Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our Nissan LEAF goes to Meetups, Meetups, Lots of Meetups

One thing about being among the first to own a very new and different kind of car is that you want to show it off and connect with others who share your enthusiasm.  When your car is one of the first affordable electric cars made, you also want to show it off to members of the public who might be interested.  So, in its first four weeks as a member of our family, we and our LEAF have been to lots of get togethers.

Local LEAF Delivery Celebration
Gary G, Gary Hill and his wife Jeanine and I got together at the local Fuddruckers, a terrific burger restaurant, to get our first looks at each others' cars.  They received their cars at Fontana Nissan on consecutive days late in March.  I picked up ours one day later in Costa Mesa.  Omkar and Mark "TRONZ" joined us and Mark brought his very cute kids.

Jeanine organized a formation for the cars and the Hills' proud license plate "IBELEAF" was front and center.

Green Day at Orange Coast College
Mike Walsh joined Elise Ranauro from Connell Nissan at the Orange Coast College Coast Green Day and showed off his blue LEAF along with another one from Connell.  I joined them briefly  to show some support.

Tuesday Car Show at Fuddruckers
Fuddruckers in Lake Forest, Calif. holds a car show every Tuesday afternoon in their parking lot.  People bring all kinds of cars, from Corvettes and 1960s and 1970s muscle cars to Ford Model As from the 1920s and anything else you can think of.  Gary and Jeanine Hill brought their new white LEAF on a whim one day and were surprised that this group of confirmed gear heads was interested in his new EV and they were very respectful as well.

Gary Hill had access to a prototype Toyota Prius Plug In Hybrid last Tuesday and invited us to bring our LEAFs to round out the EV contingent at the Car Show.  Gary G and I brought our cars along and there was a lot of interest from the other car guys and folks who showed up just to enjoy the cars.

Gary Explains Plugging-in at the Fuddruckers Tuesday Car Show

Zero Emissions Conference at the AQMD
A Zero Emissions conference was held last week in Diamond Bar at the Air Quality Management District offices.  I drove our LEAF there to hear the morning session, a panel discussion about zero emission commuter and private vehicles.  Speakers included executives from Nissan, Honda, Metrolink (commuter trains) and Foothill Transportation (bus transport).  I was able to do some Level 1 (110 Volt) charging at the AQMD/SCE solar canopy charging stations.  This was my first public charging experience.  After I unpacked the Level 1 EVSE that was supplied with my LEAF and found the correct plug and circuit breaker, I was in business.  The two hour charge added about seven to ten miles to my driving range.

Two Chevy Volts were also charging, along with some 
Quantum AQMD plug-in hybrid Ford Escape SUVs

I parked my LEAF in front of Foothill Transport's Eco Liner electric bus for a while and I was able to introduce the LEAF to some conference attendees.

San Diego LEAF Gathering in Mira Mesa at Hometown Buffet
I accompanied Gary G on a trip last Saturday morning to San Diego County to join the meetup at Hometown Buffet in Mira Mesa.  A group of about twenty very enthusiastic and active LEAF owners and future owners had a lively breakfast meeting.  About ten LEAFs were on display, including Randy's red LEAF with upgraded sound system.  I had a great time meeting these folks and chatting about their experiences and great ideas.

That's the news from the latest meetups.  More LEAF news, a report on our driving range and other details in my next post.

Friday, April 15, 2011

My Nissan LEAF Review, Two Weeks Into the Journey

After two weeks and 420 miles on our new LEAF, I've found some time to pull together my thoughts about the new EV.

First, I'll summarize my feelings about the car by saying that we're very pleased with it.  The LEAF drives like a real car, accelerating and stopping quickly, accurately and safely, as we expected it to.  The car drives very smoothly and quietly and it feels more luxurious to drive and ride in than it has any right to, one thinks.  Because of its many new technical features, the LEAF is fascinating to get to know and fascinating to use.  And the fact that it runs solely on electricity, and in our case on excess solar power produced by our rooftop solar PV system, continues to be amazing and gratifying to us, especially as we pass by gas stations with their continually rising price signs.

Exterior Styling, Appearance and Impression
I'll be honest, the LEAF doesn't photograph well.  My first impressions when I saw the photos of the car online were that it had a face like a fish and an oddly concave hatch.  It looked a bit like a Prius but with valuable interior space lost to that inward-sloping rear.

But walking around the car, the impression is different.  The scale of the car is larger than it appears in photos, bulked up ten or fifteen percent larger than you'd expect.  The rear hatch area that appears pinched in photos looks more balanced in reality.  The hatch itself is pleasingly curved, very similar to the rear hatch of the larger Murano crossover SUV.  The hatch is nicely inset between the upward sloping tail lights and the bumper, and the hatch handle, which also houses the rear view camera, is interesting to look at and satisfying to grasp.  
The tires are larger and meatier than you'd expect to find on a green machine and the car sits more aggressively on its wheels, as well.  The metallic paint is glossy and appears to be of high quality and the car is nicely detailed.

The headlights are easily the most unusual exterior feature of the car, raised and swept up the fenders in order to guide the air stream around the side mirrors to minimize wind noise inside this very quiet car.  They look very stylish and technical, with jewel-like facets and blue detailing.

