickly evaporating that pure battery range. Highway driving also saps the Leaf's battery quicker than regen-heavy city driving, but with a much larger battery and no internal combustion engine, transmission, exhaust system, gas tank and more to lug around, the Leaf is a more elegantly simple solution.

The Green Goddess even had an unexpected sampling of the Leaf's emergency handling this month, when she had to swerve quickly out of the way of a Bobcat that fell off a flatbed truck just after merging onto the highway, at about 90 km/h.

After wrenching the wheel and the car over to the centre lane, she barely remembers seeing it whizz by her passenger side window – though she clearly recalls the shower of sparks it caused hitting the highway in front of her at speed.

It was a bonding moment for her and the Leaf. A dangerous situation in which the Leaf, its low centre of gravity, decently grippy tires and her own quick reaction combined to save the day. And it provided an important reminder that a car's worth, electric or otherwise, is not all about how much money it can save you.

Still, low operating costs are a clear draw for EVs, especially since they all cost more up front than gas cars of a similar size.

The aforementioned Ontario budget also announced that cuts are coming to its EV program, although at this point the government has not specified whether the maximum rebate amounts will be reduced, if the total number of rebates available will be scaled back, if plans for public EV charging stations will be delayed or reduced or if the province is planning a combination of all three measures. The incentives are still listed on the government's websites, so if you're contemplating a plug-in purchase of any kind, you may wish to act sooner rather than later to get this full rebate, just in case.

  • For part 1 of the series, click here.
  • For part 2, click here.
  • For part 3, click here.

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