Have you ever wondered what it would actually be like to own an electric car and use it every day? So did I--and then I bought one. And despite more than a year of careful research before the fact, actually owning the car has come with more than a few surprises.
I'm one of those people who believes used cars are a better deal than new ones and who doesn't love spending a lot of money on cars in general--as the CFO husband of a friend put it, a car is a "depreciating asset." So I set out to buy an inexpensive used electric car which--this was the first surprise--is quite doable. I wound up with a 2015 cinnamon red Nissan Leaf that I absolutely love.
It's only been a couple of months, but here's what I've discovered so far:
1. They're really, really fun to drive.
I've read comments from more than one internal combustion enthusiast--and even Car and Driver disparaging electric cars for somehow being wimpy, so it was a pleasant surprise how un-wimpy an electric car actually is. As I understand it, this is because nothing in the car needs to gear up so when you step on the accelerator it just goes. I'm constantly bumping the back of my head against the passenger seat headrest when my husband steps on the accelerator.
Conversely, you can use your brakes a lot less while driving an electric car. The Leaf has a "B" setting which creates a small amount of drag on the engine and recaptures power to feed back to the battery. Not only does this let you go farther without recharging but it's very handy because all you have to do is lift your foot of the "gas" pedal and the car will start slowing down by itself.
2. Your music will sound really great.
Electric cars are eerily, uncannily quiet, or "silent as death," as my husband puts it. That can make them dangerous around pedestrians who will tend to assume your car is off and may step in front of it while it's moving. To combat this, Nissan actually built in not only the usual backup beeping, but also light whining sound at speeds below 20 mph.
Even so, it's infinitely quieter than a gas car would be and so I was surprised to find that listening to music inside the Leaf is a lot more like listening to music in your living room than it is in a gas car. Without engine noise competing with my tunes, even the base model sound system gives me clearer sounding music than I've ever heard in a car before now. I can just imagine how great a high-end sound system would be.
3. You don't need to reconfigure your house.
There are two different ways to charge a vehicle at home, either through the standard (in the US) 110-volt outlet or through a special 240-volt outlet, such as a clothes dryer uses. To use the higher voltage you not only need to have someone install the special outlet, you also need an adaptor called an EVSE (for electric vehicle supply equipment) which costs several hundred dollars.
I've spent the past year assuming I would need to spring for the 240 outlet and the EVSE only because charging through a 110 outlet is famously slow--more than 20 hours to get from empty to full battery. The special outlet and EVSE would cut that 20 hours to less than six hours. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the car charges at 110 volts a bit faster than 20 hours (possibly because we have nothing else using that circuit). More importantly, I never really do charge from zero to full, I usually have between 30 and 50 percent battery charge when I plug the car in which means that charging it overnight has always been plenty long enough to get more than enough charge. (Charging the battery all the way isn't the best thing for it, so I usually only want an 80 percent charge unless I have a long way to drive.) So I've happily shelved my plans for the 240 volt outlet and EVSE, at least for now.
4. You do need to be able to quick charge.
There's one other way to charge an electric vehicle, and that's with a "quick charge" provided by public charging stations and most car dealers that sell electric vehicles. On the Leaf, that quick charge port is an option but I made sure to get it and I'm glad I did. Before I bought the car, I figured I would find charging stations with the 240-volt plugs, leave my car parked there for a few hours and come back to a full charge. So far, that turns out to be impractical if only because those plugs often come with a two-hour time limit.
On the other hand, a stop at a quick charge charging station can add 50 percent of charge to the battery in half an hour or less, so I've discovered that if I need a little extra power it's usually quicker and simpler to stop at a quick charge station. If all I need is a little boost to get home, I can get that in 15 minutes or less, or I can take a quick coffee break if I need a little more.
5. Fuel efficiency is the opposite of a gas car.
Stuck in a traffic jam? Your gas car will waste a lot of gas with the engine running as you inch along. On the other hand, if you're sailing down the highway, your gas car will become more efficient because it can stay in high gear and use existing momentum to keep moving.
The opposite is true for an electric car. It loves crawling in traffic because every time you slow down, it recaptures that energy and feeds the battery. On the other hand, driving at top highway speeds uses up the battery charge more quickly.
6. Electric vehicle owners are nice folks.
There's a community of electric car drivers out there using forums like MyNissanLeaf and the crowdsourced app PlugShare to trade information about everything from which EVSE to buy to where the best chargers are. Many of them have also made their own home chargers available to other electric car drivers. Once, when I couldn't locate the public charger at a large parking facility I messaged someone on PlugShare who said he'd been there, and he answered me with more info almost instantly. It's like there's a giant club of non-polluting drivers out there. I'm happy to have joined.