We take a Nissan Leaf across Ireland. For once, the driver emits more than the car does
You know that feeling of getting into your car and hurriedly pulling out your charging cable to plug in your phone before it shuts down and dies? Even if you don\’t get to your car, you can always plug it into a battery pack. But if your car is about to shut down and die? What then?This is the chain of thought that went through my mind when I first considered doing a cross-country road trip in Ireland in the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is a pure electric car, which means it doesn\’t have a handy little petrol engine tucked away to recharge the batteries, should they run out. This car runs on batteries that needed to be recharged every 250km. In theory, that is. I now know, after a week with the car, that with my kind of driving and not using the air-con at all, I had to get to a charging point around the 190-200km mark.
When the idea first came about, I had a look at the ESB website. This company is responsible for setting up charging stations around Ireland. The website, as well as the iOS and Android apps, have a handy map that not only show where charging stations are located, but also whether they are unoccupied or if there is a car plugged in. As of now, charging stations all over Ireland are free to use and there is no money to be paid. Then I interposed my planned route map with this charging points map and I realized that the idea was quite feasible. Michael, who came to hand over the car to me at Dublin airport, gave me a piece of sound advice. \“When you\’re sleeping, your car needs to be charging. ALWAYS\\!\” On that first day, I had to get from Dublin to Enniskillen \– a distance of 180km. The car\’s charge was already down to about 70 per cent with the range under 170km. The shortest route between the two places had no charging points so I had to take a route that was 20km longer so that I could stop and charge the car at Monaghan that had a CHADEMO or a Fast Charger.
My first impression of the car was that of pleasant surprise. It was really quick \– 0 to 100kph in less than 8 seconds and the power didn\’t taper off all the way until 150kph; that was the maximum speed it could go at. As could be expected, it was eerily silent and vibration free with only tyre noise coming into the cabin. I came upon the M3 motorway and settled down at 120kph, marvelling at the fact that I was emitting more carbon in the car than the car was emitting into the environment. In fact, it was emitting nothing at all. But soon, my elation took a minor hit as I realised that at this speed, the range was dropping faster than the kilometres were racking up. I eased off to 100kph and found that at this speed, there was a sort of uneasy equilibrium. If I turned on the air-con, the car immediately told me that my range has dropped by 8 kilometres. Fortunately, though, I could do without the air conditioning.
I arrived at Monaghan just in time because no sooner had I flashed my card at the machine and plugged in the fast charger that another Leaf pulled up. It was the previous model and the woman at the wheel was momentarily quite peeved that another car was already plugged in. But like most Irish, within a moment, she got over it with a mental \“oh well, that\’s that\” and started talking to me about her experience with the Leaf. She told me that she didn\’t regret buying the car at all. It took her about a month to figure out the real-world range and charging times vis-a-vis what the car was indicating and ever since, it has been smooth sailing. My car\’s charging indicator told me that in 20 minutes, I would have 50 per cent charge, more than enough to get me to Enniskillen and so, at that time, I unplugged to make way for her. This is called charging etiquette, a sort of electric car Karma if you will, because tomorrow, I could hope to expect someone to show me similar consideration at another charge point.
Taking Michael\’s advice to heart, I requested the staff at the Manor House Country Hotel if I could park somewhere close to a household electric plug point so that I could charge the car overnight. Connected to a domestic plug point, it would take about 8 hours to charge to 100 per cent. The next day, I got to know this nifty little Nissan a little better as I drove from Northern Ireland into the windswept regions of the Wild Atlantic Way running through the rugged northern headlands of Donegal. The roads were undulating and I had the car on regenerative braking mode, so every time I wasn\’t accelerating, the wheels were giving electrons back to the battery. It took me some getting used to because in the non-regenerative mode \–\ \‘D\’ mode \– the car would just freewheel when I lifted off, but in the \‘B\’ mode, it would feel as if I had shifted down to a lower gear and was using engine braking.
