Electric vehicles have made headlines recently, after car manufacturers like Nissan began lowering prices. A new round of discount leases on certain plug-in cars like the Nissan LEAF, combined with enticing federal, state and local incentives could make these types of vehicles affordable for the average American.

Neil B.’s Nissan Leaf

Despite the price cut, electric cars still face an uphill battle in terms of being able to achieve mass public appeal. They account for less than 1% of total vehicle sales in the U.S. in the first four months of this year, according to HybridCars.com.

So what exactly do you really know about electric-powered cars, other than it being better for the environment and never having to fill up at the gas station? How much does an electric car cost? What should you expect, in terms of maintenance, saving money on gas and receiving those hefty price incentives? 

All of these questions and more are addressed in a chat with two Californian residents and Nissan LEAF owners Neil B. and Jade W., who share their experiences.  Both Neil and Jade also own a Toyota Prius (a hybrid car), and say both vehicles have been worthwhile for their family and lifestyle.

Would you consider ditching your gas-powered or hybrid car for electric?

MBT: How long have you owned or leased an electric car, and what aspects of owning this type of vehicle appealed to you most?

NB: I purchased my 2011 Nissan LEAF in June of 2011, so I’ve had it for almost 2 years now. I really appreciate not being a slave to Middle Eastern oil Sheiks and ever-increasing gasoline prices. Also, I feel good about helping to reduce environmental pollution. But the bottom line: I really bought it to save money in the long run.

JW: We’re very close to 22 months of ownership. The idea of not having to use fossil fuel daily appealed to my husband and me most. Plus, electric vehicles are so much fun to drive… lots of torque, smooth and quiet rides, and they usually include a lot of techy features and options.

MBT: What was the cost of your vehicle?

NB: My purchase cost, out the door, was just under $38,000.

JW: We bought our LEAF SL  with the fast charging port at the MSRP price plus options, taxes, license and delivery fees for under $40,000 before incentives. We had purchased 4 new cars before the LEAF and had never paid MSRP!

But, our LEAF purchase was a very unique experience for us. It was at a time when many other purchasers were  still in the queue receiving their pre-orders after waiting a year or more for the first mass-produced EV. We bought what was called an “orphan,” which is a LEAF that someone had custom pre-ordered and opted not to purchase when the car arrived.

We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many high-tech employees were more than willing to pay premium for the privilege of driving one, especially with the available HOV stickers to drive in the time-saving commuting carpool lanes. With a child in college, we couldn’t justify paying above MSRP, but have no regrets to this day about paying MSRP for our very first time. We love driving electric!

MBT: These cars are pricey! What type of discounts, tax breaks or incentives did you receive?

NB: I received a $7,500 federal and $5,000 CA tax rebate (which reduces the total purchase prices to $25,500). I also received a complimentary charging station installed in my garage, with a separate meter. I receive electricity for about $0.07 per kilowatt by charging between 12 A.M.-6 A.M. using the charging timer provided with the car.

JW: We were able to receive the full federal tax credit for $7,500.  This credit is applied towards the federal tax liability you owe for the year you made the vehicle purchase. It cannot be applied towards multiple years. Keep in mind, that it’s up to the maximum of $7,500. For example, if you only owe $5,000 in tax liability during your EV purchase year, you are only eligible for $5,000 credit. Smaller credits are allowed for other type  EVs.

For our family, this was a great way to insure that a portion of our taxes was applied directly to something we felt strongly about… helping to advance sustainable transportation! The federal tax credit is still available.

We also applied for and received the $2,500 California Clean Vehicle Project Rebate. Currently, the funding in California has been used up and a waiting list has been established. Each state, if they have an electric vehicle incentive program, would probably differ from others, so potential purchasers should do their research regarding the state in which they live.

Also, being residents of an eligible city, we applied and qualified to participate in a multi-year electric vehicle charging study. With it came an EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) and a flat amount to cover its installation so we could charge our EV at home. This program is not available in our city anymore, but potential buyers could double check if any programs or incentives are available currently where they live. If not, and you need to purchase an EVSE, there currently still is a potential 30% federal tax credit, up to $1,000 for consumers. With the Nissan LEAF lease, they got the full $7,5000 credit up front.

