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Leaf-ing around Seattle offers a cheap charge

Yes, the electric vehicle is green and cheap to drive, but is it really a car? Our resident motor maven and his family put Nissan's breakthrough EV through a two-day test drive, and found it a bit sad to give back.

The Fikse family's loaner Leaf gets a $2 fill-up: Love the ride, but how come it looks so funny?

The Fikse family's loaner Leaf gets a $2 fill-up: Love the ride, but how come it looks so funny? Matt Fikse

We're still waiting for the jetpacks the future promised us, but another long-awaited mode of transport has finally arrived. You you may have seen (but not heard) the Nissan LEAF gliding around town. This curious-looking hatchback, the first electric vehicle (EV) to be sold by a mainline manufacturer, landed in Seattle and four other cities nearly one year ago. The LEAFs come in peace though they arrived in stealth. But like the fecund Prii before them, they have already begun to multiply. As of last month, Nissan had sold 8,048 of them.

"It's a real car, not a golf cart,” Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn declared when the Leaf was launched. Maybe, but it's also a question mark for drivers accustomed to a century’s worth of dinosaur burners. What's it really like? How does it work? Can it possibly be practical? To answer that, our family visited the local dealership and took the LEAF two-day test drive, putting the car through its driving paces and, more importantly, through its charging paces throughout hilly Seattle. The results were surprising.

It takes a while to master the zen of driving an electric car. At first there is a tendency to obsess over the battery charge indicator and estimated miles remaining. This is heightened by trying to find charging stations. The range on a nearly full charge (we left the house each morning with about 80 miles range, indicated) easily lets one whoosh around town for a full day and get home to charge overnight. Still there is comfort in the idea that one could “battery up” out in the world. Seattle has a miniscule but growing network of electric car charging stations at such sites as city facilities, big box stores, and, charmingly, the parking lots of electrical contractors. The LEAF’s navigation system directs you to the nearest station and updates its database as new ones come online.

When you find a charging station you'll have details to tend to; various providers have different policies and subscription routines. At Blink Network stations, located throughout city, you must have a membership card to swipe. At Charge Point sites you'll dial an 800 number to activate the station, get a free charge, and have a free card mailed for future use. All in all it’s like stopping at Shell and Texaco without being able to use your own debit card or find another station every few blocks. But once you sort it out, you'll enjoy reverse sticker shock; at Seattle’s electric rates, a full "tank" costs less than two bucks, even if you aren't at the always-free Charge Point locations.

Once you have the lay of the charging land and trust the onboard trickle charger (which lets you plug into any 110-volt outlet), you'll ease into EV zen and enjoy the ride. The electric driving experience is extremely pleasant. Electric motors provide more low-end torque than petrol, and it's instant. And the absence of a transmission (a single-gear electric motor does all the adjusting itself means power is quick to arrive, smooth, and continuous. Unlike hybrids, EVs have no computer-mediated on/off dancing back and forth between power sources. So you'll beat every other vehicle off the line at stoplights — a super-charge of guilt-free fun.

Other than the futuristic sound it makes while accelerating, the Leaf is essentially silent. Its exterior beeps when backing up and a rearview camera lets you see what you're about to smoosh in time to change course. At slow forward speeds, a noisemaker in front lets pedestrians know you're approaching even if their heads are turned away.

Did I mention the acceleration? The surging power of electrons is perhaps the best thing about all this. Rocketing up Seattle hills in the Leaf is like a grown-up amusement park ride. Think Wild Mouse, sped way up. Look, there’s the Space Needle! Isn’t the future great?


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

The range is just a little short for rural/suburban use, though that limitation could be mediated if it took a quick charge.

Steve E.

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 10:43 a.m. Inappropriate

In Arizona around Phoenix anyway you can drive a golf cart on city streets where the speed limit is 35 or less. It's a perfect, go to the grocery store, post office, hardware store vehicle. And that law has been in place for years. If we truly wanted to "go green" we'd let folks do that here in WA as well.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Why does the author say, "the results were surprising"? There have been many articles written about the new electric cars, like the Leaf, and they have all benn just like this article. Nothing in this article surprised me, at all.

