LEAF Road Adventure Can Be Smooth Sailing, Too! How We Turned Our 2012 Nissan LEAF Into An Offroad Beast

3 years ago by Assaf Oron 31

Plugshare Map Of Washington's QC stations

Plugshare Map Of Washington’s QC stations

Earlier this summer, I posted here the story of our little Nissan Leaf Mima Mounds adventure. The ensuing discussion was rather lively, most of it nice and constructive πŸ™‚

What alarmed me about the discussion, is that I might have helped reaffirm the notion (usually pre-conceived) that First-Gen Leaf road trips (or with similarly-capable BEVs) are a nightmare for all except masochists, hard-boiled ideologues and make-a-point type projects.

In two words: Not true.

So in this post, my goal is to encourage those Leaf drivers who are still hesitant to get on the road for QC-assisted trips. I know where you’re coming from, because we’d been exactly these people for an entire year! We got our first Leaf in August 2012 and paid $2k extra for that QC port (and whatever else was included in the 2012 SL), but except for one demo charge session hadn’t put it into real use until September 2013.

That first experience was eye-opening, and we’ve been coming back for more ever since. So here, I will –

  1. Set the record straight regarding that Mima trip;
  2. Briefly describe our other QC-assisted day trips with our 2012 Leaf;
  3. Explain the rationale and capabilities of normal, convenient Leaf day-trips and road-trips.

In a follow-up post, I will describe even more ambitious adventures with the 2014 Leaf that has since replaced our 2012.

Generally speaking, whenever I write “Leaf” it really means “80-ish-mile-EPA-range BEV, with a viable QC option”.

So…. About That Mima Trip

Charging-wise, that Mima affair in May has been our worst Leaf road-trip experience to date. Instead of roughly 30 minutes in each direction (on top of ~1.5 hours driving time), our charge-related additions to trip duration were more like an hour going there and 1.5 hours going back. Most of the extra delays were due to issues at our first QC stop in Tumwater, exacerbated by the paucity of QC stops along the Olympia-Seattle I-5 corridor. As detailed in that post.

But consider this:

  • It was still a good experience! All of us enjoyed ourselves, not out of masochism but because we did have fun.
  • We had multiple back-ups and fall-backs, some of which we had to use, but we were still very far from being stranded, or having to languish in the middle of nowhere until morning. This, despite not taking the simplest precaution of leaving home early πŸ™‚

And this was in a 2012 Leaf, while the vast majority of QC-equipped Leafs on the road are the superior 2013-2015 models.

Back by popular demand: our 2012 before embarking on its way back from Lake Dorothy trailhead, deep into the Cascades. We returned it 6 days later.

Back by popular demand: our 2012 before embarking on its way back from Lake Dorothy trailhead, deep into the Cascades. We returned it 6 days later.

Other Day-Trips with our 2012 Leaf: Sultan Sultan!

As Tyrel Haveman nicely explained in this post, the Pacific Northwest, at least west of the mountains, has (compared to most parts of the country) a relatively solid skeleton of QC stations along major highways, thanks to the “West Coast Electric Highway”, funded by the Federal Stimulus. In particular, the scenic US Highway 2 crossing the Cascade range northeast of Seattle, has such spots situated ~30-50 miles apart, starting with Sultan, a small town some 30 miles of Seattle.

On a beautiful “Indian Summer” weekend in September 2013, I figured out we can use the Sultan QC spot as a launching pad to get our Leaf to a trailhead fairly deep in the mountains, and hike to Greider Lakes. That’s 50 miles each way, the last 7 miles of which are on gravel roads. We stopped at Sultan in both directions, although in retrospect only the return charge-stop was necessary. We took advantage of the 15 minutes stop on the way there, to get acquainted with this small town (and get some cookies). On the way back it fit perfectly with our need for a dinner (we finished the hike at dusk), so Sahara Pizza it was. Not surprisingly, the Leaf had filled itself up long before we finished filling up on food.

As to driving on gravel, surely Leaf is not an off-road vehicle, but reasonably-maintained gravel has worked fine for us so far. In general, if ordinary ICE vehicles can get there, the Leaf can get there too. The energy consumption per mile is a bit higher than on paved roads, but not dramatically.

Anyway… we returned from that trip with appetite for more, but unfortunately soon afterwards the weather had turned. Barring exceptions we are fair-weather hikers, which in Western Washington limits us to May-September plus the occasional non-terrible weekends the rest of the year. Regardless, in November-April you don’t usually venture too deep into the mountains for ordinary hiking, because trails and dirt roads are covered with snow.