MBT: When shopping around, did you notice a difference in the car-buying process when purchasing an electric car, compared to buying a gas-powered car?

NB: Since I was one of the first to take delivery of an EV, the price was not really flexible.  I did manage to receive a $1,000 discount under MSRP, with a local dealer. Most dealers were charging right at or over MSRP during the first year.  A comparable ICE (which stands for Internal Combustion Engine), a gasoline car was certainly cheaper, but I don’t really compare the two. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

JW:  We had a very unusual experience. In looking for an orphan, we ended up buying our EV from a Southern California dealership over the phone, sight  unseen, and drove it 345 miles home!  (Yes, LOL, on our first real EV drive… after one dealership test drive, we had a 345-mile trip! A trip with a range like that would be more common now with the current public charging infrastructure, but about 2 years ago… it was quite different! We plotted our charging route prior to the trip.  After driving the first segment, we felt pretty confident with the car.) This was actually our easiest, most adventuresome, and memorable new car purchase of all!

With Nissan’s Tennessee assembly plant building the 2013 models vs. Japan’s, there might be lower costs and more stock so there could be more room for price negotiations. There are three models of the LEAF vs. only two during 2011 and 2012. So in addition to negotiating, a lower-cost model can be had if desired. Recently, there have been some awesome leasing deals. For many, the price of the monthly leases are lower than what they paid for gas.

A lot of purchasing/leasing information can be found on  EV forums. A San Francisco Bay Area LEAF non-profit group has a Facebook page where members are very helpful.

Jade W.’s LEAF

MBT: How many miles can you go before having to recharge? What does this cost?

NB: My 240V EVSE (electric vehicle support equipment) charging station is on a separate meter, which was provided and installed free of charge by San Diego Gas & Electric. My electric bill for this special meter averages around $14 per month, because I receive a special TOU (time of use) rate at night for electric vehicle charging only. The cost of charging at my home station, at night, is about $0.07 per kilowatt, which equates to about 1 1/2 cents per mile. So… I’m driving about 750 miles per month for about $14.

Depending upon how fast I drive, if I’m climbing hills, if I need to use the heater, etc., I can easily drive 65-70 miles before having to recharge the battery. This is significantly less than I had originally expected. The Nissan LEAF was promoted as having a range of up to 100 miles. In order to do that, I would have to drive around 40-50 mph, on level terrain, without heat or AC, etc.

If I were driving a gasoline powered car that gets 30 mpg and gasoline costs $4 per gallon, the direct operating cost of my LEAF is the equivalent of around 250 mph.

JW: I generally estimate around 66 miles on the freeway with a full battery. This estimate allows me to drive with the flow of medium speed traffic and have enough comfortable range to get to a charging station. I don’t bother to calculate local driving miles. There’s always plenty of that and to get home and charge while we’re sleeping.

Because we’re on a tiered utility plan at home, it’s hard to estimate the cost.  But it’s about a couple of dollars from empty to full. A little less than driving our hybrid Prius. If we charge at public stations, it could be free, as many places, especially with fast charging stations are still ramping up or possibly gathering experience and not collecting fees yet. They’re not totally reliable now, but definitely it’s been a nice bonus for being an early adopter!

MBT: How long does it take to fully recharge the battery?

NB: If the car is completely discharged, it takes about 6 hours or so (using a 240V circuit) to fully recharge the battery. If you charge with a 120V regular household outlet, it takes about 14-16 hours. To lengthen battery life, Nissan recommends charging to 80% when feasible, but charging to 100% doesn’t significantly degrade the battery unless you leave it that way for an extended period, especially in hot weather.

The LEAF cars in Phoenix, Palm Springs, and other hot areas have experienced significant battery capacity losses due to their high summer temperatures. It is also not a good idea to drive until the battery is completely deleted. Obviously, you don’t want to be stranded somewhere, just like you would if you run out of fuel in a gas car.

