Regardless of the motor in it, a big consideration with many vehicles is aerodynamics. If a car cuts through the air with very little resistance, fuel economy is going to be better. This is even more crucial for battery-powered cars, like the 2019 Nissan Leaf we were loaned the other weekend. There’s only so much room in a car for batteries, and ‘re-fueling’ the car – i.e., charging it – takes much longer than the few minutes it takes to fill up a tank of gas. So, the less air resistance there is, the further the car will go on a charge.
This is all to say that putting two 16-foot Canadian canoes on a Nissan Leaf, and then driving 250km on an expressway to a lake is about the worst thing you can do, as far as getting the most range possible is concerned. On paper, the 40kwh 2019 Nissan Leaf can do 400km on one full charge*. In reality, how did this high-spec G-class Leaf fare?
After 5 hours to cover 200km, we well and truly found out.
About the reviewers: We’re a 30-something couple with no kids, living permanently in northern Japan. We spend most weekends and holidays in the outdoors (ski touring, hiking, cycling, canoeing). We don’t own a car – this is an eco-conscious as well as convenience decision. We never need to use a car during the week, and we can rent cars for $30 for 24 hours from a place 3 minute walk from our apartment. We also have a friend who we car-share with.
About this review: This Nissan Leaf was loaned to us by the Sapporo Central Nissan dealership, as part of Nissan’s overnight Leaf test-drive campaign (details in Japanese here). Sapporo Central Nissan offered us a slightly longer two-night test drive.
*About range claims: Japan has two accepted car range standards – WLTC and JC08. The 40kWh Leaf range is rated to either 322km (WLTC) or 400km (JC08) (source). The 62kWh version is rated to 458km (WLTC) or 570km (JC08).
The 2019 Nissan Leaf has a huge trunk, with plenty of room for four people’s adventuring gear. Eco-friendly if you live somewhere with clean electricity. Really efficient for running around town , especially using the e-pedal. Cheap to run in Japan, with 2,000yen/month unlimited fast charging subscriptions. $6500 subsidies are available for new-car purchases.
Battery is too small (40kWh), driving at 100km/h with two 16-foot Canadian strapped to the roof. NOT eco-friendly if your electricity is generated using coal.
Before getting to the nitty-gritty range question, I’ll jot down some notes about gear capacity. In short, this new edition of the Nissan Leaf is amazing. It was the first thing I noticed about the car. In fact, it was the most important for me, because the only time we use a car is on the weekends or holidays, going on outdoor adventures. If the car didn’t have enough room to take at least four people’s worth of hiking, ski touring, or canoeing gear, then it was useless.
On this weekend trip, it was just me and Haidee, but the cavernous rear hatch-back trunk took a 60 liter canoeing barrel, plus a 120-litre drybag, four life-jackets, one two-person packraft, and all the other camping paraphernalia, and it was still only about half full. We opted to fit the paddles in by dropping the single back seat, but even then, we’d snugly fit two people in the back bench seat.
In short, I have zero qualms about fitting five people’s gear into this car for an overnight or longer outdoor trip. Huge box ticked for us.
Putting two canoes on a Nissan Leaf
Besides completely destroying any higher-speed range (more on that below), it’s pretty straight forward topping two canoes on a Nissan Leaf. Since we were borrowing this car, we put our two Nova Craft 16-foot Prospector canoes on our home-made foam and aluminium rack. I made this based on the idea by Ely Outfitting in the US – video here. This is our go-to solution for rental cars too – we don’t own a car, so we have to get pretty creative when it comes to putting stuff on rental car roofs.
The rack goes on the roof, and is held there by two straps that go through the car. The canoes then go on top of the rack.
The Nissan Leaf auto-ish pilot
Nissan is slowly moving towards self-driving cars. In this G-class car, we had two main headline features – the Pro Pilot and an automatic parking feature. We had two canoes on the car most of the time, so were not game enough to try the automatic parking, but we did use the Pro Pilot a lot.
Pro Pilot is essentially a fancy cruise-control, which will maintain a set speed, and also a set distance between you and the car in front. It also takes control of the steering wheel, although this was patchy in its effectiveness – the expressways in Hokkaido are not known for their consistent white lines, so we had to be vigilant. Even then, Nissan requires drivers to hold the steering wheel at ten-and-two, with sensors in the steering wheel making sure drivers don’t cheat. Pro Pilot will disengage steering assist after about 30 seconds with hands anywhere but ten-and-two.