The LEAF gives an impression of a beautifully crafted and high quality small car.  

Interior Styling, Space and Comfort

The LEAF has a nice amount of interior space.  The standard (and the only available) light colored interior is inviting, open and roomy, especially in the front.   The front seats are generously sized, comfortable and because of the batteries below the floor, the seating is placed higher above the ground for a great view of the road.  Note, however, that the front corners of the hood are not very visible to the driver and shorter drivers will have trouble judging the placement of the car in parking maneuvers.  The large rear headrests also block rearward vision and are best removed unless in use.  The leg, shoulder and head space are a step above the dimensions you'd expect in a Prius, for example.  However, I'd prefer to have a power seat for the ability to more finely adjust the seatback angle and also an adjustable lower seat surface.  Since I have long legs, I'd also like a slightly longer seat track, and I'd also like to be able to order leather seats.

The feel and movement of the switches and dials can contribute a lot to the perceived quality of a car.  The LEAF comes across well in this regard.  The switches feel solid and nicely damped in their movement especially compared to those in the lower and mid-priced Nissans.

The rear seating area is raised due to the battery placement below the floor.  This puts the rear seating position higher than that of the front seats, sort of a "stadium seating" effect.  This past weekend, we had four adults and a baby seat in the car for a short run to a restaurant.  Everyone, including the baby, felt comfortable and happy with the available space.

The rear storage compartment is shorter and deeper than that of the Prius. It is less useful for carrying bulky items because the length of the floor behind the seats is shorter.  The inset and angled rear hatch intrudes into the vertical space making it harder to accommodate taller items.  Because of a hump behind the rear seats that houses some of the car's electronic features, the rear load floor isn't flat.  But the deep well that is created is spacious enough to carry plenty of luggage or groceries, as well as golf clubs.

Controls and Displays

Designed expressly and exclusively for this first mass produced electric car, the LEAF's display screens are interesting and engaging to look at and full of information.  The upper "eyebrow" display shows the car's speed, a clock and temperature gauge, along with a curved "eco" gauge that responds to gentle acceleration and braking by growing graphical trees.  The main display screen shows the battery temperature and a twelve bar "fuel" (state of charge) gauge and estimated remaining mileage.  In the center of this cluster is an adjustable information display that can show such readings as the time to charge at 120 or 240 volts to either 80% or 100% charge, the average speed and the energy economy of the current trip, in miles/kWh.  There is a Power Meter that arcs across the top of the main display.  This meter shows the current rate of use or regeneration of battery power as a series of "bubbles".

The large, power tilting touch sensitive color center console display houses the gps navigation screen with an image showing the available driving range as target-shaped circles.  This display has multiple functions, including the bluetooth phone and entertainment screens, including XM satellite radio, more detailed energy economy information, the rear view camera (on the upgrade SL model) and the connection to the Carwings communication system that sends car data to Nissan's central computers.
These displays give the interior an appealing and fascinating high tech feel that fits well with the car's cutting edge drive system.  The system also includes voice activation for the navigation and phone systems.  Overall a surprisingly roomy, inviting, comfortable interior with a high seating position for good visibility and great graphics and modern informational displays. 

Driving Impressions

The first surprise for most people is that the LEAF "drives like a real car".  It is just as fast and responsive as any car in its size class.  But because the electric motor's torque is all available at the first push of the accelerator, you find that you can spurt past other cars easily at a traffic light in order to change lanes ahead of them.  Most of the power is concentrated from zero to 50 mph, where it is most useful on city streets and highways.  But the car is very capable of high speed cruising on the freeway.
The car rides like a much larger car.  In fact, the most common impression is that the LEAF feels like a little luxury car because of the quiet and smoothness of the electric drivetrain and the weight and firmly planted feel of the car on the road, as well as the very smooth and highly assisted steering.

As a long time sport coupe driver, I prefer a well balanced car that handles well.  On my favorite local twisty road, the LEAF was fun to drive.  The immediate torque available from the motor, with no transmission to slow down the response, was fun as I accelerated out of corners.  Compared to my previous car, a BMW 3 Series coupe, which is the benchmark in sport sedans, the LEAF rode higher above the road, leaned a bit more in the curves, lacked the BMW's great feel for the road through the steering wheel, but was still quick and fun to drive.  The tires, while made for economy and low rolling resistance, do a surprisingly good job.  About the only thing I find to be a bit disturbing is that the short wheelbase of the LEAF combined with the car's suspension settings and the standard shock absorbers tends to cause it to "bob" down the road over irregularities in the pavement.

Driving Range
Nissan has advertised the range of the LEAF as 100 miles.  That distance, and more, is certainly possible at moderate speeds on flat roads, and probably without using air conditioning.  Driving at 70 mph and above on freeways, driving aggressively, with hills and using the climate control, especially the heater, can cut the driving range down as low as 60 miles.  There is an ECO mode that dampens the throttle response, increases brake regeneration and can add miles to the range.

