What would happen if I took my used electric car on a 430-mile road trip? I decided to find out. Here's what I learned along the way.

When I tell people I have an electric car, their first question is always the same: How far can I go on a charge? It's a logical question and one I pondered mightily before buying my car, a 2015 Nissan Leaf. But it doesn't have a simple answer.

I always begin with a disclaimer: There are many electric cars that go much farther than mine. The Chevy Bolt has a range of 238 miles on a charge. Some versions of the Tesla Model S can go 335 miles. That makes my Leaf's range of 84 miles seem wimpy. But I wanted to see if I would like driving electric and I didn't want a huge car loan and I've never owned a new car in my life. I bought the Leaf because it only cost $10,000. 

Every electric vehicle driver knows that a car's official range is truly misleading. Range is very variable, depending on a lot of factors. Are you going uphill or downhill? Do you have the heat, air conditioning, or window defog running? And, most important of all, how fast are you going and how much are you slowing down or stopping, which allows the battery to recapture some power? If you're driving on a highway at 70 miles an hour, you won't have your official range--it'll be less. If you're stuck in stop-and-go traffic, it could be more.

But consider this question from a different angle. If I told you I'd just bought a gas car, you would never ask how far I could go on a tank of gas. It would never even occur to you, even if the gas car could only go 84 miles on a full tank. It wouldn't be a problem, because pretty much wherever you are, there is always a gas station just a few miles away.

Car charging stations aren't nearly as common as gas stations, but there are more of them every day, especially on the East and West Coasts and along major highways. So, for me, the real question is this: Can I go wherever I want to go, and charge when I need to on the way?

When my ASJA friends in Oregon threw a holiday party just before Christmas, I decided to find out. I would drive my electric car from Snohomish, about an hour north of Seattle, to Tigard, just south of Portland. The distance was 215 miles each way, meaning I'd have to charge multiple times. 

What could go wrong? Well, a couple of things. I didn't want to stop in the middle of a four-hour drive to charge for two or three hours. So I would need to find quick charge stations along my route. They would give me as much power as I needed in half an hour or less. However, there were a couple of long stretches along I-5 where there was only one such station for 30 miles or more. If it was malfunctioning, I'd be stuck scrambling for a Plan B.

But I was armed with PlugShare, a wonderful crowdsourced app that not only shows the location of every charging station in the world but also gives reports and ratings from other drivers about the condition of those chargers. PlugShare told me that the chargers I'd be depending on on my way to Oregon were indeed quite dependable.

My second concern was overheating the battery. Quick charges raise battery temperatures and so does driving fast. I was going to drive more than 200 miles at highway speeds and quick charge four times. But I did a little research and found that the battery would probably be OK. I had bought a 2015 because that was the first year the Leaf had a chemically-cooled "lizard" battery. Besides, it was December with cold rainy weather. There would be no better time of year to try this trip.

First stop: Wally Park, SeaTac, WA

I started from home around 11:30 am with a 90 percent charge. I was leaving a bit later than planned for a cocktail party that was scheduled for 4 to 6 pm. Google Maps estimated the trip at about four hours but I knew charging would make it longer.

Forty-six miles later, south of the madness that is Seattle, I stopped at a surprisingly pleasant parking garage near the airport. They had quick charge. They had coffee. They had scones. With light traffic, I'd made good time but my battery was down to 21 percent. In about half an hour it was at 97 percent. I bought a sandwich at a Subway next door and got back on the road.

Second stop: Tumwater Deli and Shell Station, Tumwater, WA

Forty-nine miles later, with not too much traffic, I was down to 24 percent. If you're doing the math, this equals a range of about 67 miles at highway speeds in light traffic. I was doing the math because I had a decision to make. I was about to travel an emptier stretch of I-5, where the next quick charger was at a Wendy's in Centralia, 21 miles away. Twenty-one miles seemed too soon to charge, but the one after that, in Castle Rock, was 34 miles farther, a total of 55 miles.

"Piece of cake!" I said to myself, and headed for Castle Rock. And for a while, it seemed like it would be. But a few things were different. First, with now truly little traffic, cars on the highway were rolling along at well over 70 and I was keeping up with them. Second, it started to rain. Then it started to pour. I had to use my wipers and the defog. And I worriedly watched the digital readout as my battery capacity plummeted.

In addition to showing battery percentage, the Leaf dashboard also tells you how many  miles you can go before you absolutely need to charge. This number is nothing more than a guess, based on your recent driving, how fast you're going, and whether you're using the heating/cooling system at that moment.

