October 26, 2011
Opinion: My 2011 Nissan Solyndra
Last June, I wrote about my initial love/hate affair with Nissan’s all-electric production car. Since then, people keep asking me how I like my Leaf.
Here’s what I tell them: I am ready to turn over a new Leaf — my own.
This is not easy to admit. First, because it makes me feel like a jackass. More than a year ago, when I first read about the Leaf, I put my deposit down and eagerly waited eight months to buy the car. If America is ever to end its dependence on fossil fuel in general, and foreign oil in particular, we must develop sensible, economical alternatives. Not only that, we have to actually buy them.
According to every ad and brochure Nissan put out, the Leaf gets 100 miles per charge. With federal and state tax credits and subsidies, its $34,000 price tag approached a more affordable $22,000. Another federal subsidy would cover the estimated $2,400 cost of installation of a 220-volt charger in my home. I wouldn’t be spending a penny on gas, I’d be sticking it to the Saudis, and I’d be leading the way to a brighter future.
Well, half the way.
Because after driving this car for five months, I can tell you I have yet to get 100 miles per charge. The last three times I measured, it was 55, 58 and 58.
My life now revolves around a near-constant calculation of how far I can drive before I’ll have to walk. The Nissan Leaf, I can report, is perfect if you don’t have enough anxiety in your life.
I told a friend of my disappointment, and his response was, to say the least, humbling.
“You mean to tell me,” he said, “a car advertisement lied?”
OK, I fell for it. Who’s to blame?
Well, Nissan. Over and over, they promoted the Leaf as getting 100 miles per charge. They still do — and Leaf owners have yet to weather their first winter, when heating will gobble up even more mileage than air-conditioning.
At the AltCar Expo in Santa Monica a few weeks ago, I stopped by the massive Nissan Leaf display. I wanted to see if the company was sticking to its rap. As a crowd gathered round, a perky model in a tight T-shirt lifted the car’s hood.
“It’s not even an engine,” she said, pointing inside, “but we make it look like one ’cause that’s what y’all are familiar with.”
The crowd giggled along with her.
I raised my hand. “How many miles does the Leaf get per charge?” I asked.
“A hundred,” she said.
The audience oohed and aahed.
Five months ago, I did the same when the salesman at Santa Monica Nissan told me that. (He also assured me there are no problems installing home charging systems. I balked when the actual estimate came in close to $6,000.)
But I’m to blame, too. I bought the car. I signed the papers. I wanted it to prove a point. The life lesson: A fool and his ideology are soon parted.
I know a few Leaf owners who are happy. Keep your daily mileage requirements far, far below 100 miles, and you’ll find the Leaf zippy and well engineered. Economical? I’m not so sure — if you only drive 20 miles a day, is your gasoline bill high enough to justify the Leaf’s nonsubsidized cost?
The final straw for me came in late August. My gauge said I had 82 miles available, and I decided that was enough to drop off my son at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley. You may remember that in my first Leaf column, that was the exact trip I assumed I would never be able to make in a Leaf. Well, guess what?
Alonim is 35 miles from our home. I drove below the speed limit on the freeway, windows down so I could keep the mileage-guzzling AC off. Nevertheless, by the time I arrived at camp, I had only 31 of the original 82 miles left. That’s been my experience day in and day out — the gauge reports a best-case scenario that lures me into magical thinking. I left Alonim and drove another 10 miles to Mission Hills. Reported miles: 82. Actual miles driven: 41. Now the gauge showed me having three miles to go.
Knowing that charging stations are as rare as monorails in L.A., I decided to pull off the freeway and drive very slowly to the closest Nissan dealership, where I could put in more juice. I called my office and told them I’d be late, as I had to charge enough to drive the next 20 miles. That would take two hours.
Needless to say, I didn’t join the electric car parade held on Main Street in Santa Monica two weeks ago. Nor did I rush out to see this week’s new documentary, “Revenge of the Electric Car,” which documents the efforts behind the Tesla, the Leaf and the Chevy Volt. I didn’t have to go see “Revenge of the Electric Car.” I’m experiencing it.
The Volt’s gas engine, by the way, kicks in after 40 miles. So what do I tell the people who stop me to ask how I like my Leaf? “Buy a Volt.”
I still believe the electric car is the future. But the raised public expectation for new technology can easily create a wicked backlash among a public already skeptical of change. Witness the recent Solyndra debacle, when the federal government pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into an over-hyped solar technology company, leaving taxpayers leery of supporting the development of the next good idea.
Nissan must be feeling some backlash now, as well. Leafs — which the company had expected to sell out — are piling up on dealer lots like, well, fallen leaves.
So, here’s my advice to any company trying to push the next new thing to save the environment: If you want to save the world, lose the hype.
To read my previous column about the Leaf, click here.