In our research and planning for the LEAF, we were well aware that the range is limited, and we plan to use the car for most of our local driving on errands, to movies and restaurants, for fun outings, and to visit family and friends.  The car will be charged up each morning at either 80% or 100%, ready for our day's driving.  I expect to be able to drive about 60 miles a day with no problems.  This should be just fine for most of our needs.  For longer drives, trips to LA or San Diego or vacations, we have our Prius hybrid.

The farthest I've driven in a day so far is 68 miles.  But I did some charging at Level 2 (240 volts) at a Nissan dealer halfway through the day, and this added about 20 miles to the available range.  On the most surprisingly short range day, the range display showed 71 miles in the morning, but after an 8 mile trip taking the family out to lunch and a quick 20 mile freeway drive with air conditioning, the range display only showed 21 miles.  That's a reduction of 50 miles of displayed range after driving only 28 miles.  Clearly, the mileage range display can be very misleading and can't be relied upon as your sole measure of available range.  In this case, the fast freeway speeds combined with the use of air conditioning reduced the range significantly.
As an interesting counter example, I recently drove 2.3 miles to a local appointment at a very conservative pace and the mileage display actually went UP four miles by the time I returned.

EDIT Update: We decided to run the LEAF out of power to familiarize ourselves with how it would behave as the batteries ran down.  We were able to drive the LEAF 86.5 miles before the battery was empty.  None of the driving was done on freeways and the climate control was not used.  Some of the driving was aggressive, but most was gentle and the ECO mode was used at times, especially toward the end of the day.

For the most part, I plan to try to keep the last two bars of battery charge, about the last 15 miles, in reserve, just for peace of mind.  If I begin with a full charge, I probably won't want to risk driving more than 65 freeway miles roundtrip.  Local driving at more moderate speeds should give us more range.

More driving impressions and reports about range coming soon.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

April 9, 2011 So Cal LEAF Branch Meetup

Just a quick post to document the latest and one of the best So Cal LEAF Branch meetups at Cerritos Nissan yesterday.

At 53 miles round trip, all freeway miles, this was the longest trip yet for me and my LEAF.  I charged it to 100% for the first time (the usual practice being 80%, recommended by Nissan for longer battery life). The available mileage gauge showed 104 miles as I backed out of the garage in the morning, and I anticipated no range issues at all.  I found it a bit hard to keep my speed below 75 on the freeway, but I managed to do so.  Without using climate control on this cool morning (perhaps 48 F as I left the house, cold for a Southern California spring day), I was surprised to have used five of the 12 bars of battery charge as I arrived at Cerritos Nissan, 26.5 miles from my home starting point.  Gary said that he'd only used four bars in his 10 mile longer drive, and I attribute that to Gary being a much more conservative driver than I am.  I had not planned to do any charging at Cerritos Nissan during the meetup, but since few others needed to charge, I chose to go ahead and do so (thanks Gordon for swapping to allow me to charge).  I added two hours of Level 2 charging during the meeting, which allowed me to fly home easily afterwards, paying no attention to range, and blasting the A/C in the warmer late morning sun.

Garygid leads the discussion

With about 25 attendees and ten LEAFs, this was the largest group so far.  It is great to see the group grow and to see the number of actual LEAFs finally growing, too. Matt (KeiJidosha) also joined us again in his MiniE, all the way from Simi, and gave test drives to some interested group members.

If I have this right, I think the following LEAFs were there, please correct me if I'm wrong:  The blue ones were mwalsh, drleslie, EricH, myself, Gordon and Brian (sorry, I haven't memorized all of the screen names).  The red ones were malloryk and Adrian, and the two Garys, garygid and hill, brought their new white LEAFs.  No silver or black at this particular meet, as Sparky couldn't make it and Robert would have had a long drive in his new silver former-orphan, so he hitched a ride with garygid for part of the way to Cerritos.

Very fun to see such a nice large LEAF lineup, finally

BIG thanks to John Beard and Anne of Cerritos Nissan.  We were welcomed with a catered breakfast, use of the conference room and the charging docks and John is coordinating discounts on LEAF accessories for us.  Garygid asked to have his lithium battery pack checked as a baseline reading, but there was a problem with the connection with the diagnostic test machine, so Gary was content with a car wash and a promise to test it again at a later date.

Gary provided an interesting and useful lecture on EVSE options, focusing on the Ingineer modified unit and various connectors that Gary brought for show and tell.  Gary appeared really comfortable and proficient in the teaching role.  He covered some other recent topics of interest on the MNL forum.

 Kataphn scores a patch cable from Gary for her future modified EVSE

Robert talked about his experience buying an "orphan" LEAF after having called over 20 dealers within a 50 mile radius and finding an orphan at MSRP at one dealer.  This was of particular interest to a very nice couple who joined us for the first time to listen and learn, and who are interested in getting an orphan, too.

As more of us take delivery of our LEAFs and interest grows as the cars are seen on the streets and in the news, I'm sure that the group will grow steadily.  We might need a hotel ballroom some day.

Here are some more pictures from Saturday:

mwalsh, malloryk and Gordon

Kataphn learning about the 12V battery disconnect from garygid

The group with our hosts John Beard in the center and Anne to the right with Gary

Adrian's plate

hill's plate