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Jun 12, 2013

Me and My iCar


One RMI staffer’s journey to the Nissan LEAF

I split up with my 2001 Subaru Forester. Perhaps I should say it split up with me. At the mature end of its life with 106,000 miles under its belt(s), its “weak” head gasket caused the heater core to crack. Without a major overhaul, I would soon end up with a lapful of hot glycol and no ride home.

I’d been supporting its gas habit for years, spending over $10,000 at the pump. These regular expenditures mounted up so slowly I hardly paid any attention. It was fast to warm up and good in snow. It wasn’t good looking but was always dependable. But it showed its age in the last few years. I spent thousands to keep it going. But with a $2,000 repair bill looming, I had to face facts. It was time to move on.

I started looking around. I talked to friends and family to see if they knew of any models that might work for me. Based on my needs and likes, the Honda Fit and Toyota Prius came recommended. I took a look at both of them. The Fit reminded me of an early love affair I had with a 1970s Volkswagen Bug. The Prius offered a more sophisticated ride. But I just couldn’t make a commitment.

On a whim, I stopped by the Nissan dealership. I liked what I saw. Within minutes, I was test driving my first electric car, the LEAF. I didn’t know what to expect. Would I need to “ride” in the bike lane? But it wasn’t anything like that. It was smooth, it was quiet, and it was fun!

What about costs? I’ve got a strong frugal side. New cars can rapidly depreciate. Yet trying to find a used, affordable one that I could trust to perform … it seemed like such a lot of work. My heart wasn’t in it. Yet a new electric car might have double-whammy depreciation. It could incur the quick two-year, 30-percent value reduction typical of new cars. Its value might also be impacted by ever-improving battery technology. Longer-range, faster-charging batteries could outdate current models, making depreciation even more rapid. The Nissan dealership manager suggested I consider leasing, explaining that they were currently running a very attractive offer for the 2012 LEAF. And if battery technology advanced, as I feared it might, the dealership—not I—would ultimately own the car.

I had never leased a car before but the financing terms seemed reasonable. I got all the data, went home, and ran the numbers. For the 2012 SL LEAF, the offer required $1360 up front to cover fees and taxes and $260 a month for 2 years. The deal accounted for the $7500 federal tax credit and an additional $2650 rebate from Nissan. It did not include a Colorado state tax credit for alternative fuel vehicles, which for me knocked off about another $1000. The numbers were compelling. And after 2-years, I could walk away free and clear, ready to take on the next new, leaner, cleaner model.

For reference, I compared the LEAF’s lease terms to that offered by my local Honda dealership for the gas-powered, fuel-efficient Fit. As attractive as the LEAF was looking, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Perhaps a car such as the Fit might give it a run for its money.

The Fit retailed for $16,915, less than half the LEAF’s sticker price north of $38,000. With the same amount down as the LEAF offer, the monthly fee for the Fit came to $364.

And what about fuel costs? The U.S. EPA reports the combined mileage rating for the LEAF is 34 kWh/100 miles or 99 MPGe. The 2013 Fit has a combined rating of 31 MPG. Based on electric costs of $0.08/kWh, gas costs of $3.50/gallon, and driving 7000 miles in a year (my average), I would pay about $190/year to plug in the LEAF or $790/year to fill up the Fit.

With the LEAF, I’d save about $100 a month on the lease terms and about $600 a year on fuel.

I checked the difference in emissions using an online calculator. The national average reduction in emissions is about 40 percent switching from an internal combustion engine car to an EV. However, in Boulder our electrical generation has a high percent of coal-fired plants, which reduces the savings to 25 percent. Yet RMI and my household both subscribe to a voluntary renewable energy program, “Windsource,” offered through our local utility, Xcel Energy. By paying a small additional premium, our electric supply is attributed to a Colorado-based PV or wind farm. All things considered, opting for the LEAF would put me on a sustainable path without too much out of pocket.

But going with something so new and different would really mean a change. Was it right for me? Would it fit my lifestyle?

