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The one big problem with New Zealand’s favourite electric vehicle

Published: (Updated: ) in New Zealand News by .

A car should last more than 10 years if it’s looked after, right? If it’s a Nissan Leaf, perhaps not, writes Joe Canham.As autumn wears on, you’ll have noticed the trees change colour and their branches become bare. You’ll have also noticed we’re living through a climate crisis, and a great thing about trees is […]

A car should last more than 10 years if it’s looked after, right? If it’s a Nissan Leaf, perhaps not, writes Joe Canham.

As autumn wears on, you’ll have noticed the trees change colour and their branches become bare. You’ll have also noticed we’re living through a climate crisis, and a great thing about trees is they like to munch on the CO2 we generate. That is surely what Nissan was thinking about in 2010, when it launched an electric car named Leaf.

Fast-forward a decade and a bit, and Leaf has proven itself a crowd favourite, having sold around 300k units worldwide. If trees are a symbol of environmental sustainability, Leaf is a symbol of low-emissions road travel for the masses. Thanks to our used import market, thousands of Leafs (Leaves?) now reside in Aotearoa. Heck, you probably know someone who drives one. Maybe you drive one yourself. If you’re considering Leafing it up, there are things to think about – including one important issue that isn’t talked about nearly enough.

The positive difference a battery-driven powertrain makes to a car’s emissions over its lifetime (compared to a fossil-powered equivalent) is well understood. Electric vehicles (EVs) are not perfect, but they’re a hell of a lot cleaner than fossil-powered vehicles. It’s been proven over and over. In New Zealand, EECA’s study is just one example.

While the evidence is compelling, we can’t all afford to go grab a new Tesla for NZD$70k+. The Leaf is not sexy, but you can pick up a decent pre-loved one from around $15k – a fact which has won a lot of people over. Because of this relative affordability, the cars are everywhere, and general awareness of the benefits of EVs is growing as a result. In this area, Leaf has made a huge contribution to the cause.

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What it’s really like to own an electric car


The elephant in the room is not how far the Leaf can go between charges – anyone who has an earlier model Leaf will know that they might have to get creative with charging from time to time. The ethical issues surrounding the mining of certain metals used in EV production (the same issues associated with all our personal electronics) should also be acknowledged and considered. But today we’re talking about a problem particular to the Leaf, a longevity issue originating with its battery design.

Where it all began: the 2011 Nissan Leaf (Source: Nissan USA)

Since the early part of this century, hybrid and pure-electric vehicles have used battery technology similar to that you’d find in a smartphone – meaning they’re more reliable than ever. This is why some manufacturers are confident enough to offer decade-long warranties on their EV batteries. Despite these advances, we all know that cellphone and laptop batteries get weaker over time. It’s a process is called degradation, and it’s caused (in part) by temperature extremes.

Most manufacturers consider this, and to compensate their vehicles are able to “actively thermally manage” their battery packs. By heating or cooling the battery based on outside climate or charging conditions, it’s kept happier more of the time, and its usable life is extended. Unfortunately, no Leaf has this technology on board. Aside from a limited cooling capacity using airflow, Leaf batteries are at the mercy of nature.

As you’d expect, this results in accelerated degradation. It’s not uncommon for earlier model Leafs to suffer up to 23% energy loss in the first six years. That may not sound like a ton, but for a car that started with a potential 135km range on a full battery, that’s a reduction to 104km before it’s even celebrated its seventh birthday.

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I think back to 2014 when I got my first car, a 1989 Toyota Corolla assembled in Thames, and how that lil’ red beauty managed to serve 26 years before giving up. Are those days gone? If the idea behind a low-emissions vehicle is to be kinder to the environment, shouldn’t it be built to last a long time? If a Leaf could lose almost a quarter of its battery capacity in its first six years, what use will it be when it reaches my Corolla’s age?

Enough rhetorical questions. Check out this data from EVs that employ the smarter active thermal management than the Leaf;

2015 Tesla Model S: average capacity loss of 10% over 4 years, 7 months

2014 Chevrolet (Holden) Volt: average capacity loss of 4% over 5 years.

A 2014 Nissan Leaf? An average capacity loss of 23% over 5 years, 8 months

2021 Nissan Leaf car

The Leaf in 2021 (Source: Nissan USA)

Active thermal management was a thing before the Leaf came to be, so clearly a decision was made to not include it. This might have been due to the added cost passed onto the consumer. That was somewhat understandable in 2010 when the cost of batteries was much higher than it is today – but in 2021, when basically every other EV has active thermal management, it seems more short-sighted than ever.

Because of all this, some Leaf owners now are faced with replacing batteries on vehicles that are less than 10 years old. Forget for a moment the cost a replacement battery – having to replace your car’s battery after so short a time seems to almost defeat the purpose of driving electric in the first place, even if the original pack is recycled or repurposed.

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I don’t want to alienate Leaf owners here. Most people who choose to drive a Leaf do so with the good of the planet at heart, which is the kind of decision-making we need to see more of. And if it wasn’t for affordable used Leafs flooding into the country, fewer people be aware of electric vehicles and how they can contribute to a low-emissions future. The Leaf is still a great vehicle, albeit with faster range loss than other models.

So, if you already own a Leaf, make the most of it. If you’re thinking about owning one, keep this in mind. From an expected longevity standpoint, it makes little sense to buy a brand new Leaf today but the decision is trickier when it comes to the pre-owned ones – they were manufactured years ago, so people might as well drive them. Whatever way you decide, do your research, and more (electrically-generated) power to you.

Related:

Electric car or solar panels: which reduces your carbon footprint the most?

Source: The Spinoff https://thespinoff.co.nz/money/25-05-2021/the-one-big-problem-with-new-zealands-favourite-electric-vehicle/

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Finance Advice 2021