Move aside Changli, there’s a new contender for cheapest EV around these parts. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. This 2011 Nissan Leaf isn’t a brand new vehicle, but it can zip from zero to 60 in just 9.9 seconds and continue on to a top speed of 93 miles an hour. Those are breakneck speeds to Jason and his Chinese electric car. Add in air-conditioning, cruise control, bluetooth audio, seating for five adults and 50-state road legality, and this old Nissan is a bit more car than the Changli. Which is interesting considering that I paid about $250 less than Jason did to have it show up at my door. Or, well, close to my door.
A couple of weeks ago a Twitter pal posted these screenshots of a Nissan Leaf for sale on Facebook Marketplace in Northern California. I knew that this price-drop deal wouldn’t last forever, so I tracked it down on Zuckerberg’s emporium of bad faith argument and conspiracy theory. I made a sight-unseen offer to pay the full asking price the following morning and sent off a $500 deposit to keep my place in line. It’s $2,000 and it runs and drives. How bad can it be?
Because the Leaf was about 230 miles from my house, I knew it would never make it by hopping charger to charger all the way home. Besides, I didn’t have anyone to ride with me to go pick it up. But what I did have was an AAA Platinum account with an as-yet-unused 200-mile tow for the 2020 calendar year. So, I grabbed the cash and hopped over the Sierras to pick up my new-to-me EV.
As it turns out, the sellers hadn’t owned the car very long. I didn’t get the whole story, but apparently this family had purchased the Leaf from San Francisco just a couple of months earlier for their abuelita to drive around. They complained that the battery didn’t hold a full charge, that it didn’t have enough range and that she just plain didn’t like driving it. I presume that they took a bath on the sale of this thing, because it was originally listed for $4,500; after a while with no bites, they dropped the price by more than half.
Because I’ve been researching early Leafs for a few months now, I already knew that the range would be quite short. Those early cars featured a compromised battery pack with just 24 kWh available, which equated to about 75 or 80 miles of range brand new. It quickly became apparent that these Leafs didn’t manage heat very well, and hot climates sapped bars from the battery in quick order. Some of this was fixed with the updated “lizard” battery introduced in 2014, but obviously this first-year model suffers from that issue. Over 57,000 miles of use, this Leaf has reduced its range to only 48 miles, give or take.
Luckily, I don’t need much range. My wife’s commute is quite short, and mine is even shorter, so we can usually get a few days of use from a fill-up. One of the good knock-on effects of having such a small battery and a short range is that I can charge this car on a regular 110 volt circuit with an overnight plug-in. It doesn’t matter how many miles I do in a day, it’ll be full and ready to go in the morning. And if I forget, there is an EVGo DC fast charger at the grocery store down the block from my house, so I can pack in the range quick like.
While I was only a couple of hundred miles from home, give or take a four-hour drive, this ended up being an all-day affair. I woke up quite early and drove over to test drive the car at 10 a.m. Once money and a clean California title had changed hands, I put in a request for the AAA truck to come and get it. Then the wait.
Because the car was basically in the middle-of-nowhere Central Valley California, it took forever and a day for the service to track down an empty flatbed to pick up my new purchase and haul it over the hill. It was about 1:30 p.m when the truck showed up. Apparently he’d been called to an accident scene, and the cleanup took ages. The driver apologized profusely, but it wasn’t his fault, and I’m not one to hold grudges. No problem, let’s get on the road.
The other downside of this particular truck was that it was insured and bonded for operation only within California. That meant he would have to drop the car in Truckee, California, about 30 miles from my home. That actually worked out perfectly, because it meant I would have to pay for only about eight miles of overage fees as a result of exceeding the AAA Platinum 200 miles.
Because the cardholder has to be there to confirm the pickup and drop off, I went to the drop-off point and said my goodbyes to the very kind hauler. I gave him a good tip, and he was off to pick up another wreck somewhere. Then I had to figure out how to get the car from Truckee to Reno. I had driven over in our Buick Regal TourX, and had to get that home, obviously. So I drove home, picked up my wife, who had just finished work for the day, and drove back up the mountain into the frigid temperatures of the northern Sierra range.
In fairness, AAA would have provided another truck to get the car that last 30 miles, but it probably would have taken until the next morning, and I would have had to drive up there to certify the pickup again anyway, so this seemed easier and quicker. The little black Nissan was mine and I wanted it home!
So, my first real experience — outside of that short test drive — with the Leaf was driving it in the cold. Something EVs notoriously don’t like. That 48 miles of range was down to about 36, so I popped into the California Highway Patrol parking lot to charge up a few extra miles before I left. The charger was only a Level 2, but it was free and I needed only another four or five miles to give myself a buffer.
Obviously, the car made it without any issues. The route was mostly downhill, and I had more than a dozen miles of charge remaining by the time I pulled into my driveway.
So, I just bought what might be the cheapest EV in America. What’s wrong with it? Honestly, almost nothing. The tires are a bit worn but still have some life. The headlights and the solar panel in the roof are covered by plastic that has discolored from the sun to the nice pale yellow of your grandmother’s teeth. The plastic rear spoiler is, well, all of the paint has faded completely off of it. The driver’s seat is a little bit worn in the left bolster. And the biggest issue is this dent in the rear quarter panel. Did abuelita bonk the car into something and they took the keys away? The world may never know.
All of that is pretty much just normal wear and tear of a car with almost 60,000 miles. That said, this car is in significantly better condition than I had expected for $2,000. I’ve bought a lot of really cheap cars in my day, and this one blew all of them out of the water.
So, this car came from a dealership, not Alibaba, and it has all of the trappings of a 10-year-old Nissan compact hatchback. Does that make it better than the Changli? Hell no. The Changli kicks all kinds of ass. But this just goes to show that there is more than one way to kick the fossil fuel habit.
I have some plans for this car, including fresh wheels and tires, lowering springs, some aero tweaks, a nice vinyl wrap in a funky color and maybe a few other fun upgrades.
I’ve had a few weeks to drive this thing around, and it has so far treated me really well. What do you think of this purchase? More important, what do you want to know about it?