I did some online research to discern the subtleties of owning an electric car. The LEAF has an engine power of 80 kWs, which is nearly equivalent to the Honda Fit’s 117 horsepower or 87 kWs. Did I say I used to drive a Beetle and liked it? No problem. But unlike my Bug, the LEAF has full-load torque at low speed, which makes it very responsive. The LEAF’s 2011/2012 EPA rated range is 73 miles. That’s like always driving with the gas-low light on—no doubt I’d need to plan ahead. Or would I? My round-trip route between home and work is 15 miles. One day a week, I act as “soccer mom” and cover 40 miles transporting my kids between school, activities, and home. My day-to-day schedule should work within the range restrictions.

And what about the shopping, social, and travel expeditions that can take me far and wide? My husband drives our mini-van. It is well equipped with winter tires, a big roof box, and mountable bike rack. It is the camp-and-go, see-and-ski vehicle that can handle our family road trips in every season. Would he be willing to share? To my surprise, he readily agreed. It took weeks for us to negotiate the color to paint the master bath but only a few words to sanction this arrangement. If only paint came in shades of technological innovation!

A main consideration was charging. The 2012 model requires about twice the charging time as the 2013 model. But the lease offer for the 2012 was about $80 less a month. To get the more affordable 2012, I would need to work within its constraints to accommodate a dead-to-full charge time of 24 hours on a regular 120-volt plug-in or 7 hours on a type-2, 220-volt station. Fortunately, we have a type-2 charge station at RMI’s Boulder office. While staying parked for hours in one place initially seemed like a hindrance, it could actually provide added value. It would ensure me a parking spot in a small, cramped lot.

I went back to the dealership to learn more. The numbers were enough to motivate me but the added amenities are what sold me. Car models have really changed since 2001. No doubt, the LEAF is setting a new standard, at least for me. My old console showcased a cassette player. The LEAF console is a mini-computer monitor that provides back-side camera views, talking GPS, AM/FM/XM radio, smartphone Bluetooth connection, and a full menu of car performance screens. There’s even Nissan’s “Carwings,” a smartphone app that allows me to check in on the car, pre-heat/-cool, and perform scheduled charging to take advantage of time-of-day rates. I was sold. I’d done the car research equivalent of hiring a private investigator to vet my would-be husband, and finally I was ready to commit.

It’s been three months now since we’ve been driving together. Electric cars won’t work for everyone, but for me and my situation, the LEAF works fine. Still, I’ve come to appreciate the term “guess-o-meter” for the predicted range display value. Mileage will vary—particularly over Colorado’s varied terrain and ambient temperatures.

I never thought about myself as being an early adopter of new technologies. Yet in reflecting about my consumer choices, I have latched on to new products that are well designed, including the iPhone and iPad. As a matter of fact, this car just seems like a natural evolution of the “i” trend. Like the iPhone, I didn’t know I “needed” it until I tried it.

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Showing 1-10 of 10 comments

June 13, 2013

You are lucky that you have a charging station at RMI. I looked at the cost of installing a charging station in my garage (next to my SunnyBoy) and it nixed the deal for me. Well, it also might have had something to do with not being able to evict my wife's car from our single-car (+scooter) garage.

June 14, 2013

Really nice writing Ellen. Can't wait to hear the 2 year update!

June 14, 2013


Did you see that just last month (May 2013) Bosch introduced a level 2 charger that starts at $450? That's roughly half the cost of other home level 2 chargers you can find at places such as Home Depot, where a Legrand version retails for about $750 and a GE version retails for about $850.


Peter Bronski
Editorial Director

June 17, 2013

Hello Dr. Ellen:
I enjoyed your article. I've been driving my 2012 Leaf about 16 months and love the car! The first year, I drove about 9,500 miles and did 98% of my recharging using the 120 volt system in my garage. My daily work commute is about 18 miles and even with lunchtime erronds and evening trips, range and recharge time are almost never an issue. Our other car is a Toyota that we use for cross country driving. Sure, I could have driven more miles with a $3,000 level 2 recharger installed by the Nissan subcontractor, but I too wanted to be flexible with evolving technology; vehicel to home, which is already available in Japan (power your home with teh car's battery if the grid is down), and vehicle-to-grid, when that technology becomes available. So far, it was a good decision.

