One Year with a Nissan LEAF: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As you might have read back in January, I bought a Nissan LEAF one year ago today. You can read all the details here about the process, how the car works, and what I like about it. Since electric vehicles are still a novelty, and I love talking about green technology, here is an update.

The Good

My LEAF is still a blast to drive. Compared to my Honda Fit, it’s a hotrod. If I floor it to merge with traffic, it will MOVE. The Bose sound system rocks, the best car audio system I’ve ever owned. The heated steering wheel has permanently spoiled me.

More importantly, I’ve driven a full year and over 15,000 miles in a purely electric vehicle, keeping nearly 10,000 lbs of CO2 plus some poisonous gasses like carbon monoxide out of the air. I’ve saved about 450 gallons of gas compared to my fuel-efficient Fit. Adding in the cost of the electricity I used, my LEAF saved me about $600 in fuel costs.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the LEAF also comes with some downsides that I hadn’t fully anticipated. First, to save either money or weight, Nissan chose not to provide a spare tire. They did the same for our Nissan Rogue with the third row, but they mitigated the risk by including run-flat tires. For the LEAF, instead of run-flat tires, they provide a cheesy tire repair kit with some sealant and a pump. Ehhhhh, okay.

One February night, I was driving to work and heard a loud bang on Loop 12. My tire warning light came on, and the car started to shimmy. My left front tire had gone flat. I pulled off the road, broke open the tire repair kit, and tried to fix it. After 10-15 minutes of waiting, it became clear that for whatever reason, this kit wasn’t going to air up the tire as advertised. It added a bit of air, but not enough to fully inflate it. Still over 5 miles from work and determined to get there as soon as possible, I drove very slowly the rest of the way, hoping it would make it. Smoke began to waft up from the tire in the last mile. By the time I arrived, the tire had melted.

Nissan Roadside Assistance towed me to the closest Nissan dealer the next morning after my shift. Miraculously, I hadn’t destroyed the wheel. I decided to replace all four nearly new tires with Bridgestone run-flats, similar to the ones on our Rogue. The service people thought I was a little crazy for replacing tires with only 2000 miles on them, but since Nissan hadn’t chosen to give me a spare, the run-flats were the only option for me, at a cost of nearly $800.

If that had been the only problem with my LEAF, it could be excused. However, my battery had a surprise for me, as well.

The Ugly

There are two types of pure electric vehicles (EVs). One type has an active cooling system for the battery. Teslas and the new Chevy Bolt are good examples. Heat is the enemy of a lithium-ion battery like this, and the cooling system does a good job keeping the battery healthy and preserving its capacity. I’ve heard that some higher-mileage Teslas lost only 5-10 percent of their capacity after 100,000 miles.

The other type does NOT have an active cooling system. The LEAF is the most prominent example. Many LEAF owners, particularly in warm climates like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, report unusually rapid battery degradation. I’d heard a bit about this phenomenon, but understood that the more recent LEAFS had a new type of battery (the “lizard battery”) that handles heat much better.

Apparently, I was wrong.

I won’t bore you with the details (write me through my contact page if you’re an EV junkie and want all my LeafSpy stats), but after just over 15,000 miles, I’ve already lost 15-20 percent of my capacity. I’m losing over 1 percent of my range for every 1,000 miles that I drive. Brand new, my range was around 105-110 miles with a full charge. Now it’s 85-90 miles after only one year. At this rate, by the time I reach 40,000 miles, my range will be down to 60-65 miles. With a 50+ mile commute, that will feel a little tight.

Fortunately, Nissan offers a generous warranty against battery capacity loss. They will repair or (more typically) replace my 30 kWh battery if I lose 4 capacity bars within 8 years or 100,000 miles. At my current rate, they’ll owe me a new battery sometime in 2019 after 35,000-40,000 miles. Numerous other LEAF owners, especially ones with the larger 30 kWh battery like mine, are experiencing rapid battery degradation, some much worse than mine. So there seems to be a fundamental flaw with the LEAF’s engineering, but at least Nissan seems to be good about honoring the warranty.

At this point, I haven’t decided what to do. The battery decay disappoints me greatly. I really, really wanted to love this car. With a stable battery and better range, I would. But I’m already considering how and when to replace my LEAF and kicking myself for not holding out for my reserved Tesla Model 3. Right now I’m leaning toward trading my LEAF in for a Chevy Bolt sometime in late 2018 or 2019.

If you’re considering an EV, please don’t be discouraged. The concept works. However, I urge you to consider ONLY those EVs that have an active cooling system for the battery.