A Day in the LEAF

“I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade”

On the verge of coming down with a cold, it was a pleasant surprise to hear from Tim Gallagher, Nissan’s West Coast Communications Manager. He gave me the news that I could borrow a LEAF for a couple days. My own LEAF is slated for the big April shipment.

Ryan Grady of Charge Harbor had been the previous driver, and he gave me a run-through of the basics (good refresher since I last drove a LEAF four months ago) He also set me up with a ChargePass card, which would soon be put to good use.

I was surprised by how soon I got hit with the first gotcha. I plugged in the included Nissan Level 1 cordset and got a ready light, but no charging. Had to delve into the Charging section of the Owner’s Manual. “When charging..” it read, “place the power switch in the OFF position.” Whoops. I still had the car on. Trickle charging worked as expected after the vehicle was shut down.

We loaded up and drove off to J1772 mecca, the area around South Coast Plaza.

We drove off with the windows rolled down to see if we could hear the VSP. I think I can barely hear an artificial sound being added to the normal inverter whine, but it’s very slight. This car may not be set up exactly like a production model, so this may not be a good scientific test.

“He blew his mind out in a car”

Going down the highway, I wonder if I should check in with Tim. Then I realize he’s probably not too worried, since Nissan can keep tabs on the car. Is Nissan watching me right now? (adjusting my tin-foil hat) Not being used to OnStar or other telematics systems like the CARWINGS system in the LEAF, this is a new feeling for me.

We drove by a Wahoo’s Fish Taco, and the kids said they were hungry for lunch. However, I reminded them there is also a Wahoo’s at our destination. So a note to business owners. Food + Charging > Food. In this case, one business benefitted from the mall’s decision to install public charging.

Our destination was the public charging station under the Crystal Court, which was featured in this blog post. There is now a CT2100 station installed here, which allows simultaneous Level 1 and 2 charging.

Coulomb station display

Using the ChargePass card is easy. Swipe once, and the station is activated, and the J-plug is released. Plug it in and you’re good to go.

“I’d love to turn you on”

The vehicle key, like with other modern cars, is not a key at all, but a proximity device. Nissan calls it an “intelligent key”. In the RFID world, this type of device is usually called a fob. In the LEAF, this means you can simply keep the key in your pocket or purse. To start, step on the brake, and hit the power switch. To turn off the vehicle, no brake is required, just a press of the power switch. When leaving the car, just press lock, and you’ll hear the chirp signifying all is secure.

However walk up to the locked hatch, and you’ll notice that upon pulling on the handle, it opens. Was this due to the key being nearby? We tested by locking the doors and walking the key away. Sure enough, when the key is far away, the handle stays locked.

When we returned from lunch, I pulled the J-plug from the vehicle. Sure enough, I got an SMS text on the cell phone I had set up with the ChargePass card. “Charging Suspended due to Plug Out on SOUTHCOASTPLAZA/LL SCPW 01. (and a phone number to call for help)” Having been the victim of failed charges before, this is a welcome service. To stop a charge session normally, you swipe your card before pulling the J-plug, and that results in no text message alert.

Charging stations at South Coast Plaza

We looked at the navigation map and saw another charger nearby. I wasn’t familiar with this location, so I zoomed in as close as possible to see how easily I could find it. I had no problem finding the right parking structure, however I didn’t know which level I was looking for. Is there a way in CARWINGS to get this information? I couldn’t find it. If there isn’t a way to convey location information like this to the driver, I hope it’s considered as an improvement to the CARWINGS system.

We found the station, drove in between the safety cones, and plugged in.

Jim and Jennifer

After the mall, we drove to our friend’s home. Jennifer drives a 2008 GMC Acadia. She says technology changes so rapidly, her new car was outdated the moment she drove it off the lot because it had no Bluetooth. She seemed more interested in the creature comforts of the LEAF, than anything under the hood. She liked how any time you press a climate control button, relevant information is shown on the bottom portion of the touchscreen. She liked the XM radio, and helped set up some channels. She was impressed with the legroom, although ideally she would have liked even more hatch space.

Jim has been driving pickup trucks for many years but recently switched to a Prius to handle his longer commute and loves his new MPG. He was impressed with the pep of the LEAF. In ECO mode, he felt it had more power than the Prius’ own ECO mode. He thinks there should be no issue off-the-line or merging into traffic.

