Picture this: You are making a trek through the forest, where all around you is a sense of serenity and tranquility. Wandering through it, you begin to appreciate the delicate ecosystem around you and the tumultuous activity that is happening all around you, unseen.
You pause and surrender to your heightened, more visceral senses, and notice the many layers that build up the forest ecosystem. All around are plants and animals, big and small, in a constant fight for survival and then you realise – while nature provides us with the means to live, humans are the only creatures that can decide the fate of the ecosystem.
Living in our concrete jungles, many of us seldom, if ever, make trips back to mother nature, and as a result, we rarely see the impact that urbanisation is having on our planet’s health.
Case in point is our utter reliance on cars to get around in a city like Kuala Lumpur. Fact is our public transport, while much improved, isn’t connected enough so that we can easily get by without owning your own transportation. But many studies have shown that cars are easily one of the largest contributors to the decline of a planet’s health. So how can one be more responsible for our vehicle, particularly its impact on the environment?
I had an opportunity to take a “walk in the woods” in the city a little while back, as I was chosen to be a Nissan Leaf Ambassador for six weeks. For those 42 green days, I had a lot of time to reflect on the collective impact of cranking up our conventional vehicles to go about our business on a daily basis.
So, here are my thoughts based on those 1,800 hours of giving back to mother nature. This is an ownership experience story and not strictly a car review, as there are already many write-ups about the Leaf which can be found right here in this blog. Thus, I will concentrate on relating what it’s like to live with an electric vehicle (EV) as my everyday car and being a proud “green” citizen.
Back to my earlier point – we have little choice but to use cars to get us from place to place. So, for an EV to fit the bill, it too should be able to provide us with the same utility, as normal cars should. Did the Leaf manage to do this for me? The answer is a resounding yes! A caveat applies however, as EVs are not going to be ideal for everyone. If your daily commute exceeds 100 km or if you currently stay in an apartment style dwelling, then EVs will probably not work for you.
During the time I spent driving around and talking about the Leaf, it became very apparent that almost everybody had questions about the car. The most asked question was related to range. Funnily enough, many remarked that they wouldn’t be able to go to Ipoh because of the range limitation – what, suddenly, everybody living in KL was from Ipoh?
Anyway, how far the Leaf could and would go was a major issue and admittedly, it was foremost on my mind at the beginning. Truth be told, if all you do is potter within the city limits, a 100 to 120 km range between charging is going to be sufficient 99% of the time. So I would argue that the Leaf doesn’t have a problem with the range, as much as it has a problem with people’s perceptions or fears.
In this regard, the Ambassador program is a bit of a masterstroke for Edaran Tan Chong Motor. By allowing the Leaf to be field tested by independent third party users over an extended time, it has stories and examples that prove that the Leaf can fit into the lifestyles of most city dwellers in Malaysia.
For instance, one of the first batch of Ambassadors had to endure two to three hours of traffic jams commuting to and from work every day. Happily, he never ran out of juice at all. While he had his doubts at the start, he now extols the Leaf for its frugal use of power when it is stationary. In fact, stop/go traffic helps regenerate the battery power.
All throughout this six-week trial, the Leaf Ambassadors kept in touch and shared stories about our usage of the car. It became apparent that the more we used the Leaf, the more confident we were with its range and the more we trusted the on-board computer/diagnostic system. The diagnostic system calculates car’s range every 500 meters of use, taking into consideration a whole bunch of parameters such as driving speed and battery power.
Towards the end of my trial, I left home from Section 6 in Petaling Jaya to pick my son up in Saujana with only 36 km of range indicated. I then proceeded to my office in Bangsar, where the charger was located and made it with less than 10 km left of battery power. If this had happened when I first got the Leaf, I would have been incredibly stressed the whole way. This time, I trusted that the Leaf would make it, and it did.
Coming back to that walk in the forest. The best thing about the six weeks was that I did not directly burn any fossil fuels at all. It felt right and good to know that I was contributing much less to the destruction of nature. While the marketing folk might want us to believe that the Leaf has ZERO emissions, truth is almost all of the electricity we use is produced by the burning of fuel, which means that until ALL the electricity we consume comes from renewable energy sources, we will have to take ZERO with a pinch of salt.
In Malaysia, our electricity comes from two main sources. The burning of coal and natural gas and hydroelectricity, which means that no matter what the brochure says, there is still going to be emissions somewhere.
Still; electrical power plants are far more efficient in extracting the energy from the fuel it burns. Coal & Natural Gas electrical plants convert 40% of thermal energy into electricity, and hydroelectric plants have an efficacy rating of 95%. On the other hand, modern petrol engines have a maximum thermal efficiency of between 25 to 30%, which means you are getting only 30% of your money’s worth for useful motion. The rest is rejected heat loss through your exhaust and radiation. What I am getting at is that the generation of electricity is a far more efficient use of natural resources than our petrol cars.
