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Nissan Miles: The Battery-Powered Leaf Is Stranding Some of Its Owners

An electric car that runs out of charge is a dead thing indeed, so it's disconcerting to learn that some early owners of the Nissan Leaf are reportedly getting stranded -- after the car's much-heralded high-tech gauges assured them they had miles left on their batteries.

One owner says that he's learned to make allowances for optimistic readings from his Leaf, because such factors as cold weather or a headwind will revise range downward. And some drivers who didn't make such adjustments got into trouble.

Range concerns made real
The MyNissanLeaf.com forum is full of enthusiasm for the car and cheerleading from early adopters, but it also reflects a fair amount of worry about range -- always the Achilles' heel of pure battery cars. An owner in sunny San Diego says his Leaf conked out completely in February after getting off a highway, supposedly with 15 miles to go on his battery.

Another owner and forum visitor in Seattle tried to complete a routine 15-mile journey in moderate weather, with 26 miles of range indicated. He said he found his car's "turtle" indicator coming on and his car slowing to a crawl with five miles to go and "wife and screaming kids" aboard. It stopped dead with two miles left to travel. Nissan sent out technicians who couldn't find anything wrong with the car.

Auto columnist G. Chambers Williams III, reporting for the San Antonio Express-News, found firsthand how bad weather can affect the car's range during a test drive. He had 26.4 miles to drive, with 35 miles to empty showing on the gauge. But it was snowing, with temperatures in the mid-20s. Williams saw the onboard meter repeatedly revise its range estimate downward. By the time he was six miles from home, it was indicating he had eight miles left. "I began getting really nervous," he said. He managed to limp into his driveway, urging the car forward with cries of "You can do it!"

Nissan points out, according to AllCarsElectric.com, that the "miles to empty" indicator (which owners watch closely) is an estimate, not a definitive statement to be relied on as gospel, and the car gives ample warnings when it is ready to lose power.

Nissan miles
The "estimates" change on the fly, so an owner named Josh posted on the forum that he now separates real miles from "Nissan miles." As he writes:

A Nissan mile is the unit that goes down (and up!) on this useless gauge we have in the car. That mile might equal half a real mile, or even .75 real miles, but it is almost never equivalent to a real (or road) mile. My estimates now, with my limited driving time, is that you have to take your Nissan miles, subtract about 10 or even 20-25 miles depending on where you're driving and how many people you're carrying, and THEN you have a real range to talk about.
Cheerleading and complaints
The thing to remember with battery EVs is that everything you do, including playing the CD player, cuts into range. And it's not all in cold weather, though the heater uses so much electricity that temperatures around freezing can be expected to reduce range to 65 miles or so. That was my own experience in a snowy test of the car.

The early experience of Leaf owners is quite likely to be mirrored in the experience of battery car customers generally, because a host of factors, including weather, wind speed (a headwind will compromise range, an owner says), use of accessories (especially the heater or air conditioner) will detract from range. Drivers will learn to recalculate their expectations, and some might get disillusioned from having to worry about whether they'll get where they'll going.

Not many owners yet.. and deliveries are delayed
The pool of Leaf owners is still pretty small, only a few hundred, so the reports are coming from the very first customers. The owner numbers are likely to grow very slowly, as Nissan is experiencing a delivery slowdown. Waiting consumers have been told, "[As] a consequence of the earthquake and tsunami, a delay in the scheduled delivery date of your Nissan Leaf is unavoidable. We will refresh your 'my account' page with delivery updates as they become available."

Leaf customers, including Felix Kramer of CalCars.org (who also owns a Chevy Volt) have told me they've regularly gotten more than 80-mile range out of their cars. "I can say with great assurance that these are the best cars I've ever owned!" he said. Kramer lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and Californians in general (and especially the very green ones, living in places where keeping warm in cold weather doesn't require precious kilowatts) are likely to be happiest with their EVs. But if the San Diego owner's experience is typical, even there people may have some issues.

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Photo: Jim Motavalli