There’s little denying electric cars are here to stay, and will only increase in numbers on our roads. But not everyone can afford to go out and buy a new Mini EV, BMW i3 or a Tesla. Many (most) people who would consider an electric car would start off with, and potentially stay with, a used one.
Is this viable? With the Nissan Leaf king of the used electric car market, is buying a used one – even a 6 year-old one – a good proposition?
One of Drive Life’s readers offered his 2011 Generation 1 Nissan Leaf G for us to review.
Launched in 2010, there’s three main models in both the Gen1 and Gen2 range of Leafs (or Leaves?); the base S model, the X and the top-spec model is the G.
There’s quite a big difference between the S and the other two models; in the used market, an S will often go for well less than an X or G.
The S model doesn’t come with a Fast Charger, to enable you to get a lot more amps (=power/charge) into your batteries. This is where the X and G models are a much better proposition.
The S also may have fewer airbags – sometimes only a passenger and driver’s airbags, and that’s it. The X model can also have only two airbags. If you want a 6-airbag Leaf, look on the front A pillar, about 2/3 the way up there will be an SRS sign if it DOES have more than just the two.
For AC, the S has a manual AC system where the X and G are climate-controlled.
All G models have a small solar panels on the roof spoiler, but this is only used to trickle charge the accessory battery – not the main battery. It’s pretty small so it’s likely there’s only milliamps being produced from it anyway.
There’s also an option on the G models for a 360-degree camera system, which is pretty handy, if you can find one with this feature.
In the Generation 2 Leafs, the X and G models have a heat-pump type of AC system, which is more power efficient than the system used in the S models. If you are looking at a Generation 2 Leaf, the X and G are a far better car in this respect than the S.
There is an excellent guide to imported Leafs in New Zealand at this link: https://samholford.github.io/leafguide/
There’s also a website which shows you for any trip how much energy you will have at the end of the trip – handy! It’s quite accurate too. The web address is www.jurassictest.ch/GR/
Used Leafs: Battery State of Health is King
If you are considering buying a used Leaf, keep in mind it doesn’t really matter what year the car (other than a Gen2 car being generally better) is or how many kilometres it has driven. The main thing you want to check is the battery’s State of Health (SoH).
When you sit in the driver’s seat of a Leaf, there’s a ‘fuel’ gauge on the right hand side of the instrument panel, and it’s in two parts: battery state and battery charge. On the left is the battery charge. On the right side is the state. This is shown in bars, but can be misleading. While 12 bars is between 85% and full state of health, just dropping one bar (through time/degradation, or the way the car has been charged) will reduce your state of health (and therefore your range) by approximately 6.5% per bar missing.
This means our test car with 8 bars left, has around 70% State of Health. This reduces its range quite a bit. On full charge, our test car told us it would do 111km before running out of power. In reality, it was lots less than that.
If your car trips are often short, or are always the same route and distance (i.e. commuting to work and back) then a car with less battery SoH can still be a good investment, but you do need to balance this out with your other intended usage.
Used Leafs: Gen1 vs Gen2
The Generation 2 Leaf came out in 2012, and have many improvements over the Gen1 cars. One of the features includes the battery bank in the boot lying down, so there isn’t a huge hump between the boot and the flip-down seats. In Gen1 cars (e.g. our test car), it made folding down the rear seats a bit pointless – the hump sticks up from the floor quite a bit.
There’s also some weight loss with aluminium panels being used in places, and better battery technology.
The S’s heating system uses an old-school resistive-type of system – this means it sucks a lot more power to heat your S than the other two. In Gen1 cars they all use this system regardless of the model. For the Gen2 cars, the X and G have an inverter (heat pump) type of heating/cooling system, and it’s a lot more power-friendly. It still sucks the power out of the batteries, but nowhere near the S.
Interestingly the Gen1 cars have an electric park brake, but Gen2 went for an old-school foot-operated park brake. Sort of back to the future I guess.
All Gen2 models also have heated seats and steering wheel – Nissan encourage people to use both these before turning on the AC to keep warm.
Lastly and quite significantly, the Gen2 cars from 2016 onwards have an optional 30-kilowatt battery pack, compared to the standard 24-kilowatt. This increases your range but naturally these models also cost more in the used market.
If you can afford it, the Gen2 models are the better option.
Used Leafs: When batteries go bad
A fledgling battery refurbishment industry here is led by Blue Cars Ltd in Auckland.
“We have been offering a range of EV battery services since last year.” says Blue Cars’ founder Carl Barlev. “To-date this work has included a dozen pack replacements and as many or more manual rebalance jobs. We also offer a range of battery testing services for owners and potential buyers who want some independent advice on the condition of a battery.”
