Giving up gasoline sounds great, but by the time you find yourself rewiring your home electrical system, your initial excitement might begin to wane.
I recently spent a week testing the all-electric Nissan LEAF and for much of that time I was thinking about how I could possibly change my habits and go electric. An all-electric car is clearly appealing, if for the energy savings alone, but there’s more to driving on electricity than simply buying the car.
Although Nissan’s LEAF surprised me with how much it drives and feels like a normal car, it remains an all-electric, plug-in automobile and ownership isn’t for everyone.
For one thing, the maximum range is 160 kilometres, limiting it to buyers who live in urban areas. Driving a LEAF daily and, in particular, charging the LEAF brings its own set of considerations. In my case, my garage does have electricity, but only 120V and, as I mentioned in my review, this meant a full charge would take 16 hours.
On one occasion, my Sympatico.ca Autos editor returned the LEAF to my garage with just 20 kilometres of range. So, between charging it overnight and throughout the next day (a day when I wasn’t behind the wheel of the LEAF), it took a full 24 hours to get the car back to a full-charge state. With an all-electric car you’re always tethered to your electrical outlet, whether you like it or not.
So how does an electric work?
Unlike hybrids or Chevrolet’s Volt plug-in, which have some form of power from gasoline, the LEAF is exclusively an electric car. If you could pull the body off the LEAF’s chassis, you’d find a gigantic series of batteries connected up to an electric motor, which turns the wheels.
But, just like on your cellphone, those batteries need to be charged. Think of electricity as gasoline for the LEAF. When it runs out, you’re stuck. Instead of filling up at the pumps every week or so, you need to plug the car in every night. If you forget to charge the car, you may not make it to work the next morning.
To help buyers understand the ins and outs of plug-in ownership, Nissan takes an active role in LEAF sales. Instead of selling these unique vehicles to any Tom, Dick or Harriet, Nissan has developed a process to help potential buyers acquire their LEAFs.
In an interview, chief marketing manager for Nissan LEAF, Neetika Sathe, called this the “LEAF Customer Journey” and while the cynic in me chuckles at the name, it’s a necessary part of the process of becoming a plug-in owner. Sathe told me, “The process is all about helping the customer make the right decision.” Okay, this is all sounding a bit scary now. You just wanted a car, right? Stay with me here.
For the LEAF, Nissan has broken the traditional sales model and works with buyers directly for much of the process. (Instead of relying solely on dealers.) Interested customers are asked to register on the LEAF website. Since the number of LEAFs available to Canadians is limited to just 40 in 2011 and only 600 for 2012, LEAF “hand raisers” are selected for a reservation by their proximity to a LEAF-certified Nissan dealer.
Approved dealers are located in Greater Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Greater Toronto, Ottawa, Greater Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax.
“Reservation fee and assessment”
Once selected, a buyer is asked to send a refundable $99 reservation fee to Nissan and it’s here that the process gets serious. Buyers are then asked to book an electrical assessment at their home with Nissan’s installation partner, AeroVironment, who charges a $100 fee for the assessment.
If you don’t have one already, you’ll need a heavy-duty 240V outlets. Charging from a 120V outlet takes 16 hours, and that’s simply not practical. The 240V cuts charging time in half, to just seven hours. It’s that brief, overnight charging time that really makes the LEAF usable for owners.
That $100 assessment fee you paid to AeroVironment is credited against the purchase and installation of a Level II 240V charging station, if you buy it from them, of course.
All told, AeroVironment says the cost of the charger and its basic installation will total about $2,400. For the do-it-yourselfers, Nissan will sell you a Level II charger on its own for $900, but this isn’t something you should mess around with. Since I’m lucky enough to have an electrician in the family, I wouldn’t hesitate to go the DIY route with the charger.
But what if you don’t have a garage in which to even install one of these chargers? Well, you’re basically out of luck. Practically speaking, you really do need a garage with a 240V outlet to even consider going electric.
The electrical connectors between the LEAF and the Level II charger are weatherproof and the LEAF will certainly operate in the cold, but it’s extreme cold that’s the problem. Sathe said ambient temperatures of -20C or less will reduce your range in a meaningful way (we’ll hopefully report back with some hard data after some deep winter testing with the LEAF). Nissan says a garage isn’t mandatory, but realistically it’s the only way to go with a plug-in.
Once a customer has scheduled their electrical assessment, they are invited to order their LEAF. At this point in the process, the LEAF buyer will have their first contact with a Nissan dealer and will request a quote.
As soon as the buyer has accepted the quote, they will be given an approximate delivery date for their LEAF. Sathe said that typical dealer negotiations are absent from the LEAF purchase process. The cars are sold at the retail price only. After all of this, you can finally pick up you new plug-in and bring it home.
While this process is much more involved than buying a traditional internal-combustion automobile, it illustrates the need for education and Nissan seems to be on the right path.
With more plug-ins on the horizon, manufacturers have an obligation to educate their customers because living with an electric isn’t all green meadows and butterflies. It requires an understanding of the limitations of these types of cars and the practical considerations of installing a charging station-before you buy.