I also used Pro Pilot a lot on the normal roads, in normal stop-start traffic. I went about 30km through traffic-light stop-start heavy traffic, without once touching the brake or accelerator pedals. Trusting the car to come to a stop by itself took some getting used to!
Later, after gushing to the dealership about how amazing the Pro Pilot was in stop-start traffic, they sheepishly told us that actually, Pro Pilot is only allowed for use on expressways in Japan. “But a lot of our customers tell us they use it on the low roads anyway,” the representative told us.
Electric car charging on long distance trips in Hokkaido
There is ZERO excuse to run out of juice while driving an electric car in Hokkaido. Take a look at the GoGoEV map, here. Fast-charge stations are everywhere, even way up on Rishiri Island. Planning a trip around charging stations takes some getting used to, but after just a couple of days, we were getting the hang of keeping aware of where we could charge. Furthermore, the car navigation system would speak up if it thought we wouldn’t get to our destination with our current charge. It would then offer to suggest some charging stations along the way. This made planning a no-brainer.
We had a free password for Nissan dealership fast chargers, so we didn’t have to pay to use theirs (we used them three times). We did pay for fast charging on a couple of occasions, both times at expressway service areas. These cost 1,620yen (approx. $15) for 30 minutes, which would give about a 15-18kwh charge if charging from around 40% battery.
There are also fast-charge subscription plans for 2,000yen per month for unlimited charging. In this case, subscribers receive a card that just needs to be touched on a card reader – super fast and easy.
Read that again. 2,000yen for unlimited charging. That’s about $20 a month for ‘fuel’. Definitely cheaper than gasoline.
On the Leaf, there’s two charging ports – a 200V one and a fast-charge port. Unfortunately, Japan has a 100V mains electricity supply. To charge using the 200V port, users need to have a converter cable. Using a 100V power supply – such as from a ryokan Japanese inn or campground etc. – it’ll take about 16 hours to charge the car from empty to 100%.
We checked in advance with the camping ground we were staying in at Lake Shumarinai, and they had said we could charge the car on their mains for 400 yen. Unfortunately, we weren’t supplied with a 100V charging cable, so we couldn’t actually take advantage of this option to charge at the campground we were staying at.
Nissan Leaf range (with two Canadian canoes strapped to the roof)
It was alarming. Truly terrifying. The rate at which the battery was draining was quite startling. We were driving with the Pro Pilot set to 105km/h, on the expressway. And it was draining fast. I wish we had more detailed stats on this. The most scientific that we’ll get is that after our first charge of the trip (at the Sunagawa Service Area), we were at 82% battery. The next charge was at the Nissan dealership in Shibetsu Town, and we limped in with 10% remaining. We’d only covered 99km. 97km of that was traveling at 100km/h on the expressway. With two 16-foot Canadian canoes strapped to the roof.
According to my calculations, that’s an average of 3.4km per kwh (or 29.5kwh/100km).
Which only equates to a theoretical 136km on a full charge.
Most Leaf owners here in Japan are reporting at least twice that, about 6-9km/kWh (source), so the canoes are well and truly killing the efficiency.
At this dismal efficiency – which is, mind you, no fault of Nissan’s – we really would have appreciated the larger-battery 62kwh version of the Nissan Leaf.
Now, you might say “well 100km+ at expressway speeds with two Canadian canoes strapped to the roof isn’t too bad.”
And it isn’t bad. But when you still have another 100km to go to get to your destination, charging from 10% battery to 80% takes about one hour using a fast charger. Even if you were to be more sensible about it and stopped every 50km or so to top up for 30 minutes (a 30-minute charge will give you about 16kwh), that’s still a whole lot of extra time added to your journey.
According to Google, the 212km journey from our place near Shin-Sapporo Station in Sapporo City to the gorgeous Lake Shumarinai in the north, should have taken up to three hours. It took us five hours. From 6:30pm to 11:30pm.
Yes, charging gave us time to have nice breaks. But it also allowed us to wait 20 minutes in the Shibetsu Nissan dealership carpark, at 10pm, waiting for another Leaf to finish charging, before we did two 30 minute charges in order to get us back up to 80% – a total of almost 1.5 hours waiting.
If we were to ever get a Nissan Leaf, there is not an inkling of doubt – we’d be getting the 62kwh version.
Non-expressway driving is fine though
We’d be doing the Nissan Leaf an injustice if we didn’t mention the non-expressway driving performance. We don’t have any data to back this up, but once we were off the expressway, travelling at an average of around 65-70km/h, with some stop-start driving, it felt like the battery percentage bar hardly budged. We felt like we could drive forever on the single charge.
