Leaf Range Test Results

Imagine that your new car gets 20 mpg but has only 4 gallons of fuel tank capacity. You’d have to stop about three or four times more often to refuel, which would be a hassle. You’d probably schedule a routine stop at the gas station – and buy more coffee and donuts – just to be sure of having enough fuel.

Now imagine that it takes several hours to refuel your new car. You’d probably try to make sure your tank was as full as possible before you drove anywhere. But with a battery electric vehicle (BEV), quick-charging and topping off to 100% can reduce the charging capacity of the battery.

So range is important, and manufacturers have tried to reassure people with values near and above 100 miles. Last Spring I attended the DC auto show, where I found a crowd around the Nissan Leaf:

Another thin spokeswoman had been driving a dealer Leaf for the past year in LA, and was telling stories about successfully taking longer trips between cities. I said I’m sure everyone asked about range anxiety, but what was the range? She grimaced and said it really depended. If you were running the heater or AC and other devices, or driving at high speeds on the highway it could be 70 or 80 miles. If you were tooling at low speeds in comfortable weather it could be 130 miles. She had the model with cabin AC before the heated seats, steering wheel, etc. were made standard equipment.

Nissan’s sales site now claims only 68 miles at 49 miles per hour, but 138 miles under ideal conditions. Their quoted range came up repeatedly after Tony Williams published the results of a twelve vehicle range test in Phoenix Arizona. Williams cites a range of 76 to 84 miles at highway speeds, and he and other owners claim that Nissan has been purging previous range claims from internet sites.

A few days after the range test, Williams posted results in a new thread on MyNissanLeaf forum, where debate has raged for months.

Earlier this month, an Australian news agency reported that a Nissan Executive Vice President with specific experience with the LEAF, Mr. Andy Palmer, said that there is “no problem” with the LEAF battery, and that the any customer complaints were merely the result of instrument problems.

In response to this revelation, a group of twelve Nissan LEAFs were independently gathered on Saturday, September 15, 2012 in Phoenix to put this statement to an actual range test; driving a fully charged LEAF in controlled conditions to measure how far they could actually go. Any battery test (or allegation of good batteries) is meaningless if the car can’t actually do the job it was designed to do.

Though several commenters are trying muddy the water, the tale of the tape is fairly simple:

Tested range of 2011 and 2012 cars traveling at 62 mph varied from 60 to 80 miles (Williams later noted that Blue534 actually went only 74.7 miles). Decreased range corresponds roughly with mileage and age. As commenter palmermd noted:

The test was to see what a “normal” Leaf driver would see. They plug the car in and charge it up. They drive it and have the DTE/GOM and some bars to see how far they can go. After a year they seem to be able to only go 75% as far (real distance to work and back, not DTE/GOM distance) as they could when they bought the car. This test shows that in fact the cars with a loss of at least one bar drove 70-85% of what it could when it was new. That is a 15-30% loss of range. That is beyond what Nissan suggested we would see after 5 years of ownership.

Does that 20 mile loss of range matter? Using my original example, pretend that you’ve dropped from a four gallon tank to a three gallon tank. And that you might be down to a two gallon tank next year.

Update: According to Green Car Reports, Nissan blames the Phoenix range loss on higher than average mileage driven by owners in Phoenix, as well as a lot of high speed highway mileage. The Leaf, of course, was supposed to be a real car, not a 25 mph Neighborhood Electric Vehicle.

Update 26 Sept 2012:

According to hybridcars and other outlets, Nissan is shifting from denial to bargaining:

Nissan is still saying nothing is actually defective with allegedly heat-degraded batteries in hot states including Texas and Arizona, but has now agreed to an independent global advisory board to investigate following numerous complaints.

Electric vehicle advocate and former GM marketing manager Chelsea Sexton will head the study, and choose its members.

Edmunds InsideLine says:

Nissan is smart to tackle concerns about the Leaf head-on, even if they are from a relatively small group of customers.

Update 28 Sept 2012:

Wheels blog at the New York Times claims that the new advisory board will not be looking at the batteries:

Contrary to some media reports, Nissan does not intend to conduct an investigation of Leaf batteries. “There is no issue with the car or the batteries,” David Reuter, vice president of corporate communications for Nissan Americas, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

It’s all about, “better communication” with consumers, you see.

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