What’s it like driving the electric Leaf?
In a previous post I talked about why we like driving the Leaf. But what if you got to jump into the driver’s seat of an electric car? Would you be able to drive it? Would it be as confusing as a fighter jet?
There are a few things which would be unfamiliar but you’d get the hang of them in no time. Here’s a primer so you can be confident on your first drive. My pictures and examples are, of course, based on the Leaf but once you understand these you’ll be able to quickly figure them out on other EVs.
If you’re going to drive then first you need to fuel up. In the EV world that means charging. Here is the charger on the wall of our garage.
You can kinda see towards the bottom of the picture how it’s plugged into a 50 amp NEMA 14-50 outlet (e.g. like a stove outlet) which we had an electrician install. The charger has no buttons or controls but has a few lights to indicate whether it has power, is in use or has a basic problem (it never has). We also have a portable 110 volt trickle charger which came with the Leaf. Just like the wall mounted charger it has no controls, it just needs to be plugged in.
Both chargers use the standard J1772 plug (pictured) to connect to the car. Most North American EVs use the same plug. Very easy to use, push it into the car’s charging port until it clicks; to remove press and hold the release button with your thumb and pull.
Here is the charging outlet in the nose of the Leaf.
The cover pops open just like the fuel tank cover on your gas car. There are actually two outlets under the cover. The orange covered one on the right is for the J1772 plug. This gets used 99% of the time. The outlet on the left is for a CHADeMO plug which is used for fast charging (80% charge in less than 30 minutes). There are only two CHADeMO fast chargers in Atlantic Canada at this point so we rarely get to use this outlet.
All of the charging connections are “smart”. The charging power is not turned on until the car tells the charger that it’s ready to charge. The car actually has a conversation with the charger after the plug is plugged in and before the charger sends power down the cord to the car. The car tells the charger whether it wants to charge and, if so, how much power to send. When the plug is removed from the car the conversation gets cut off so the charger automatically turns off the power. Very safe!
The dashboard has lots of information but no matter what I’m driving I primarily want to know two pieces of information: how fast I’m going and how much fuel I have left. The speed is displayed in digits in the center of the top area, currently showing 0 k/h. (Sorry for the fuzzy picture. The display is actually very sharp and clear.)
The amount of charge remaining is displayed on the right side in blue horizontal bars. When I snapped this picture eight of the twelve blue bars were lit so the battery is about two thirds full.
Of course, as a seasoned driver you may want to know a bit more about what’s going on. Here are some of the more interesting tidbits which are displayed in the above photo.
- Battery Temperature. A gas car shows you the temperature of the motor. The Leaf display shows you the temperature of the battery in horizontal blue bars at the left side. The battery heats up when it is used and when it is charged. If used heavily or charged quickly it can heat up a lot. The car is smart enough to prevent heat from causing damage but it’s best to keep your battery in a moderate heat range (3-6 bars) if you can.
- Power Indicator. The power indicator is a series of circles running from left to right: four green then one white then nine blue. The quicker you accelerate the more blue circles become highlighted. The faster you slow down using regenerative braking the more green circles get highlighted. So it’s a visual reminder of how much charge you’re burning through by stomping the accelerator and how much charge you’re restoring when you slow down. It can be handy when you’re trying to drive conservatively to increase your mileage.
- Charge Level. In addition to the charge indicator on the right side the driver can also see the percent charge left on the battery. Basically the lower the charge the more interested you are in exactly how much is left. The center of the display currently shows the battery is at 65% (although it’s hard to read due to picture quality).
- Range Projection. In a short range car it’s nice to know how many more kilometers you can drive before you run out of charge. The car uses the mileage of your last five trips and the amount of charge remaining to display an estimate of the remaining range on the right side next to the charge indicator bars. It’s currently at 86 km. It can be useful but best to take this number with a grain of salt. Some Leaf drivers call this the Guess-o-meter.
Steering wheel, accelerator pedal, brake pedal, etc., the basics are all what you’d expect with one minor exception: the stick shift. All of the other stick shifts I’ve used stayed in the spot where I moved them.
This one moves back to the same upright position every time you use it. It initially feels a little weird so check out the shifting before you start driving. It feels natural to us now but I’m still not sure why Nissan chose this design.
Once you’re on the road, the smooth, quiet acceleration will take no getting used to at all. It’s immediate, consistent and predictable. The one thing which did take some practice to use well was regenerative braking.
When you remove your foot from the accelerator pedal of a gas car with an automatic transmission, the car slows down because you’re feeding less gas into the engine. When you do this in an EV, it slows down because it’s using the forward motion to charge the battery a bit. So a gas car uses less gas when slowing down but the Leaf actually recovers energy and puts it back into the battery!
So what does this have to do with driving the Leaf? So far we’re in “Drive” and it’s just feels like slowing down in a gas car. There is another gear in the Leaf called “B”. Not sure B stands for (Best? Bad-ass?) but it works just like Drive except when you release the accelerator pedal the you slow down much more quickly than in Drive.
After using “B” for awhile, we discovered that we were doing much of our braking without using the brake pedal. It’s a little hard to describe but having to move you foot to the brake pedal so much less is similar to the relief you get from using cruise control on a long highway drive: doesn’t seem like much on paper but I don’t want to drive a car without cruise control either.
Clear as mud? Well, experience it by test driving an EV or ask a friend to let you try out theirs. It’s a great feature. In addition to making the Leaf even more fun to drive, it extends the range of the Leaf and extends the life of the brake pads for several years! I hope you try it.
So now you know what you need to know to drive an electric car. Piece of cake. Get out and try one. As I’ve said before, once you go electric you’ll never go back!