There are two reasons EVs lose driving range over time. The first cause is reduced battery capacity from cell degradation. The second cause is imbalance, which generally builds up over years of driving. If your problem is that cells have degraded then the only solution is to replace the weak cells and often it is easier and/or cheaper to replace the whole pack. But for packs that have become out-of-balance, Blue Cars’ manual rebalance service can help you regain up to 20% lost driving range.
“Our goal with these services is to help EV owners extend the life of their cars, as although the batteries do degrade, everything else is generally still in good condition. But we are limited by the supply of replacement battery packs, which we get from wrecked cars. We can’t import used packs into New Zealand and our attempts to buy new ones from Nissan have failed.”
To help solve this limited supply issue, the company has started a pilot project with government support to develop and manufacture their own battery modules, with which they plan to offer complete battery pack rebuilds. This rebuild service won’t just bring the cars back to new condition, but actually upgrade them to compete with the range of new EVs today.
“The prototype replacement modules that we’ve designed should upgrade an old Nissan Leaf to a range of 200+ km. The upgrade won’t be cheap, as the cells alone will cost us $15k NZD. But it will still be much cheaper than buying a new EV at $50k or more.” However this is obviously more than a used car.
Potential Leaf owners should be aware of misinformation about the cost replacement Leaf packs, with some dealers and owners referring to this article that puts the cost at USD $6,000.
But this offer was only available to Leaf owners in the US and the pricing was heavily subsidized by Nissan in response to a class-action lawsuit.
“References to Nissan’s battery replacement pricing in the US has been very misleading for EV owners here in New Zealand,” says Carl from Blue Cars.
I always find it amusing that, aside from Tesla, car manufacturers seem to want to make their electric models anything but mainstream or good looking. It’s like they want them to look weird (or sometimes even ugly) to sell less of them.
I wouldn’t say the Leaf is ugly, but it’s sure not pretty either. That front with its bulgy headlight-eyes – it doesn’t do it for me. The rear is a bit more attractive with those narrow LED light clusters, although it does look a little boat-like with that bulbous lower rear end.
Our test car, finished in Pearl White, already has 73,000km on it, but it’s worn well. A few carpark knocks here and there, but overall it’s held up pretty nicely.
Inside of our test Leaf is beige, instead of the usual black we normally get these days, and it makes the whole interior light and inviting. The interior in general is a bit plasticky, but the light-coloured dash, seats, door panels and headlining make the inside of the car a nice airy experience.
Some of the buttons are in Japanese, as is most of the instrumentation and menus on the infotainment system. I didn’t want to break anything during my week with the car, so stuck to playing the radio (no band expander, so got a total of one radio station – talkback!) and nothing else.
I see there are options now for used import Leafs – changing the dash to English and converting the SatNav to New Zealand. Changing the dash is about $100. Note this does mean switching the head unit to an Android unit to get New Zealand GPS. This does mean you lose the ability of seeing what the AC is doing. On the plus side, you can use ‘Leafspy’ which gives you a much bigger range of battery info on the head unit. If you pay for LeafSpy Pro (around $15) you can get the AC readout to work.
There’s two USB ports in the front of the car, and it’s good to see that nice, high-up speedo – it’s just below the windscreen so your eyes fall easily to it.
Rear legroom is bordering on generous, and the seats front and rear are really comfy.
Opening the boot sees a reasonable amount of space, but with the Gen1 cars there’s a big ass hump in there containing the batteries. It sticks up, so when you fold the seats flat, the floor isn’t anywhere near flat. Again, this is where the Gen2 cars are much better.
Well this is it – what’s it like to live with a 73,000Km Nissan Leaf for a week – one that has batteries that have seen much better days.
On picking the car up, as you would expect two things stand out: no noise and instant torque. I’ve driven Camry and Prius hybrids on Battery Mode, so no noise wasn’t a big deal, until I went over 50kmh, when both Toyota’s motors will start automatically and the Leaf stayed silent.
But the acceleration…up to 50km/h, this is a car for zipping around in a city, no doubt. It almost encourages you to give it a bit more ‘gas’ pedal – It’s a lot of fun to drive! Full throttle acceleration will see the front wheels spin – the first time this happened I wondered what car it was, not realising it was the Leaf.