After more than 100 miles at highway speed, this readout had adjusted to account for highway driving and was giving me what seemed like a pretty accurate estimate of my maximum available range. On Google Maps, I could also see how many miles it would take to reach the next charger. As long as the range number was comfortably higher than the miles to my destination, I figured I was in good shape. But as the range started sinking faster than the miles to the next charger, I grew increasingly nervous. Then the range dropped below the distance I needed to go. My car was telling me I wasn't going to make it.

Out on the highway in the pouring rain, with few towns and fewer options, there was really nothing I could do but keep on driving. I stayed in the right lane and slowed to around 60 to 64, struggling to keep my nervousness from making me drive faster. I pondered what it would be like to wait for AAA for a couple of hours or more, sitting on the shoulder in this low-visibility deluge. I'd known there'd be bad weather on the trip and I wasn't afraid of driving in heavy rain. But being stuck with a drained battery in the midst of a rural area in a downpour where other drives might have trouble seeing my car? That was something else again.

I turned the defog on briefly whenever the window started to fog, just enough to clear it before turning it off again, a battery-saving trick I'd discovered when I first started driving the Leaf. Reluctantly, I turned off the radio to conserve whatever power it was using. I was careful not to speed up. I watched the miles on Google Maps and miles in my range readout intently. Slowly, the balance tipped in my favor, the miles to my destination now dropping faster than the range. By the time I rolled up to the quick charge in Castle Rock, I had 8 percent left on the battery.

Third stop: Cascade Market, Castle Rock, WA

I had made it! I was relieved, but I now had a few other problems. For one thing, the party was already underway and I still had about 70 miles to go. Telling myself I would get there, I bought a nice bottle of wine while my car was charging. Also, I had a whole different battery problem: my phone was completely dead. I'd plugged it into the cigarette lighter, but using Maps was draining the battery faster than it could charge. The Tumwater Deli had kindly let me plug in my phone while I was there. But there didn't seem to be any usable outlets at the Cascade Market or the laundromat next door. Without Maps, I would not be able to find the party, or the final charging station I would need in order to get there.

I did have a tablet with me as well as a phone, and there was WiFi in the parking lot at Cascade Market. So I used Maps on my tablet to find the directions to the next quick charge, and committed them to memory like I used to do in the days before GPS.

My other point of concern was battery heat. My lizard battery's temperature gauge had always stayed between 4 bars and 6 bars--a nice comfortable temperature for maintaining battery health. After the third quick charge of the day, and 150 miles at highway speed, it was up to 7 bars which seemed slightly ominous to me. Still, I had a couple more bars to go before the danger zone. And I wanted to get to Oregon. I drove on.

Fourth stop: Country Cafe, Ridgefield, WA

By the time I found the Country Cafe, about 15 miles north of the Columbia River that forms the border with Oregon, I knew I was too late for the party. Bedraggled from the rain, tired, hungry, cold, and somewhat demoralized, with my car's battery temperature still at 7 bars, and my phone's battery still nearly dead, I decided it was time to rest and regroup. Fortunately, the Country Cafe had tortilla soup. And WiFi. And a kindly owner who let me charge my phone. I decided to camp out for a time while my car battery cooled down and I warmed up, before I got a charge for the last leg of the trip.

Later that evening, I made it to the Marriott Courtyard I'd selected for its proximity to the party and its chargers in the parking lot. The next day, I'd have breakfast with a friend, then do some holiday shopping before heading back north. I would also find a better charging cable for my phone so I could get home without it dying.

What should have been a four-hour trip, or maybe five considering the weather, had stretched to a nine-hour trip with a lot of long stops. In fairness, the length of the stops had more to do with my phone battery, and my need to shop and rest than they did with the car. But finding my way off the highway to a charger four times, along with the time to actually charge, would have added three hours to the trip, no matter what. And the way my battery heated up on that third charge was worrisome.

All in all, I told my husband on the phone late that night, I would not do it again. Next time I headed to the Portland area, I'd drive a gas car, or take the train. I'd keep my Leaf trips to 150 miles or less, no more than two charges in a day.

But that's only for now. I've found I love driving electric--I don't intend to ever buy another gas vehicle. Someday, I'll have a newer Leaf, or a Tesla or a Bolt, or some other electric car with a range that's closer to 200 miles than 100. Then I really can go wherever I want. Then it really will be a piece of cake.

Published on: Jan 28, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.