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On Hybrids & Electrics: 2012 Nissan Leaf (Again!)
By Steven Lang on March 1, 2012

Over the last 5 years, my family has driven various Toyota and Honda hybrids for well over 100,000 miles. A 2003 Civic Hybrid, two Priuses (01 and 05), and a 2001 Honda Insight. The results? About 50 mpg. Lots of complements with the 1st generation Insight in particular, and a driving experience totally devoid of high revs and Baruthian thrusts.

The good news is we’ve saved about $6000 in gas costs. For a family of four that can add up to a lot of alternative forms of excitement. We’re talking long vacations. Cheap cruises. IRA’s and 529′s.

Well OK. These aren’t the types of excitement that truly make an auto enthusiast. But for 98% of the driving that we do, the hybrids have served as a brilliant way to keep us on a better financial path during this nasty recession.

There is a down side to those rosey financials. We still spent well over $6000 in gas. That money will be going, in part, to the Arab dictatorships and the Russian mafia. Not to go too deep into the ideological and religious morass. But as with many of you, I would strongly prefer to minimize our financial and political involvement with these forces.

Enter the Leaf. Can this all too known electric car solve our long-term oil dependence? Or is it a future footnote of automotive history like GM’s EV1?

In Ocean Blue the Nissan Leaf is an absolutely stunning vehicle if you are among the less than 1% of American auto enthusiasts who appreciate a hint of French design.

The Leaf has an almost 2CV-like curvature from the front bumper to the b-pillar, and then the quintessential tucked in rear that many folks associate with modern day French hatchbacks. The front end also has a slight buggy eyed look to it that Renault-Nissan applies in spades (and clubs) to the Nissan Juke. It works well with the Leaf when you see it in person.

To me the Leaf looks nice and subtle compared to the insectozoid exterior designs of the Prius and the bulky proportions of the Volt. As for today’s consumer, most everyone else will look at the Leaf and see a simple Versa hatchback with minor tweaks. The design is still French though. Even if it now takes a Japanese brand name to sell it.


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Sit in the Leaf and you can’t help but smile. The seats feel far more comfortable and svelte than a Volt, Prius, or it’s upscale CT200h sibling. In fact they are practically Volvo-esque in their comfort. Leather and the moden day leatherette derivations have held the sway of luxury for a long time now. But I genuinely enjoyed the velour like feel of the Leaf’s seats. They look average; but on the road they were a pleasant surprise.

You sit higher in the Leaf as well which is a big help when it comes to hybrid ownership. Especially for those who don’t want to ‘fall in’ to their cars each and every time. If you’re looking at keeping a vehicle in the long-run, the need to avoid the constant climbing in and out, and the occasional bonking of your head that comes with it, is well worth considering. My wife loved how the Leaf avoided the fall-in syndrome.

In fact, she loved the Leaf so much that I was given a five minute lecture from her as soon as I got back from the auctions. ”You need to wrap the cord this way Steve! Plus you see this? You see this? (pointing to the plug cover). You can’t leave it out!” For a good two to three minutes I felt like Lucy being lectured by Desi Arnaz in an old ‘I Love Lucy’ rerun. It didn’t last long though. My father used to walk away from unpleasant conversations mid-sentence and I suffer from the same level of tolerance.

The controls are also far more intuitive than any of the competitors for one simple reason. There are far fewer of them. After starting up the vehicle and driving it in eerie silence, it took no more than about five minutes to understand what 90+ % of the buttons did and where to find them. In the 400+ miles I spent with the Leaf the only area of confusion was the occasional popping of the hood instead of the Leaf’s front plug cover.

Okay, the big questions.

1) What’s this vehicles true range?

With a light foot and laid back driving style you’re really looking at around 80 to 90 miles.

2) Is it cheaper to run than a hybrid?

The cheapest hybrid with an automatic transmission also happens to be my 2001 Honda Insight. So let’s do the numbers.

Insight’s cost per mile = $3.50 a gallon / 55 mpg = 6.35 cents per mile

Leaf’s cost per mile = 4.8 miles per kwh = 8.5 cents per kwh / 4.8 = 1.77 cents per mile

Keep in mind that I have a notoriously light foot and my electric rates will differ from yours. But on a per mile basis the Leaf is likely the most economical vehicle of modern times.

3) If I bought a Leaf instead of a Versa, would I ever recoup the price difference?

More than likely not. It depends on where you live. The Leaf’s MSRP is $38.270. 13 states will provide tax credits that can net as high as $5250 along with the Fed’s $7500 federal tax credit. $38,270 – $12,750 = $25, 520

A Versa SL hatchback similarly equipped is available for $20,902 minus a $1,000 cash back = $19,902.

I would conservatively expect a drive-out price of around $18,500 plus tax, tag and title for the Versa. But let’s stick with MSRP’s and incentives as a true measurement of current cost.

Our price differential between the two cars comes to $5618.

Sales tax is wildly variant. In Georgia, my home state, it’s 7%. So that would add about $1279 to the price.

We’re now looking at about a $6900 difference. ($5,618 + $1,279 = $6,894)

Versa annual fuel costs are $1858 according to fuel

Leaf annual fuel costs are $612 according to the same source. So if you drive, 45% highway, 55% city driving, and 15,000 annual miles. the annual gas difference comes to $1246 per year in favor of the Leaf.

$6900 price difference / $1246 gas savings = Appx. 5.5 years.

Insurance may cost more on the Leaf. Versa will have higher maintenance costs. Depreciation may likely be better on the Leaf. But it’s hard to assume all this outright. Just on a swag basis I would expect payback to be around 5.5 years or 83,000 miles if you live in a state that offers tax credits. That is assuming you have a similar sales tax rate and can apply all the federal and state tax returns.

If you can’t then the horizon stretches on to 10 years or 150,000 miles. By that time you have another issue to contend with.

4) Is this battery going to last?

On the Nissan Leaf there is a Long Battery Life setting that will keep the battery charged up to 80% of it’s capacity. Driving style, charging methods (quick vs. slow),and heat will all make your longevity vary.

The unique aspect of the Leaf’s battery is it’s modularity. If a cell goes bad, they can replace that part instead of the whole battery. The bad part is that this can lead to very high costs if Nissan decides to make those modules and the ensuing labor expensive.

Right now Nissan offers an 8 year / 100,000 mile warranty on the battery. Given that the average American car owner is driving a car that is nearly 11 years old and 130,000 miles, I would suspect that a 10 year / 150,000 mile warranty on the battery (like Honda offers on my Insight) would help eliminate a lot of trepidation in the marketplace.

5) Okay, I give up on the numbers. God I hate math! Why should I pick the Leaf?

The Leaf is a good fit if:

1) This will be a second family car and your spouse rarely needs to go outside a 30 mile radius.

2) The daily commute is no more than 60 miles roundtrip.

3) You enjoy being part of a very active community that makes the ownership experience of your car far more interesting than just “commuting and cost”.

4) You’re a single guy that has access to plenty of good public transportation.

5) You have decided that sending money to governments that hate Westerners is not such a bright thing to do.

6) You think the Leaf is cool…. and the Volt and Prius are not.

If you agree with at least 3 of the 6 above, then put the Leaf on your list. Then put down the Volt, CT200h, Prius c, and whatever compact vehicle strikes your fancy. You may be looking for a pure EV, or not. Drive what you like and decide for yourself.

Note: Nissan provided a charging cord, insurance, and the Leaf. For some perverse reason they also decided to provide an Infiniti GX56 following the Leaf’s return.

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