You would think that the Leaf is essentially a city car and not meant to be going up and down Donegal\’s crumpled northern topography. But this car is refreshingly quick-witted and it feels as if it is impatient for you to mash down the throttle and let it loose. Often, I would imagine the electrons akin to Cru\’s minions locked in a room vibrating with excitement and impatience just waiting to be let out. Whizzing past five cars, following a slow-moving motorhome, is like a stealth attack on the said cars because the Nissan goes by so soundlessly.I had 197km to drive before my overnight halt, but going up and down mountains including the 12.4 per cent gradient of the Mamore Gap meant that my range dropped frighteningly. However, it clawed back by about 8 per cent during my descent where I made it a point to make the best use of regeneration. Fortunately for me, there was a charge point in the council house car park in Carndonagh where Bren Whelan was waiting to show me around Malin Head on the Inishowen Peninsula where some scenes from Star Wars \– The Last Jedi were filmed. So I plugged in my car and hopped into his car.
That evening, I was staying at the Ballyliffin Townhouse and they kindly let me park in the warehouse, amidst beer canisters, because there was a plug point close by. In the coming days, I found that the helpful Irish of county Donegal often went to great lengths to ensure that I could charge my car overnight. This included lending me extension cables and opening up private garages at odd times of the day. It was the next day that the car showed me its handling prowess because I drove a twisty part of the Wild Atlantic Way around Lough Swilly. There is definitely understeer when powering out of a corner in the wet. Otherwise, its steering is nicely progressive and because of the low centre of gravity, thanks to the batteries along the floor, the car feels quite planted around twists and bends. This was the top-of-the-line version and it had what Nissan calls the \‘Pro Pilot\’ bundle which includes adaptive cruise control, lane departure juddering on the steering and steering assist to keep the car within its lane. I promptly disabled the latter two within half an hour with the car, but would often use the ACC while following traffic because the car cleverly balanced battery consumption and regeneration.
By my fourth day with the car, I had sort of worked out a system. At breakfast, I would review my route for the day and, if I needed a zap before my overnight halt, source the charger. Usually, my driving distances every day were less than 200km, so I didn\’t have to really worry about range and watch the way I drove. I could hotfoot the car. When I did need a charge during the day, I would use those 40 minutes to download my photographs, update my social media and answer my emails while the battery rapidly charged to 85 per cent. The charging slows down drastically over the last 15 per cent intentionally, to protect the battery and extend its life.I think the car also learned my driving style and would often drop the range from 240km to 210km within a few kilometres of starting off on a full charge. I thoroughly enjoyed this natty car that has a clean conscience but a feisty heart. Not once did I wish that I were driving a petrol hatch instead. Often, I would get out of the car and wonder why it wasn\’t locking only to realise that I had forgotten to switch off the power \– no sound and vibrations, see\\! It mirrored my iPhone through Apple Carplay, the Bose sound system was concert hall like and it is quite roomy on the inside too. The boot is decent sized and has to be shared with the Bose subwoofer and two charging cables that are long and thick like pet pythons living there.
I had only one incident of inconvenience and that was during my drive from Galway to Dublin Airport, a distance of 220km. I started off at 4\:50am with 88 per cent charge and soon realised that at 120kph and with the heater turned on, there was no way I would get to Dublin. The closest charging point was 124km away and to get there too, I had to either opt to drive at 100kph with the heater on or 120kph without the heater. I chose the latter as it was a very, very cold morning with the temperature hovering around 1 degree Celsius. But I got to the charge point with about 15 per cent to spare. And in about 35 minutes, I had enough juice to get me to the airport and for the car to get to the dealership from there. This car may not have a power band like a petrol-engined car, but it has a broad sweet spot when it comes to likeability and usability and oh, affordability too. My only cost of transport on my week-long Irish road trip were the tolls between Galway and Dublin and that felt oh so sweet. Words\:\ Rishad Saam Mehta