Early this summer we managed to squeeze in two more Sultan-anchored hikes before returning the 2012 lease in mid-July. Here’s a map showing all three:

Marked in blue circles, two QC stops on scenic US-2 as it snakes its way up the Cascades. Little red markers show the trailheads we reached with our 2012 Leaf, aided by the Sultan QC (either on the way back, or both directions). You can easily go much further.

Marked in blue circles, two QC stops on scenic US-2 as it snakes its way up the Cascades. Little red markers show the trailheads we reached with our 2012 Leaf, aided by the Sultan QC (either on the way back, or both directions). You can easily go much further.

Another nice thing about the US-2 corridor infrastructure, is that there’s a second QC spot at Skykomish, about 30 miles up from Sultan. In principle even a 2011/2 Leaf can get there directly from Seattle, enabling

  • hikes even farther into the mountains;
  • trip over Stevens Pass into Leavenworth, with only a single charging stop;
  • a fall-back option if your hike is somewhat down-road of Skykomish, but you fear you won’t have range to return to Sultan.

We haven’t tried any of these yet, but sooner or later… A third nice thing is, that people can rarely drive over 60 MPH on the windy two-lane US-2. With the Leaf, if you need to squeeze out range, you really don’t want to go over 55 MPH for substantial stretches. Simply put, speed will eat up your range. On US-2 you are less tempted to do that than on an Interstate.
An Enjoyable Leaf Day-Trip: The Basics

Here’s where I come from to the EV world:

I see ourselves as participating in an ambitious social-technological experiment called “Mainstreaming the EV”. The idea is to have ordinary families – not hobbyists or serial early-adopters – use EVs as their main vehicles, functioning both as ambassadors and as Beta users for automakers. The experiment’s, or rather project’s, grand goal is a market transition from ICE vehicles to EVs – which, as I explained here, could be a major coup for global-warming mitigation, and generally good for society as a whole.

In my humble opinion, it is an immense privilege to be able to participate in this project, at little to no extra cost compared with the ICE alternatives. My role is to try and electrify as much of our driving as reasonably feasible.

So: when I drive 55 MPH on an Interstate because I need optimal range from that particular stretch, I don’t feel it’s The End Of The World As We Know It. When it takes me 30 minutes longer than ICE/PHEV/Tesla to get to a place like Mima Mounds or Lake Dorothy, I don’t feel like an idiot (even though I do laugh together with our friends, at their jokes about it).

2011/12 Nissan Leaf range chart by Tony Williams (mynissanleaf.com). In our experience, the drop-off above 55 MPH is even steeper than the chart shows.

2011/12 Nissan Leaf range chart by Tony Williams (via mynissanleaf.com). In our experience, the drop-off above 55 MPHΒ has been Β even steeper than the chart shows.

As to the practicum… the principles are simple.

  1. Plan ahead the charging availability and range – plugshare.com is the best site to use nowadays. Don’t just spot a QC location, read up the latest user reports. Consider altitude gain and loss. Think about your back-ups and be sure to have at least one.
  2. Try to arrange whenever possible, for your stops to coincide with stuff you would do anyway. For example, if we return from a hike mid-afternoon to early evening, we like to top it off with a coffee and ice cream. If we return later, we can have dinner on the way back – it saves the scramble of making one later at home.
  3. It might sound silly to spell it out, but don’t forget take a portable 110V ESVE with you (on one outing with our 2014, I was so complacent I actually forgot to take it! Fortunately there were no mishaps).
  4. Prepare the kids that this is part of the deal. Surprisingly, our drives to QC-assisted hikes were overall more pleasant than direct ICE drives of the same distance. Kids love stopping, getting out and exploring.
  5. While driving, mind the speed. On some segments, especially the home stretch, you can usually let it all go and drive as fast as the road and/or the law allow. On other segments, speed-discipline will be the difference between getting there a few minutes slower than ICE – and eating up big time for an extra charging stop, or even worse – ending up stranded.
  6. Last but not least: know and respect your own mental limits, and proceed gradually. Contrary to what some people write here, there is such thing as range anxiety. Just like with, e.g., rock climbing, some people have no fear/anxiety whatsoever and just love taking those risks – while others hardly dare drive out of their fixed routine, and feel really bad when they do, no matter what. Think about the whole “Doing it with an EV” thing as an additional adventure on top of your main trip adventure. If the affair involves other people, make sure your and their first experience is a positive one, and take it from there.
  7. ….oh, and try to leave home early.

So… if your EV has that QC port but you’ve never used it on a substantial trip, and your region has at least one useful QC spot in an interesting direction – do give it a try. And then rush over here and tell us all about it!