June 17, 2013

I, too, have "a strong frugal side". I joined my local EV club (Sacrament0) in 1983, going to meeting once a month to determine if owning an EV would be practical. I am still waiting. I do the math. The math shows me that the battery technology is NOT mature.

Also, I have never bought a car on time. The best buys are slightly used cars. The next best are new. If you can't afford to pay cash, you can't afford to buy. DO THE MATH. The interest will kill you.

June 20, 2013

Two websites to visit for the Nissan LEAF driver: mynissanleaf.com (very active forum for LEAF drivers) and evseupgrade.com (converts the 110V EVSE a.k.a. charger to 240V so that it can charge from, for example, a dryer or RV campground outlet).

We have two LEAFs - with our teens doing lots of round trips of up to 58 miles each the LEAFs are perfect for the job and save us tons of money.

June 23, 2013

I am not sure did you get the 2012 or 2013?
I was totally impressed at how Nissan Engs expressed gratitude and use info and suggestions proposed by DIY and LEAF owners..I think the $80 premium is worth it. Did you?

June 29, 2013

This is a very good article and I am impressed by the amount of research done by the author. I just want to add a few points.
Vehicle depreciation should not be a concern for anyone who drove their previous vehicle for more than 100,000 miles, unless she was thinking about an EV from a lesser known auto manufacturer like BYD. Such a driver usually sticks with the same car for a decade or more. EVs are just like CFL light bulbs. They are twice as costly initially compared to Incandescent bulbs but the CFL recoup the additional cost within a few months, they last longer, save money, reduce wastage and pollution. EVs are also similar to Electric Golf Carts. Any Golf Course owner who uses them will agree that they last for decades with very little maintenance. Replacing tires and maintaining battery fluids are the only major maintenance for Electric Golf Carts. Leaf doesn't even need battery fluid maintenance. A car like the Leaf will last twice as long as a gasoline car. There is no head gasket which would crack the heater core in the Leaf. All cars depreciate over time, including gasoline cars which get new improvements, better looks, and better mileage every year. So vehicle depreciation is not just an EV issue. Although battery technology improves every year, this doesn't mean the current batteries will become obsolete. As long as they are capable to transporting from point A to point B and back, they are fine. Future batteries may have the range to reach hundreds of miles and back, but not everyone needs that for daily driving. Those batteries will be more suitable for the author's husbands' minivan, campers, trucks and busses. Future EVs will have improved batteries but, will the current federal and state incentives still exist in the future? Solar System incentives have been diminishing with increased usage, so EV incentives may see a similar fate. This may very well be the golden age of EV buying. The lease option is all good but it still makes sense to go for an all out purchase. There an option of Nissan Leaf's 36 month, 0% interest financing. However, the author or any lessee does have the option to purchase the Leaf before the lease expires. Besides the fact that EVs basically require almost no maintenance, lets remember that the expensive battery pack will pay for itself in a few years due to the enormous savings from not purchasing gasoline ever. Just a small scale military skirmish in the middle eastern gulf will send gasoline prices skyrocketing and shorten the time to recoup EV purchase cost. If an EV is purchased and used for a long period of time, just as the author did with her previous car, she would eventually recover her investment and be able to run her EV for longer than her previous gasoline car. I congratulate the author for the intelligent decision to go for an EV.

June 30, 2013

I really enjoyed you article. I especially enjoyed your love of your old "bug". I too had one of those, and the vehicle weight of the early "bug", is about what a fully electric car will have. Of course the volume of a new design will be much greater. Light weight and high volume makes a car safer, as shown in an RMI study. I think that you are wise to lease instead of buy. This will allow you to switch to a fully electric car, when it comes along. What we mean by the fully electric car is explained at the page of our website addressed below.


October 31, 2014

It's too bad that Honda doesn't go ahead with its Fit EV. They've cancelled that vehicle, but it could have put Honda in competition with Nissan for the "low range" EV market.

Anyway, I'm glad you're enjoying the LEAF. When I read the article's title I thought you'd chosen the Mitsubishi "i" which I've heard referred to as the "i car"

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