I took the car home, and plugged it in. Luckily we have a 16-amp caravan power point already on the garage, so this meant I’d get 50% more charge going into the batteries than using a standard 10-amp power point. There are also Fast Chargers dotted around the country, and these will give you a far faster charge (naturally!) than your home power can deliver. There’s a great smartphone app called Chargenet which gives you all the help you need in finding fast chargers, or any places in the country where you can plug in.
The next morning, the Leaf’s first test: I had a meeting in Judgeford, which I knew was 42km away from home.
I was warned in advance that the digital readout which shows your battery range is informally called a ‘Guessometer’ – not too accurate. Off I went, quietly.
After the 7km drive to the motorway entrance, my range is now down to 84km – a loss of 27km! Guessometer is aptly named after all. I stuck the car into Eco mode, which gives much less performance – think of driving with the handbrake on – but better range and better regen of power into the batteries, when going down a hill.
The first real test of the Leaf approached – Ngauranga Gorge. With 82km showing on the Guessometer, I felt confident that I wouldn’t lose too much range. I used cruise control and set my speed at 80km/h (the limit up the gorge) and left Eco mode on. I thought that with an electric motor, cruise control would be the best way for my speed to remain constant, perfectly. Apparently this was incorrect, and I was told that using the cruise to save power actually makes it use more power.
At the top of the gorge, my range was now down to 62km, 20km less than when I did the 1.5km drive up the gorge. At least I was on the flat now, with mostly downhill or flat all the way to Judgeford.
Time to assess the rest of the car. Ride? Very good. All that weight of the batteries seems to be helping the car’s ride nicely. At over 1,500Kg, the Leaf is a fairly weighty car for its size.
The steering was far too light, especially on the motorway, but I could live with it. There was surprisingly low wind noise and road noise, although there is some tyre noise, no doubt helped by the cheaper tyres on this car.
The tall front windows and light coloured interior means the Leaf really is pleasant to travel in – everything seems big and spacious inside, and visibility out on the motorway (or around town) is top class.
Still in Eco mode, I floor the car to change lanes to pass a slower car. Eco mode went off on full throttle, which helped plenty. Otherwise Eco mode is one of those things you turn off and on in a Leaf – on for downhill to get more regenerative braking, and off when you want to move it quickly. Turning Eco mode off and on is pretty simple – a flick of the gear selector does it.
I turned up to my meeting in Judgeford; for the 42km drive, I now had 45km left according to the Guessometer – a drop of 69km. I think I’ll recharge before heading home, just in case…
The rest of the week, I didn’t need to do such ‘long’ drives, and the Leaf was breeze to use. I only charged it up every few days, and sometimes even then it was almost from habit.
Using it to pop into town and back was just so easy – quiet, no fuss, easy to park.
How far? Sam’s Leaf guide suggests a Gen1 car will go 90km and a Gen2 car, 100km. When you think of how far you generally drive your car, then this may well see you two or three days of driving before needing recharging. If you simply plug your car in at night, then you’ll always wake with a full battery, ready to go. It’s the same habit as plugging in your smartphone each night to charge it up.
There aren’t many options in the small, used EV market. The Mitsubishi i-MEV are around the same price but a smaller car.
The Pros and Cons
What do we think of it?
Could an older EV replace your daily driver? Well, it all depends on your daily drive, and where you park. We are seeing EV charging stations popping up all over the place now. If you travel the same (shorter) distance to work 5 days a week, an EV may well make good sense.
Keep in mind there’s still brakes, suspension, steering, tyres, wheel bearings – you aren’t off the mechanical hook entirely. But no gas and engine maintenance costs? That’s got to save you money – an estimate is around $2,500 per year in gas for the average driver, covering 10,000km per year. There are also options for charging in the early morning to get discounted power.
I enjoyed my time with the 2011 Leaf, more than I thought I would. My experience in that first day’s long drive was an experience, but it was my first day, and I got through it.
In saying that, buying an ‘older’ Leaf with less than 80% capacity may mean you need to be an Eco Warrior with a sense of adventure – otherwise it would be best to make sure you have as many of those battery bars as you can. Or get the car checked out first, and see if it’s worthwhile getting them re-balanced, or some cells replaced.
Rating – Chevron rating 3.5 out of 5
2011 Nissan Leaf G
|Vehicle Type||5-door medium hatch EV|
|Price range||Currently ranging from $10K to $15K for 2011 models (source, TradeMe Motors), varying kilometres|
|Kerb Weight, Kg||1,551|
|Length x Width x Height, mm||4445x1770x1550|
|Cargo Capacity, litres||330 litres seats up
680 litres seats down
|Battery capacity (new)||24Kw|
|ANCAP Safety Ratings||5 Stars (2011+ models with multiple airbags)|