MBT: What are basic costs involved with owning an electric car?

NB: Basic costs for maintenance? Here’s where the EV (electric vehicle) really shines. There is little or no routine maintenance! There’s no engine, so that means there’s no engine oil, oil filter, radiator, fuel tank, fuel filter, fuel pump, catalytic converter, muffler or tailpipe.

An example of maintenance involved is from the owner’s manual, which says to rotate the tires at 8,500 miles and again at 17,000 miles. Change the cabin air filter once a year (if dirty).  Check this, check that.  I do these things myself, so I haven’t had any routine maintenance costs. But, if you take it to a dealer for these “checks,” they may charge you $100 or so.

JW: This is one of the great pleasures of owning an electric vehicle. There’s not much maintenance! I’ve only spent $25 for tire rotations in almost 2 years of ownership. Many have spent $0. Every 6 months the tires get rotated. At 2-3 years, the brake fluid and air filter gets replaced. Nissan includes 2 annual battery pack checkups for free. Many dealerships will provide complimentary car washes as well.

The regenerative brakes, like on the hybrids, have a pretty long life. There is a 12-volt lead acid battery in the car for running the accessories, etc. that will probably need to be replaced, like on an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle.

Because the battery technology for EVs is still new, even Nissan has a difficult time giving us a price for a replacement battery pack. In time, like the hybrid battery, when it’s time to for replacement, I would imagine the cost to drop.

The factory warranty is 36 months/36,000 miles.  The main battery is warranted for 10 years/100,000 miles.

MBT: Were there any “hidden” costs involved with owning an electric car that you weren’t expecting?

NB: I haven’t experienced any “hidden costs.” But this is a technologically advanced, complicated vehicle. I’d guess that major repairs to the electronics would be very expensive.

After my 3 year/3,6000 mile warranty expires, I may decide to purchase an extended warranty.  The cost for an extended warranty is about the same as it would be for a gas powered car.

JW: None yet for us.

MBT: Can you calculate how much you’ve saved in gas, after purchasing this car?

NB: I’ve logged approximately 13,000 miles on the car so far. Based on $4 a gallon for gas, I’ve saved about $1,200-$1,400 vs. driving a gas car that gets 25-30 mpg.

JW: Since we were driving one of the most efficient of hybrids at the time of the EV purchase, I don’t think it was that much. For us, it’s more important that we didn’t burn approximately 400 gallons of gasoline in two years’ time. If we compare that to the minivan that we currently have parked at Grandma’s house, it would be closer to 1,000 gallons of gas! That’s just for one car in our household! We’re also happy to have some solar panels on our roof to provide some of our electric needs.

MBT: That’s a nice chunk of change, Neil!

There seem to be some stigmas that people have when it comes to owning an electric car. For example, many people believe electric cars are too expensive, can’t go fast, or they are “weak” compared to gas powered cars. Do you find this to be true?

NB: In initial cost, electric cars are expensive, when compared to gasoline powered vehicles. But you have to look at the whole picture. My LEAF can cruise easily at 80 mph (but the range will be significantly reduced at that speed, just like a gas car will use more fuel).

Acceleration is actually superior to a comparable gas car, because the electric motor has instant torque regardless of RPMs. I don’t make it a habit to exceed the posted speed limits, but I certainly have no problem keeping up with traffic.

JW: Our EV at MSRP, with the incentives, would have been close to a similarly equipped Prius/Camry /Accord.  There are some, but definitely more choices of cars to come with different configurations and price points. Plus, later on, with economies of scale & newer technology, the costs should come down without the help of incentives.  As is now, I think they are quite competitive. Especially if you take into account all the other ICE vehicle maintenance not required.

EVs take off really fast and smoothly (nothing firing or gears changing). They’re so fun because of their instant torque. Driving one, you will understand why we have what’s called the “EV grin.” They definitely are not weak! Our EV is a very low maintenance, reliable, utilitarian daily driver family car, esp. with a hatchback. But, if high-end performance and styling is more important, then a Tesla would fit that bill. The thing that you do learn though, no matter if you’re driving a pure gasoline car, a hybrid or an EV, the faster you go, the more energy you use… so the more fuel is needed… no matter the source.