Go to a basement car park and feel the amount of heat trapped in there and you get an idea how much heat is being generated by our cars. Our cities will be a whole lot more pleasant place if there are less emissions – both gasses as well as heat. The Leaf is remarkably cool in the truest sense of the word.
The efficiency also positively impacts your wallet. In those six weeks, I travelled a total of 1,785 km and consumed 361.4 kilowatts (kWh) of electricity. Using the highest TNB tariff bracket for domestic homes, which is 45.4 sen per kWh, I spent RM164.08. How much would you have to spend on petrol for your own car to cover 1,700 km? I reckon this is probably the most important factoid for most readers. After six weeks, the proof is in the pudding. Yes, you can save a significant amount of money.
There is much more to the Leaf though than simply being energy efficient and saving money. It is also a pretty decent car.
Driving the Leaf is best described as uncomplicated. I cannot stress how simple the car is to use and how innocuous the whole experience is. The Leaf will never be a driver’s car, and it certainly wasn’t designed that way. Tuned for a luxurious ride as opposed to taut handling, the Nissan engineers have certainly achieved what they set out to do. The car wafts around in glorious comfort. This is the closest you will ever get to a Rolls-Royce type experience in a family hatchback. The smooth acceleration coupled with the comfortable suspension system delivers this magical ride.
The soft suspension falls apart once the Leaf goes beyond 80 km/h in anything but a straight line. Once the road starts getting curvy, the Leaf starts to lose composure very quickly. Is the Leaf a dull drive then? Not entirely.
The Leaf still can put a grin on your face. It is the traffic light drag king! Having all 280 newton metres (nm) of torque available to you from zero revs per minute, the Leaf sprints away from just about any car at most standing starts. Petrol engine car drivers will have to be really committed to beat the Leaf’s lag-less “press and go” abilities. Before any normal car can even start slipping their clutches, the Leaf is already several car lengths ahead. I never tired with playing this game, and neither did others. Once, I let a Porsche owner have a spin and even he was very impressed with the acceleration.
Still, you would not want to drive like that all the time, as there are penalties to having a heavy foot. Spirited runs sap the battery very quickly, as does maintaining high speeds in excess of 100 km/h.
What then on the top speed? I managed to get the Leaf beyond its advertised 140 km/h top speed easily though, and I was told that the car could easily hit 160 km/h. I believe them! Let’s just say that the car wasn’t designed for speed, and accept it for what it is. Yet, I believe most regular drivers will be perfectly happy with what the Leaf can offer.
I used the Leaf as my ONLY vehicle in the entire six weeks, as I would have my normal petrol engine car. I ferried friends and family around, went all the way to Shah Alam to pick up a racing bicycle, which I must add, fit into the back passenger’s foot well easily. We also managed to do some Hari Raya open house visiting. In short, the Leaf fit right into my everyday lifestyle, and I didn’t have to change my habits to suit the car, except for planning my trips a bit more carefully.
There are a few little niggles that if given the chance, I’d sort out with the Leaf. The LED headlights are sufficiently bright and are highly energy efficient, but the high beam is weedy. It probably is a Japanese thing, but they should really install a louder horn. The tiny honk is just too polite to get any real notice. I would also have Nissan spec more utility into the Leaf, such as hooks for hanging plastic bags or bungee cords in the boot. I bought some lunch one day, and I ended up carrying the plastic bags full of hot soupy noodles in one hand while driving because to avoid having its contents spilled.
Another thing I would improve is to add a backlight for the door lock/unlock button. For some reason, the rest of the buttons on the door panel have lights, except for that one. Try unlocking the door for someone at night and you will understand why it should be lit! The brakes could also be a little more positive, as they are quite spongy and the stopping power is not great.
All said though, these are small and insignificant issues that if, and when, addressed, would make the Leaf even easier to live with. The final thing on my wish list is a shorter recharge time. Not the DC quick-charger but an improvement to the standard ‘trickle’ charger, which will almost halve the charging time – I have heard that this is on its way.
To be sure, EVs in Malaysia will take a lot more effort to market than hybrids, and the authorities must do their part to make this happen. The adoption of EVs will probably also take a lot longer than the hybrids, as perceptions need to be changed before the public will be able to feel comfortable enough to buy them. The cost of these vehicles will also certainly be a hindrance, as they would cost more than hybrids in other markets.
At the very least, EVs like the Leaf will have a fighting chance if authorities continue to “green” extend tax exemptions when the cars make it to market. Greenies such as I all have our fingers crossed that these tax breaks continue. Priced within means, I will almost certainly buy an EV such as the Leaf.
When my period as Ambassador was over, I felt a tinge of sadness at having to give up the Leaf. I had grown really fond of it, both as a car as well as a lifestyle. Being a little more merciful to the environment resonates well with me. Until I do become a true EV owner, I suppose I’ll have to plan more actual walks in the forest!