By the time I left their house, I had my Nokia N900 paired with the vehicle. We tested out receiving a phone call using the car as a hands-free device, making a phone call using the vehicle touchscreen, and using the N900 as a music player. All worked as well as I had hoped.

Connell Nissan

I was desiring some quick kWhs, so we took a chance and drove up to Connell Nissan. This is my preferred dealer (PD). I had heard they were getting a Quick Charge station installed, so I wondered if it was ready. I plugged into one of the three AV EVSE-RS stations in front. Mark and Elise Ranauro met us and told us the station is still in the works. Connell has a Nissan EV Specialist on the premises and two engineers from Japan, and having a Quick Charger on the lot would help the engineers troubleshoot any potential issues and study possible battery degradation. Mark says he should have more detail about the charger install come April. Connell has delivered three LEAFS so far, and has a shipment scheduled for March.


It was getting to be a long day, and I was feeling progressively worse. However we wanted to plan our dinner that night around another charging station. It was my wife’s turn to drive. Kelli, like Jennifer before her, had to understand the climate controls before she could even think of stepping on the accelerator.

Driving down PCH, we noticed the red master warning light (triangle) was flashing on and off intermittently with a chirp. This wasn’t normal. Kelli pulled over, and I went to get the manual, which I had left in the hatch. The hatch handle felt loose. Sure enough, after closing the hatch properly, the light went away.

As we pulled into the charging station at Fashion Island, my daughter noticed two people studying the other charging station. She wanted to yell out the window, “Look this way.. We’re in a LEAF!” All day, while I was taking the notes for this post, she had been tracking one unique metric. How many groups of people looked knowingly at the car or smiled as we drove by. By the end of a half-day of driving, she was already up to five.

Which port do I use?

Kelli performed the ChargePass ritual and plugged in the J1772 connector. I noticed the station was reading “Car not Ready”. I showed Kelli how to push the J-plug in until you hear the click. The charging then began.

Most of these are little things that may catch a new driver on the first day out. Honestly, after about three hours, I felt so used to the car that I already find it difficult to think of going back to my traditional car.

“And somebody spoke and I went into a dream”

My prediction is that new LEAF owners will be surprised by how quickly they get into the rhythm of their new ride. Finding a charging station can be a joy rather than a chore. The technology in the LEAF all feels well thought-out and natural. Rarely has the future felt so comfortable.


LEAF thoughts

  • As noted above, you can’t start charging unless the vehicle is off. However, you can start the vehicle electronics after charging has commenced. This is useful if you want to use the nav system, listen to the radio while charging, etc..
  • The Nissan Level 1 cordset is ungainly. Usually, to prevent an extension cord from kinking, I leave one end on the ground to rotate freely while I wind up the rest. This isn’t possible with this cordset, because you don’t want to drag the box, or the expensive J1772 connector along the ground. Thus, the wind-up quite a juggling act.
  • The window up/down buttons are a bit tricky, especially getting the window to stop where you want it.
  • When the car is off, the power outlet in the center console also turns off. This is unfortunate if you want to leave a device charging. I’m sure the intent is to make sure the auxiliary battery doesn’t get drained.
  • The icon for “charging” looks so much like a traditional liquid fuel pump. This appears in various places in the dash, and the display. When I’m looking for how to pop open the charge inlet door, the last thing I’m thinking of is a gasoline pump. I’d like to see a better internationally recognized symbol that represents the concept of charging.
  • Jennifer noted the light interior would get dirty soon (common complaint, which I believe is being addressed for 2012). At least the flooring is relatively darker.
  • We did notice the static spark issue (the weather around here has been pretty dry). My daughter saw an unexpected upside, however, when she imagined getting out of the car at school, and being able to “zap” a friend.
  • The reason for the red master warning light coming on can be a bit tough to decipher
  • USB integration is so easy. I plugged in a flash drive with some music in a directory. The audio system automatically switched to the USB input, found the music, and started playing it.

ChargePoint/ChargePass thoughts

  • Not all charging events appear to be recorded in the ChargePointPortal Usage History. Our visit to one of the South Coast Plaza stations was never recorded at all.
  • I loved being able to use the new generation of charge stations. I can see this being hugely appealing at first for a new LEAF owner. However I know this isn’t representative of my normal day. Usually, I don’t use public stations at all. Most of the time it’s drive to the office, drive back, ad nauseum.

PS: In looking to see if someone had used the Beatles-inspired title of this post before, I ran into this great advertisement, which captures many of my points above perfectly.

Plug in & get connected!

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