MBT: Would you recommend this car to everyone?

NB: In my view, anyone who has a regular commute of 60-70 miles round trip is a perfect candidate for an EV. Just plug it in before you go to sleep, and it’s ready and waiting when you get up to go to work.

You can even use your cell phone or computer to pre-condition the cabin, so it’s all comfy when you get in.

If your commute is more than 60-70 miles, you’ll have to have to charge it at work. If you have access to a regular 120V electrical outlet at work, and get permission, you can plug in while you’re working. Many employers have/are installing 240V EVSE units for employee use. Of course, a 240v station would charge the battery more than twice as fast as the 120V outlet, but there is always the issue of significant installation costs.

I’m retired so most of our driving is local: to church, the golf course, the bank, the grocery store, playing taxi for the grand kids, etc.  So, it’s perfect for us.

JW: No, because it won’t work for everyone. Just like with other cars, one type will not work for everyone. Current battery technology for those that have a high daily range demand will require more than the overnight charging at home. Or those living in cold climates will have a reduced range. For now, the charging infrastructure is still building up. I would rather see them wait a little longer to get what they need.

Most other EVs have a thermal management system for their battery pack. Nissan chose that the LEAF does not, so I wouldn’t recommend the LEAF to those who live in hotter, ambient climates. But EVs will work for many people, so I would recommend it for many people!

Most, like me, drive 30 miles or less each day. It’s so easy to plug in each night. There are a lot of lucky employees where there employer has installed workplace chargers. So they can plug in while at work! And as time passes, after you’re over all the techy-ness and the newness of the car, the realization of how clean it is to use domestic electricity vs. gasoline really sinks in. You’ll end up rolling up your windows to keep the fumes and noise of ICE cars that you weren’t aware of before, and now totally notice the difference, out of your EV! And you’ll join the fast growing group appreciating  how awesome electric cars are as an alternative!

MBT: Would you recommend a lease or purchase?

NB: I purchased my LEAF, but with some of the lease promotions now offered, I would seriously consider a 24/36 month lease. I also expect that technology will be changing rapidly with electric cars, so leasing may be the way to go.

I’m sort of opposed to car payments (from the old school, I guess) so that’s why I purchased mine.

JW: Because we don’t have a lot of history with lithium ion car batteries yet and some people are worried about their future driving needs and costs, I would suggest thinking about a lease. Especially since many current drivers just really look forward to the latest technology.

For those who live in cooler ambient climates and don’t drive that much per year, a purchase might be a better option. Before their purchase, some already planned to hand down their current EV to a child/another family member. There shouldn’t be any issues if the battery capacity degraded some. Each situation should be looked at individually. Both could be recommended.

MBT: What are you most dissatisfied with?

NB: The biggest drawback for me is the limited range. Since there aren’t very many public charging facilities available (more are being installed every day), I have to carefully plan any trips in excess of 40 miles from home. There is also the continuous vexing problem of gasoline powered vehicles parking in EV reserved parking spots and blocking the charging station.

There also seems to be some hostility against EVs. Why? I really don’t know. The Nissan LEAF is now manufactured in the U.S.A., in Smyrna, TN, creating thousands of jobs.

JW: No dislikes, as it’s working really well for us, but just really hoping for: the battery technology to improve quickly so we can drive electric everywhere! I am also hoping for batteries to be smaller and quicker to recharge. The fast charging infrastructure to grow and become dependable.

MBT: Are there any perks you received through your insurance, like discounts, after buying the car?

NB: My insurance is about the same as on my previous cars.  A big plus here in Southern California is that electric cars are allowed to use the HOV lanes with a single occupant. Other areas of the country also have various perks for driving EV’s.

JW: We haven’t received any discounts with our EV yet. We have with our hybrid car. I was thinking maybe when there’s more of a history, our insurance company will offer it. When we purchased our car, some insurance companies still didn’t have the LEAF listed. I’ve read on the forums that others have received EV discounts though.