Electric cars are great. They are just expensive right now, and the battery has too short a range. Both those things will improve over time.

Electric cars are a big part of the future. Along with extremely energy-efficient gasoline, diesel, and natural gas powered cars.

These new cars are far more energy-efficient and cleaner than transit in our area.

Lincoln

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 12:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Never mind the idea of a $32,000 car you can only drive to work and back, the million electric vehicles on America's roads envisioned by the Obama administration will bring America's Soviet-era electric grid to its knees. Ask any electric utility and they'll tell you, adding a charging station for an electric car to any neighborhood is like another house. Say hello to rolling blackouts, boys and girls!

Oh, and while the car may not be emitting any pollutants, the coal-fired generating plants in Longview, WA and Boardman, OR sure are. Only about half of the PNW's electricity comes from hydro (ask the BPA if you don't believe me); the rest from burning fossil fuels.

But @Lincoln is right... efficient vehicles (don't forget scooters) are much greener than transit.

orino

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 12:55 p.m. Inappropriate

I share the author's concern about "coal powered cars." Has a study been done to determine which produces more pollution, a gasoline engine car or an electric car charged from a coal-fired power plant? The disposal of used battery packs could also be an environmental nightmare. But once I see an electric car that can go 200 miles on a charge (air conditioning running), with a battery pack that lasts 200,000 miles, I'll pull out my check book. I'm guessing I've still got at least 10 years to wait.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 1:13 p.m. Inappropriate

What would make this idea work with today's grid? Why it's the power to weight ratio. So lighten the vehicle to it's minimum, two wheels, remove the cab and extra seats, the power steering can go as it's not necessary for the lighter vehicle. Keep the auto transmission but put it in the hub, and what do you have? Why an electric bicycle.

That's the future for a lot of us. It has the right power to weight ratio, similar distance range and way more efficient.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 1:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Aside from, or maybe appropos of, the valid concerns about the pollution created by electricity generating plants and the potential brownouts/blackouts by adding stress to the grid, what I am wondering is how much more every electric rate payer of a given utility will have to pay to construct, maintain, and power the charging stations these vehicles will need.

It seems on first thought that everyone will pay more for electricity in order to support the added demand and concomitant decrease in supply that juicing up these vehicles will create. So, I wonder, is it reasonable to foresee that poor folks who don't even own or use a car will be subsidizing the wealthy who can afford these vehicles by paying higher electrical rates?

mspat

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 3:44 p.m. Inappropriate

If electrical rates are set as they currently are, low usage pays a low rate, and high usage higher rates, the poor who are only using electricity for light, dryers and appliances won't be any more worse off than they are today. In short if done fairly the higher usage people, those with cars, would pay higher rates.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 1:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Before you buy, ask how much it will cost to replace the battery pack when the time comes.

s_calvert

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 6:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Electric cars are great. Using taxpayer money to build charging stations isn't (yes, that's how it's being done). Sadly, this is another example of how us 99% are paying for the profits of the 1%.

fgruben

Posted Sat, Nov 19, 1:32 a.m. Inappropriate

What about heat? Do you rely pretty much on getting it warm before you unplug it? What about if you park somewhere away from a charger then start up again? How much does using the heat decrease the range? Can you keep the windshield from fogging up in wet weather?

Anyone who has driven in Europe must wonder why fossil fueled cars in this country are so dang thirsty. A mini Cooper sold here gets less than 40 mpg, which is just appalling for such a little roller skate. Many European cars get way over 50 mpg. I guess manufacturers must believe Americans can't handle smaller engines. Strange.

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 1:52 p.m. Inappropriate

fgruben: everyone pays for subsidies on the production, transportation and refining of gasoline, whether the drive an EV or ride a bicycle. That's a subsidy which is bad for the environment. What kind of world do you want to live in?

The Sierra Club answers some myths about EVs here (power grid won't collapse, we have the capacity for nighttime charging, even an EV on coal power is cleaner than ordinary gas powered cars, etc): http://www.sierraclub.org/electric-vehicles/myths.aspx

sparklee

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