Me and My iCar

""One RMI staffer’s journey to the Nissan LEAF

I split up with my 2001 Subaru Forester. Perhaps I should say it split up with me. At the mature end of its life with 106,000 miles under its belt(s), its “weak” head gasket caused the heater core to crack. Without a major overhaul, I would soon end up with a lapful of hot glycol and no ride home.

I’d been supporting its gas habit for years, spending over $10,000 at the pump. These regular expenditures mounted up so slowly I hardly paid any attention. It was fast to warm up and good in snow. It wasn’t good looking but was always dependable. But it showed its age in the last few years. I spent thousands to keep it going. But with a $2,000 repair bill looming, I had to face facts. It was time to move on.

I started looking around. I talked to friends and family to see if they knew of any models that might work for me. Based on my needs and likes, the Honda Fit and Toyota Prius came recommended. I took a look at both of them. The Fit reminded me of an early love affair I had with a 1970s Volkswagen Bug. The Prius offered a more sophisticated ride. But I just couldn’t make a commitment.

On a whim, I stopped by the Nissan dealership. I liked what I saw. Within minutes, I was test driving my first electric car, the LEAF. I didn’t know what to expect. Would I need to “ride” in the bike lane? But it wasn’t anything like that. It was smooth, it was quiet, and it was fun!

What about costs? I’ve got a strong frugal side. New cars can rapidly depreciate. Yet trying to find a used, affordable one that I could trust to perform … it seemed like such a lot of work. My heart wasn’t in it. Yet a new electric car might have double-whammy depreciation. It could incur the quick two-year, 30-percent value reduction typical of new cars. Its value might also be impacted by ever-improving battery technology. Longer-range, faster-charging batteries could outdate current models, making depreciation even more rapid. The Nissan dealership manager suggested I consider leasing, explaining that they were currently running a very attractive offer for the 2012 LEAF. And if battery technology advanced, as I feared it might, the dealership—not I—would ultimately own the car.

I had never leased a car before but the financing terms seemed reasonable. I got all the data, went home, and ran the numbers. For the 2012 SL LEAF, the offer required $1360 up front to cover fees and taxes and $260 a month for 2 years. The deal accounted for the $7500 federal tax credit and an additional $2650 rebate from Nissan. It did not include a Colorado state tax credit for alternative fuel vehicles, which for me knocked off about another $1000. The numbers were compelling. And after 2-years, I could walk away free and clear, ready to take on the next new, leaner, cleaner model.

For reference, I compared the LEAF’s lease terms to that offered by my local Honda dealership for the gas-powered, fuel-efficient Fit. As attractive as the LEAF was looking, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Perhaps a car such as the Fit might give it a run for its money.

The Fit retailed for $16,915, less than half the LEAF’s sticker price north of $38,000. With the same amount down as the LEAF offer, the monthly fee for the Fit came to $364.

And what about fuel costs? The U.S. EPA reports the combined mileage rating for the LEAF is 34 kWh/100 miles or 99 MPGe. The 2013 Fit has a combined rating of 31 MPG. Based on electric costs of $0.08/kWh, gas costs of $3.50/gallon, and driving 7000 miles in a year (my average), I would pay about $190/year to plug in the LEAF or $790/year to fill up the Fit.

With the LEAF, I’d save about $100 a month on the lease terms and about $600 a year on fuel.

I checked the difference in emissions using an online calculator. The national average reduction in emissions is about 40 percent switching from an internal combustion engine car to an EV. However, in Boulder our electrical generation has a high percent of coal-fired plants, which reduces the savings to 25 percent. Yet RMI and my household both subscribe to a voluntary renewable energy program, “Windsource,” offered through our local utility, Xcel Energy. By paying a small additional premium, our electric supply is attributed to a Colorado-based PV or wind farm. All things considered, opting for the LEAF would put me on a sustainable path without too much out of pocket.

But going with something so new and different would really mean a change. Was it right for me? Would it fit my lifestyle?

I did some online research to discern the subtleties of owning an electric car. The LEAF has an engine power of 80 kWs, which is nearly equivalent to the Honda Fit’s 117 horsepower or 87 kWs. Did I say I used to drive a Beetle and liked it? No problem. But unlike my Bug, the LEAF has full-load torque at low speed, which makes it very responsive. The LEAF’s 2011/2012 EPA rated range is 73 miles. That’s like always driving with the gas-low light on—no doubt I’d need to plan ahead. Or would I? My round-trip route between home and work is 15 miles. One day a week, I act as “soccer mom” and cover 40 miles transporting my kids between school, activities, and home. My day-to-day schedule should work within the range restrictions.

And what about the shopping, social, and travel expeditions that can take me far and wide? My husband drives our mini-van. It is well equipped with winter tires, a big roof box, and mountable bike rack. It is the camp-and-go, see-and-ski vehicle that can handle our family road trips in every season. Would he be willing to share? To my surprise, he readily agreed. It took weeks for us to negotiate the color to paint the master bath but only a few words to sanction this arrangement. If only paint came in shades of technological innovation!

A main consideration was charging. The 2012 model requires about twice the charging time as the 2013 model. But the lease offer for the 2012 was about $80 less a month. To get the more affordable 2012, I would need to work within its constraints to accommodate a dead-to-full charge time of 24 hours on a regular 120-volt plug-in or 7 hours on a type-2, 220-volt station. Fortunately, we have a type-2 charge station at RMI’s Boulder office. While staying parked for hours in one place initially seemed like a hindrance, it could actually provide added value. It would ensure me a parking spot in a small, cramped lot.

I went back to the dealership to learn more. The numbers were enough to motivate me but the added amenities are what sold me. Car models have really changed since 2001. No doubt, the LEAF is setting a new standard, at least for me. My old console showcased a cassette player. The LEAF console is a mini-computer monitor that provides back-side camera views, talking GPS, AM/FM/XM radio, smartphone Bluetooth connection, and a full menu of car performance screens. There’s even Nissan’s “Carwings,” a smartphone app that allows me to check in on the car, pre-heat/-cool, and perform scheduled charging to take advantage of time-of-day rates. I was sold. I’d done the car research equivalent of hiring a private investigator to vet my would-be husband, and finally I was ready to commit.

It’s been three months now since we’ve been driving together. Electric cars won’t work for everyone, but for me and my situation, the LEAF works fine. Still, I’ve come to appreciate the term “guess-o-meter” for the predicted range display value. Mileage will vary—particularly over Colorado’s varied terrain and ambient temperatures.

I never thought about myself as being an early adopter of new technologies. Yet in reflecting about my consumer choices, I have latched on to new products that are well designed, including the iPhone and iPad. As a matter of fact, this car just seems like a natural evolution of the “i” trend. Like the iPhone, I didn’t know I “needed” it until I tried it.

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