MBT: If someone were in the market to buy an electric car, what would you tell them?

NB: Since I am a “mature adult,” I’ve owned around 25 cars in the past 60 plus years. I will say, without reservation, that the Nissan LEAF is the best car I’ve ever driven.

It is eerily quiet, handles amazingly well (low center of gravity with main battery placement), the AC is superb. My wife absolutely loves it (is that important or what?). I must say that the heater on my 2011 is very inefficient and uses a lot of electricity, which reduces the range even more, but I understand that the 2013 models have made a big improvement in this area.

JW: Do as much researching and reading online before your purchase, so you don’t have any regrets. There are more EV choices now than two years ago, but not enough yet, so you might not get exactly what you were hoping for. A short wait (1-3 yrs) might bring more improvement and options. Be sure to look into the excellent incentives to make the purchase sweeter.

EVs drive like an ICE car, but so much quieter, smoother and cleaner. If you have a choice, you will most likely elect to drive the EV as much as possible!  So if you lease, make sure you have an good estimate of miles to include.

Call your utility about rate plans and use any online calculators available to get an estimate of increased electrical cost. Public charging is not widely available or reliable yet, so when range is critical, make sure you have a plan B and C. EVs have been adopted at a much faster clip than hybrids. Hopefully, the charging infrastructure will keep up. And, soon they’ll have and understand the EV grin!

MBT: How does the LEAF compare to your Prius?

NB: In 7 years, we have driven our 2006 Prius over 55,000 miles. We love it, and have logged a lifetime average of around 48 mpg. Due to the limited range of the LEAF, we have to have a gas car for long trips, so we will keep the Prius for now.

JW: Our hybrid Prius was the gateway to pure electric driving! We loved the quietness and smoothness when the ICE engine was not engaged. When we needed to purchase another vehicle and the Prius kept coming back as the best option, we decided to be a little more adventurous than having a duplicate car, by going pure electric. That was the only way to one-up. Each car shines in its own way.

The Prius makes our 900-mile round trips at least 4-5 times a year with not much planning needed. It was safe and the most efficient 5 passenger vehicle regarding gas mileage. The Prius is actually on college duty, taking care of our older child for the past 2 years. It is low maintenance and perfect for the busy full-time student who works part-time! An EV would not have fit this situation as well. That’s why we love the Prius for what it does.

The LEAF is smoother and quieter more of the time (no ICE warm ups like on the Prius). It has more torque than the Prius. And best of all, it doesn’t require any fossil fuel to run it daily. The maintenance is even less than the Prius. It does require some careful planning for charging on longer trips. It works perfectly as our daily driver at home.

Both are a perfect utilitarian size for our family. Our favorite being that they each have a hatchback 5th door and foldable back seats. We can carpool, make Costco shopping trips, transport projects/a bike/wheelchair/ladder, etc. with ease. Fun things like camping works too.

MBT: Will you ever go back to a car that takes gas?

JW: No, I wouldn’t want to if at all possible! I still love our hybrid, truly appreciate it for all it does and I think it will run for years to come.  LOL, it’ll be our “gas guzzler.” Hopefully, the EV battery technology will come along quickly before our next vehicle purchase so it can have our hybrid range so the Prius will be our last vehicle purchase which burns fossil fuel!

MBT: Do you have anything else to add?

NB: I firmly believe that advances in battery technology within the next few years will produce an electric car for less than $30,000, with a 500-mile range, that can be recharged “on-the-go” in 15 minutes or so.  When this happens, everybody will be driving one and we’ll buy another EV! That way I won’t have to argue with my wife about who gets to take the LEAF today.

JW: I noticed that people are most willing to ask us questions when we are parked, especially when we are at a public charging station. It’s great that they are curious and that we can share our enthusiasm. Like you mentioned, there are a lot of misconceptions and by sharing our experiences, people would be less tentative to try something new.

I think that sustainable transportation is a very important issue for our country and the world.

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