Questions? Concernss? Thank you.

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31 responses to "LEAF Road Adventure Can Be Smooth Sailing, Too! How We Turned Our 2012 Nissan LEAF Into An Offroad Beast"

  1. GeorgeS says:

    Good read Assaf.

    You guys have it good up in the NW.

    but one can still have a good EV experience in Arizona also.

    We are at the La Posada in in “standing on a Corner in” Winlow , Arizona for my wifes birthday.

    La Posada is a restored Mary Colter Hotel and it is rich in History and beautiful architecure designed for minimum use of heating and cooling. The hotel was build before they had A/C.

    But the cool thing is they have a new charging station here. They now have 2 Tesla wall chargers and a 20 amp 110V unit for non Tesla EV people.

    Not only that, Since we were here 1 year ago they have installed 600…..yes 600 solar panels for an impressive 130 Kw of solar PV. It is a ground mount system.

    You can also hop on Amtrack and go to Chicago or LA.

    So any EV people in Az, make a trip to La Posada in Winslow. You will be glad you did.

  2. Assaf says:

    One small addition: at present our best go-to site for trip charge planning is plugshare.com.

    That’s where you can find user reports too.

  3. Brian says:

    As usual, I’m madly jealous of your QC network. This summer I took one camping trip that exceeded my range, but being limited to 3.3kW charging and a few EVSEs being unusable made it a little painful. My buddy must have been laughing at me as he drove his Volt 70MPH down the highway, beating me home by multiple hours.

    1. Assaf says:

      Well, my hat is off to you for doing it with a Leaf!

      And if you come visit the West Coast, perhaps local EV folks can arrange for you to borrow a Leaf to do one of those QC trips.

      1. Brian says:

        Thanks! Overall, it was a fun trip. We charged L1 overnight at the campsite, and spent other charging time either shopping, eating, or playing a round of bowling with the kids. But the point is, it was an adventure that many would not have taken. Others would resort to “Just take the Prius”.

        I would love to try a road trip using QCs. Sadly, upstate NY seems to have zero interest in them. We have a good number of L2s, though.

        Interestingly, VT seems to have a robust network along I-89 between Burlington and Montpelier. I typically spend a good week in VT during the summer, this network would allow a Leaf to take easy trips into the Green Mountains for hiking, swimming, or just to visit the Ben & Jerry’s factory. The tricky part is getting there. But given that it’s a week long trip, I could make a two-day trip in either direction.

        Of course, all that assumes that my car has a CHAdeMO port (which it doesn’t). It is quite tempting to upgrade.

        1. sven says:

          At a minimum New York state could put some quick chargers at every NYS Thruway service area (aka Travel Plaza), kind of like how they have gas pumps at every service area. NYS should also install quick chargers at every parking/rest area on the NYS Thruway.

          1. Brian says:

            I agree 100%. In fact, I have emailed them a few times telling them as much. They claim to be working on it on their website, but when asked about it, the reply was “nothing at this time” or “we are ‘looking into’ it”.

            http://www.thruway.ny.gov/about/environmental/energy.html

            “the Authority is working towards installing level III electric vehicle charging stations at select travel plazas across the System.”

  4. James says:

    I don’t know, Assaf. I live here in Seattle, and I see so many LEAFs, I barely notice them anymore. A Volt sighting is more rare, although when I’m out and about I may see one if I’m lucky – two is a good day. With all these LEAFs on every corner around here – it’s amazing how I see many L2 charging stations empty. The other day I used the L2 at a Walgreens with my Volt and there was a blue LEAF 30 yards away in the parking lot.

    I think the LEAF is used primarily as a commuter, kid-and-grocery-getter. That is what it was built for. It’s funny to plug in your Volt knowing you don’t need to – and see LEAFs nearby not on the plug! To buy one and go off on a BEV roadtrip is an adventure, but there is always range-anxiety, not knowing what lies ahead at that next gasp of energy. I would literally have a Honda generator in the back of the car! πŸ™‚

    This is why we don’t presently own a BEV, and will not until Model III or something else with longer range is available. I can’t justify that expense for a car with such glaring limitations.

    1. Jay Cole says:

      Fun random fact: the LEAF has historically outsold the Volt in Washington about 4 to 1….so James, your observation is essentially correct.

    2. Brian says:

      You just about nailed it, James. The Leaf is great for a typical family. Most families have at least two drivers, with at least two cars. The Leaf is great for getting to work, getting groceries, and bringing the kids to events.

