Now that electric-powered Nissan Leafs have been driven by the first owners for several weeks, Nissan's claimed 100-mile range is being tested in reality. The result? Reports of Leafs running out of juice and stranding drivers with little warning.
Although the details in the complaints on the MyNissanLeaf forum differ, the common thread in each is the Leaf suddenly paring back the estimates of its range in the middle of a trip, ending in a brief "turtle" mode — marked by an orange turtle icon on the Leaf's dash — followed by the car shutting down to prevent battery damage.
The Leaf's software is supposed to give drivers gradual warnings as they discharge the 24 kWh battery pack, with several visual and verbal notices including a "—-" on the miles-to-empty indicator before the turtle icon switches on. But that wasn't the experience of a Leaf owner from San Diego last month, who was the first to report a shut-down:
"Went from 17 to —- to turtle to dead in about 5 miles. 2.3 miles from dealer. 4.2 miles from home. Part of me is amused that I may go down in history as the first dumbass to drive the car into submission. But I am slightly shaky and upset as I thought there should have been no problem getting home."
Another owner suffered a similar experience, leaving the Seattle airport last month for a 15-mile drive home with the Leaf reporting enough power for 26 miles:
Around downtown the range is down to 8 miles (still plenty to get home, which was by then 5 miles away). At the ship-canal bridge it went into turtle, I barely got off the freeway. 2 Mile from home and after about half the distance it told I would have from the airport, i.e. 13 actual miles driven, it went dead. I actually managed to drive 400 yards in turtle mode. 10:30 pm, wife and screaming kids in the car (which was blocking the right lane of a busy road), just came back from the east coast, cars zooming by and honking, several near misses.
Nissan provides complimentary towing to Leaf owners for just such events; it had to provide the same service to a Barron's reporter after she attempted an 82-mile drive to the beach. In the Seattle case, the operators who took the tow-truck call asked if the Leaf just needed a jump start.
Nissan has long maintained that how many miles the Leaf travels on a charge will depend on the driver, but has said the Leaf could go as far as 138 miles on a full charge, with an average driver getting 100 miles in city driving. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's official rating is 73 miles, and many owners on MyNissanLeaf report between 60 and 80 miles of range daily. The Leaf estimates the range left not just on how much energy is in the battery pack versus what's flowing to the wheels, but also by tracking data on how agressive the driver has been in the past.
But early Leaf owners may also have nature working against them, thanks to Nissan launching the car in winter. Electric car batteries hold less energy in cold temperatures, and unlike the Chevy Volt and other electric vehicles, Nissan did not build an heating system around the Leaf's battery pack.
Even so, another Leaf owner isn't happy with Nissan's promises after getting just 50 miles of range on most of his morning commutes:
To be honest, I'm OK with 50 miles, especially since I get more like 70 when I'm off the highway. But I'm not OK with Nissan's overblown estimates that they are passing through their naive sales people in order to sell more cars. They HAVE people lined up to buy this car — by overselling this, they are risking severe backlash once buyers realize that they have paid 40K for a car that goes 50 miles, instead of 100...My wife has a 50 mile commute that is too risky to do on an 80 percent charge. Again, real range estimates from Nissan would have made me think twice.
Nissan spokeswoman Katherine Zachary said while it has reports of a couple of "isolated" events, the automaker sees no trend of unexpected shutdowns among Leaf owners. Early Leaf adopters are willing to embrace the range anxiety of electric vehicles, but mainstream customers that Nissan will need to sell the Leaf beyond its 20,000 pre-orders may not be so tolerant — especially if the Leaf can't accurately predict the call of the turtle.