Current electric cars are not for every driver, but if you can be flexible, it’s amazing what you can do in a plug-in vehicle.
I recently test drove a Nissan Leaf. Early that morning, as I drove to the dealer, I got a call. The car we were going to drive didn’t arrive. Would I be willing to go and get one from the other side of the state of Florida?
As I pulled off the I-95 to turn around, I realized opportunity was knocking. My idea of a 30 minute test drive and back to the office was gone. A back roads trek from Tampa back to Orlando in the best-selling electric car on the market was too good to pass up.
Electric cars are different in one major way—longer trips need to be planned. It’s all about range. How far can you get on each charge? Living in Florida, you drive everywhere. It’s a huge state. Brevard County, Florida’s Space Coast, is 72 miles long and it’s common to drive 70 miles to Orlando.
All of a sudden, you have to think… is this trip in the range of my electric? If a Leaf can get you basically 100 miles in a trip, you can start to see the problem. For an East Coast Florida driver, is it even possible to use a Leaf as a daily driver—or is this car a “feel good” second car and never destined for more?
Getting over Range Anxiety
Before my road trip, I would have thought this car will never work for me.
I arrived at Sutherlin Nissan in Orlando and met with my guide, Goering Castro. Goering is not just a sales guy; he’s a Leaf owner and enthusiast. What he taught me was the concept of trip planning. In the electric car world, that means going from charging station to charging station. I do not use the word guide lightly—Goering knows his stuff. Using both the trip computer, what I now consider a necessity in a Leaf, and apps on his iPhone, he planned our route, following a path of least resistance to get us where we needed to be.
Many Nissan dealers have charging stations and the public is welcome to use them for free. Preferential treatment may be extended to Leaf drivers, but to promote Electric you have to play nice with everyone. You’d be amazed at how many other charging stations are out there, some publicized and some known only to the initiated. Knowing the difference between quick charge stations and the slow trickles is important. Some stations are free and others can be accessed for a fee or subscription.
Another important thing to understand is which routes to take. While the interstates seem best, it’s not the case with a plug-in. The faster you go, the less efficient an electric proves to be. And 70 mph on the highways will drain your charge quicker than a slower back road. All this and more was explained to me in easy to understand terms by Goering. And soon we found ourselves in Wesley Chapel, Florida—A sleepy town just north of Metro Tampa.
Planning your Trip
Taking all this information into consideration, we formed a smart plan to get us from our waiting (and charging Leaf) back to Orlando. It’s important to note that quick chargers can really get you going in a short time. 80% charge in 30 minutes is what’s making electrics a reality—and why they are selling in record numbers.
Back to our route, returning on I-4 would cut things too close in terms of range, so we opted for a path north, sticking to mostly 45 mph roads. It’s been years since I’ve been on this side of the state. Taking the roads less traveled, made for a nice scenic ride as well. It was here I really got to feel how great a car the Leaf is.
Ride Quality: Amazing
The ride and suspension are just amazing. It feels much heavier than your typical, smaller import. Solid, it drove more like a 5 Series Bimmer than an Altima.
Braking was more a lesson in not accelerating. When you’re foot is off the ‘gas’, it naturally slows down, and charges the batteries as you do it. Around town, stop and go traffic actually boosts your range. It didn’t take long to get used to how the Leaf slowed down.
As we got closer to our midway point, stopping for red lights was a bonus. I didn’t feel the normal anger at having to stop and go. Just this alone in a driver’s mindset could easily put a smile on your face, though maybe not everyone in traffic behind us.
Point to point navigation allowed us to both locate places to charge up—and then see how we were doing relative to distance and how much juice was left. For our trip, Buffalo Wild Wings in Clermont was the point to get to and we rolled in with many miles to spare.
There are distinct driving strategies for increasing range. I’m no stranger to hyper-miling, so smoother acceleration and a little pre-planning helps. Getting to trust your range and get over your fears that you’ll run out of charge takes getting used to. Goering explained that if you do happen to run out of power, Nissan will send a flatbed tow truck to come get you and bring you back to the nearest dealership. Though an extreme notion, it’s nice to see the folks at Nissan planning for any eventuality, and remove any barriers to owning a Leaf.
We stayed at B-Dubs for a not even an hour, a perfect stop for an early bite. While we could have filled up on free electricity, my guide knew we only needed enough to get to our next destination, back to his dealership. Being efficient with your time like this is an art form and a skill to master. In no time, I’m sure Leaf owners who push the envelope on range know their favorite places to recharge. So with our quick boost, off we went, heading East on Highway 50.
In traffic as we drove through Orlando getting close to rush hour, the Leaf handled very well. Aside from working the brakes to get the most charge, it was normal driving. And before long, we arrived. Our trip completed, we plugged in the shiny red Leaf, and soon the next waiting customer could go for a spin.
My preconceptions about range all shot down, I realized the Leaf was more than a second car. While perfect for my commute, you really can go the distance when you need to. Seeing how a longer trip was done, first-hand, really boosted my confidence. I wouldn’t be afraid to take this across the state—making sure I had the time to take the road less travelled.
To Sum it all up
The Leaf provided a great ride and solid feel, much finer than I expected.
Electric acceleration delivered when you need it and eco mode let you stretch out the range.
Charging was speedy and simple with fast chargers.
I think the Leaf is perfect around town—it’s what the Leaf is made for. And with my 10 mile daily commute, it’s perfect for me. Once you get over range anxiety, it’s an easy choice to make.