      I do think that there are two problems facing EVs for longer distance travel – infrastructure and range. IMHO, the former is far more critical than the latter. I go on long trips like that infrequently enough that the extra time at a QC is more than compensated for by the daily convenience of fueling from home. The trouble is, even in Washington state, the QC infrastructure is too rare and too unreliable to compete with the gasoline infrastructure. Longer range helps ease the problem with infrastructure, but it can never eliminate it completely. Tesla has the right combination, and it sounds like by 2018, most OEMs will follow.

      Incidentally, part of what makes the Volt so great, using so little gasoline, is that most people very infrequently travel more than 40 miles in a day. The range extender is more than a backup to eliminate range anxiety (like the i3’s, arguably), but rather an enabler that allows the Volt to travel long distances with ease.

    3. Assaf says:

      James hi,

      Yes, this is becoming Leaf Town. When I drop my son off Friday mornings, I park right next to another Leaf, and a 3rd one is just around the corner.

      You express a common misconception and confusion between L2 and QC. Most people hardly ever need L2s, because overnight home charging (either L2, or like us, mostly trickle) meets all their needs.

      The push to install tons of public L2s in 2009-2011 was misguided IMHO. True, they cost 5-10% of a QC, but the other one, when correctly placed, is so much more useful.

      Those strategically placed QCs are used fairly often, esp. on the weekends.

      And urban QC stations can function as a substitute to home charging for those who cannot charge at home. For example, the other day we went to Lake City Fred Meyers, where there’s a dual Blink QC as well as a couple of L2s, and there was a Leaf there on the QC. If you live in an apartment in that region, that duel QC can be what enables you to use a Leaf instead of an ICE car, because all you need to do is charge while shopping for groceries a few times a week.

      1. Stimpacker says:

        Can’t agree with this either. Urban QC’s are not free. Even if you have a new Leaf with the free charging card, that’s only 2 years of free charging.

        If you have to pay today’s rates for QC, then suddenly, a Leaf doesn’t look so attractive compared to an ICE car. Don’t save much money, gotta hunt for QC station, gotta wait, QC station occupied, QC station defective, etc.

        EV’s work best with at home charging when you can charge at the lowest rate via separate meter, Time-of-Use, etc. Add rooftop solar and you have a win-win situation.

        1. Assaf says:

          If you sign a 2-year lease, which is what we did and arguably the cheapest way to get to drive a Leaf (and therefore in the interest of our hypothetical apartment-dweller) –

          – then a 2-year free QC card is all you need πŸ™‚ In 2 years’ time, who knows what new EVs one can get?

      2. Assaf says:

        Regarding your observation that you charge your Volt while the Leaf sits nonchalantly at a regular spot:

        This makes perfect sense.

        Assuming you want to maximize your electric miles, given your super-short EV range you will utilize every opportunity to top up the battery.

        OTOH, the Leafs you see can easily do 80-100+ miles in the city. Why bother with the inconvenience and expense of using public L2, when your driving plan for the rest of the day doesn’t come near to using it up?

        For example, our home to SeaTac airport is 43 miles round trip. There are a dozen-plus guaranteed EV parking spots there, but you must use trickle to park. I almost never use them; why bother? OTOH the number of Volts and PHEVs there, compared to Leafs is always larger than what you see on Seattle-area roads.

        For Leaf and Model S drivers, the value of trickle for the half-hour you are there is very small; if we use the spots, it’s really just to save looking for parking πŸ™‚

    4. Stephen says:

      I can attest too that Seattle is crawling in Leafs and Teslas. It was quite a shock this August doing a road trip to Glacier and Yellowstone NPs. After passing Issaquah I saw a grand total of 1 Leaf in Montana and 1 Volt in YNP in those 2 weeks.

    5. BraveLilToaster says:

      “I would literally have a Honda generator in the back of the car!”

      Personally, I don’t see the point of doing that, since the best it can provide is 110v, and you can find *that* everywhere. Just pack the backup EVSE.

  5. Stimpacker says:

    Hmm, sorry, can’t agree with this.

    The Leaf is certainly no “offroad beast”. It’s a good little city car, nothing more.

    My Leaf is a 2013 model with the QC package. Can’t go anywhere with it. Heck, can’t even RELIABLY take it from one end of town to the other. Range drops during winter. Plus you won’t find me driving at 55mph when everyone else is going at 70mph+.

    I tried taking the Leaf ONCE to a NEARBY spot for hiking/camping. Only 20 miles away. Easy pie – NOT. The drive there was a slight uphill and the battery charge dropped like a rock. Had to slow down to 60mph (and got yelled at by the wife for going slower than the 18-wheel semis). Left home at 90% charge and lost 50% charge getting there. That severely crimped our activities. Wanted to drive around but could not. No L2 within walking distance and no way, I’m gonna make the family hang around for hours charging.

