The Electric Car Driving Experience. Part 1: Around Town and Hill and Dale

Had to sneak in a picture of Pennsylvania Native Ray Harroun, winner of the first Indianapolis 500. He’s behind the wheel of a Marmon Wasp, not an electric.
  • True or false.  The electric car is small and tinny and generally uncomfortable.
  • True or false.  The electric car is underpowered.
  • True or false.  The range of an electric car is still too small to be practical.
  • True or false.  The weight and distribution of the batteries in the electric car makes it poor in handling.
  • True or false.  The electric car is expensive to maintain.
  • True or false.  The instrument panel of an electric car is difficult to understand and manage.

Guess what?  The answers to all of the above questions are false.  Preacher Beckerman is here to assist you in getting over your anxieties of operating an electric car.  And although we can’t place you into the seat of an electric car to drive around,  my soaring prose should fire your imagination to feel that you are riding beside me.  Or some sh*t like that.

I can speak to the Nissan Leaf experience as we have had one for two months and have put around 1,600 miles on it.  Having had my driver’s license for 50 years with over a half million miles under my belt, I have been behind the wheel on practically every type of passenger vehicle around, as well as a 1974 Suburban and a 1967 Ford F-100 farm truck.  The Leaf is both like and unlike other vehicles on the road today.

The impression you get driving a Nissan Leaf, and probably most other electric cars, is just how normal it feels.  It has 4 passenger doors and a hatchback. You swing open the door, throw your butt on the seat and paw for the seat belt always behind you on the left in a place you almost can reach.  You pull the door shut and adjust the seat and the mirrors, because your spouse used the car last and is somehow not the exact height and trunk length you are.  Ready to go, you put your foot on the brake and press the on switch, which is where the old cigarette lighters used to be back in the day.  You can find the switch because it is lighted even though the car is not started.  You can also find the switch because it is also the same type of starter that the Prius has and I suspect most modern cars have when they use a fob system.  Once upon a time there was this thing call a key and you pushed it into a keyhole and turned it until you heard a starter motor turning. That is unless you owned a 1966 Volvo, in which case you needed to pull out the manual choke first and of course put your left foot on the clutch and the right one on the brake.  In my lifetime no less.

When you push the starter button, you get a few reassuring clicks, but nothing else, no starter motor, no engine noise.  The instrument panel in front of you goes from the dormant how-many-hours-until-the-car-is-charged mode to the operating mode.  If the parking brake is on, you press that switch and it makes a barely audible brrrr as it turns off.  Provided you have opened the garage door, you are ready to go, putting the car into reverse with that nubby little stub of a shifter.

As you back out using either the techy butt-cam as a guide or the old-fashioned over the shoulder look, the steering is remarkably tight, meaning you have to pay attention not to drive the car into the grass on either side or the light pole on the left as you exit the driveway.  Reaching the street, you put the car into drive and hit the gas (now merely a metaphor).  What is the gas pedal on an electric car called, anyway?  The weasels at Nissan call it an “accelerator pedal.”  But the brake is called the brake pedal not the decelerator pedal, so something fishy is going on here. Where’s George Carlin when you need him?

Whether hitting the gas or accelerating, the Leaf jumps to.  The biggest learning step to driving the Leaf is how quick it is from a full stop.   Almost instantly, you are at 25 mph.  What is deceptive is that getting there is in pure silence.  The dc motor doesn’t rumble, whine, or whinny.  You do have to pay attention to your speed as it always feels to be less than it is.  This should not be surprising as the more famous Teslas have 0-60 mph times slightly behind the Porsche 918 Spyder and ahead of the Lamborghinis. Electric cars do have excellent acceleration. The Leaf we have can reach 0-60 in 6.5 seconds, faster than the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, or Chevy Malibu, but slower than the Dodge Charger R/T.

While driving, the Leaf is incredible quiet and most of what you hear are the tires, wind, and other cars on the road.  This is a serious safety issue that will have to be addressed and soon.  Pedestrians simply can’t hear the car coming, with no muffler and no engine noise.  Currently, new cars sold in the EU must come equipped with an acoustic sound system that will produce a sound when reversing or driving below 12 mph.  The new electric Ford Mustang will generate synthetic motor sounds which apparently is like a SCI-FI v-8 in a Bladerunner movie.  Personally, I would prefer Joe Pesci yelling at people to get the f**k out of the way.

2019 Leaf Battery pack

Driving the roads, hill and dale, an electric car handles just like a regular car- brakes brake, the steering wheel turns, the accelerator thingy does its thing.  The Leaf is not a large car, certainly not the Buick, more on par with the Prius, perhaps a smidge smaller.  The seats are comfortable and adjustable and even heated (an option we took to get the safety package).  Other than the overall quiet and the quick acceleration, an electric car is about as normal as a car can get, once you have it on the road.  Speaking of handling, the batteries on the Leaf are situated low in the body literally between the four wheels.  This helps keeps the Leaf on the road, in twists and turns.

2019 Leaf Dashboard

With regard to the instrument panel, Nissan has divided duties between the instruments that are in front of the steering wheel and instruments on an 8-inch touch screen where the radio would be.  The instrument cluster in front of the steering wheel gives you the standard time, speed, etc.  The central control panel is where the standard radio, phone, and climate controls are placed.  As with most recent cars, much of the audio, climate control, and cruise controls can be operated on the steering wheel itself. The differences between the 2019 Leaf and the 2015 Prius are only one of degree and probably due to the difference in ages of the two cars rather than the one being electric and the other a hybrid.  What the Nissan does have are additional screens in both panels to monitor and track electric usage.  The kWh gauge replaces the mpg gauge.  On the touch screen display there are gauges to monitor climate system electric usage versus other systems usage, overall usage and scenarios for added or reduced range from turning the climate system on or off.  Most of these additional gauges and displays are geared to help the driver control and monitor the overall range.  

1927 Chevrolet dashboard
1930 Ford Model A dashboard

As a historical note, the locating of controls and gauges to the right of the driver is not new.  In the 1920’s, all of the controls were in the center of the dash, not in the driver’s line of sight.  In summary, the location of controls and gauges in the Leaf, an electric, is very similar to that of the Prius.  The main difference is the addition of gauges that monitor electric usage.

And as a final point, when driving home from an errand and past a gas station, I usually smile as this vehicle will not be visiting there, unless I need a coffee or beef stick.  The routine we’ve settled into is to charge the Leaf overnight on our Level 2 charger we have in the garage.  With a charge, we are getting about a week’s worth of travel around town and running errands.

In another post, I discussed the issues of range, availability of charging stations in Pennsylvania, and cost of operation.  The intent of this blog was to demystify the actual driving experience.  Driving an electric car is much like driving a gas-powered vehicle, except it is quieter and has more pep.  All things being equal, I’ll stay with the electric car as a superior form of transportation, at least for local trips less than 75 miles.  Based purely on the driving experience, if you are in the market for the next car, Preacher Beckerman says you should take a look at an electric.

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