    So like James said – the Leaf is a good commuter-kid-grocery-getter. You won’t catch me taking the Leaf up the mountains even if there are charging stations. It just can’t go uphill unless you wanna creep like an idiot.

    1. Brian says:

      Something doesn’t seem right to me. How much elevation gain is there in those 20 miles? What were the outside temperature and climate control settings?

      40% of the battery (90 to 50%) is about 8kWh. So you averaged 2.5 miles/kWh? I get about that when I’m driving 72mph on the highway, and the temperatures outside are below freezing and the climate control is set to 65F. But cruising at 60mph without climate control I get over 3.5 miles/kWh. Granted, that’s flat ground, but you claim it was only a slight uphill…

      1. Brian says:

        Correction – you claim that you lost 50% of the battery, not to 50% like I thought. So that’s 10kWh, 2 miles/kWh. I don’t ever get that low efficiency unless temperatures are in the single digits and I’m driving on the highway.

        1. Stimpacker says:

          Yes, Brian, that awful trip was freeway driving. Well, to get to any mountains from my home, I have to get on the freeway.

          Temp was pretty good. It was early Dec. So I’d say in the 60’s to low 70’s.

          Other than that, where I live, the land is relatively flat, making my average long term efficiency at 4.0 mi/kWh.

          So going uphill at freeway speeds in a Leaf was a rude awakening. I’d expected it to be bad but not that bad.

          1. Brian says:

            Not sure where you live, but here early December typically means temps in the 20s, and 1-3′ of snow on the ground!

            I’m still surprised by your numbers. Not saying I don’t believe you, just surprised at how low they are. And I’ve been driving a Leaf for over 2 years now.

            1. Assaf says:

              There’s a ‘contact us’ link up on top πŸ™‚

              The email is insideevs@gmail.com. You just email your story, Jay will do the rest!

    2. Assaf says:

      Yeah, as the chart in the article shows, if you drive 70 MPH your range will drop like a rock.

      That said, with our 2014 the problem – as well as climate-control depletion – seems much smaller than it was with our 2012. I will wait a few months before drawing conclusions. But the S trim might not include the more energy-efficient AC; maybe it’s just the SV that we have, and upwards (not sure).

      Look, as my tips say it’s best to expand your comfort zone gradually, and it’s fully understandable that some ppl’s comfort zone will never accommodate this.

      But that doesn’t mean it’s not doable and enjoyable.

      This summer we camped with our 2014 Leaf at a park 110 miles from home, and took it from there on a day-trip to one of the most scenic spots in the Cascades, 38 miles each way from the campground and at an altitude of 5200 feet (the campground was at 800 feet).

      And the entire trip – to the camping, to the mountain and down, and back home – was done without wasting any time due to charge/range limitation. Maybe a few minutes slower than a speed-loving ICE, over the entire 300+ mile trip.

      That of course merits a separate blog post… coming soon?

      1. Brian says:

        I look forward to reading about that trip. And if I’m ever inspire to write about it, one of these days I want to share my experience on the aforementioned trip up to the Thousand Islands in NY.

        1. Assaf says:

          Please do share! Sounds inspiring.

          1. Brian says:

            I will do what I can. I have no idea how to share on this site, though, so it will probably be via ChargeNY.com

      2. Stimpacker says:

        I too would look forward to reading about it. I’d like to hear about trip planning, energy usage, charging experiences.

        Thank you.

        1. Assaf says:

          My reporting might not be up to the level of others here with tons of detailed charts; all I’ll have is whatever Carwings gives – but I’ll try my best πŸ™‚

      3. BraveLilToaster says:

        Yeah, we actually made a trip like that this summer too. Went about 120 km, plugged in at our campsite overnight, and after some sightseeing, came home. The kids also enjoyed the park by the L2 station we stopped at on the way out for lunch so much that they insisted we stop there on the way back, although we didn’t need much of a charge.

  6. Rob says:

    I have to take issue with your headline of “How We Turned Our 2012 Nissan LEAF Into An Offroad Beast”
    YOUR idea and MY idea of what an ‘offroad beast’ is, are VERY different!

    I had visions of raised body, mud terrain tyres, longer softer springs, bull bar, winch, spot lights, etc…
    V E R Y disappointed πŸ™

    Can you not take your own generator with you to top up your battery pack when ‘offroading’?

    1. Assaf says:

      Welcome to the blogosphere Rob.

      Apparently your idea and my idea of “environmental footprint for leisure activities” *are* indeed very different πŸ™‚