This probably has a lot to do with the Nissan Leaf’s e-Pedal. Using the e-Pedal function, the driver doesn’t use the brake to slow down. The car essentially engine-brakes, using the resistance from the electric motors to slow the car down. At the same time, the motors are generating electricity, adding a small amount of charge back into the battery. This means that contrary to gasoline cars, the Nissan Leaf is more efficient in stop-start conditions!
Of course, much of this has to do with air resistance. The air resistance even at 70km is half of what it is at 100km/h (see the figured below). Certainly half, when we consider that the expressways here in Hokkaido are usually raised, with more probability of side and head-winds.
And we were carrying two 16-foot Canadian canoes, strapped to the roof.
Considering the overall increase in air resistance at the higher speeds, we feel like we probably would have gotten better efficiency driving on the low-roads, and may have arrived at our destination sooner, despite the overall drop in speed.
Detailed range analysis
Before posting this mammoth article, I got my engineer brother to take a look at it. He suggested that I look into the formula for drag force. “All things being equal,” he wrote, “air drag force is proportional to velocity squared, so reducing your speed to 70.7% (eg from 100 to 71kph) will halve the drag force.”
Stuff like this hurts my brain, but it hurts less if I have a pretty picture to look at. So I used an online drag force calculator, and visualized the relative drag force with 100km/h as a reference point – all else being equal.
The figure here shows the relative percent of drag force with 100km/h as a baseline. Tap or put your cursor on the dot above 70km/h. The 49% here means that at 70km/h, the drag force is 49% of what it would be if you were traveling at 100km. That is, driving at 70km/h results in 51% less drag.
Using these relative drag force figures, we can start to figure out things like how much time we might have saved driving slower.
EFFICIENCY AT DIFFERENT SPEEDS
We know that at one point on our journey, we traveled 99km, at about 100km/h on the expressway, and used 72% of the battery. Using that data as a starting point, and assuming that drag force has a uniform effect on how much power we used (and all else being equal), we can make some very rough back-of-the-envelope calculations about how much energy (kWh) we would have used per 100km at different speeds.
As expected, the faster you go, the more electricity you consume.
So obviously, if different speeds chew through the kWh more than others, this will affect the range of the car. Go faster, but not further. And this bears out in our range simulation.
The faster you drive in a Nissan Leaf, the less range you’ll get.
TIME TO TRAVEL 212km
OK, so we can theoretically travel 678km if we’re driving at 40km/h. But from our place in Sapporo City to Lake Shumarinai, it’s 212km – that would take over 5 hours driving at 40km/h!
The takeaway from the figure here is that we should have driven at around 70km/h instead of 100km/h. This is about the average speed most people drive in Hokkaido on the low roads.
We would have been driving longer, but charging less. Overall, it would only have saved us a little bit of time, but driving on the low roads would also have saved us money (in toll road expenses and charging), as well as emissions (see below).
Nissan Leaf CO2 emissions in Hokkaido
The Nissan Leaf is emblazoned with a shiny badge declaring “Zero Emission”. The quick chargers at the Nissan Dealerships say the same thing.
Of course this is a load of steaming mis-truth. Or should I say load of sooty coal?
At the moment, according to Hokkaido Electric Power Co. (Hepco), 70％ of Hokkaido’s electricity is generated using fossil fuels of some kind – 52% coal, 16% oil, and 2% LNG. Only 25% is generated using renewable sources (source). For every kWh of electricity generated, Hokkaido emits 0.656kg of CO2 (source).
Therefore, if we assume that our 212km journey was draining our battery at a rate of 29.5kwh/100km (with two Canadian canoes strapped to the roof), we can extrapolate that we consumed 62.5kWh of electricity, which equates to 41kg of CO2.
As mentioned above, most Leaf owners here in Japan seem to be reporting 6-9km/kWh of efficiency – without canoes.
So let’s compare that to what we would have emitted in a gasoline car. We hired a Toyota Fielder 1500cc mid-sized station wagon the other week, and the dashboard computer was reporting an average of 16.5km/l (6.5l/100km). If we assume that putting two canoes on the car and driving it on the expressway would slash that efficiency in half (at a conservative guess), we can assume that we would have consumed about 26 liters of fuel, for a total CO2 emission of around 77kg (using 13l/100km for 212km, using this calculator).
Take a look at the Just from pure running emissions, it looks like the Leaf comes out on top.
But does this mean that we’re rushing out to buy one?
Not so fast.
There has been some debate over whether over the full life-time of an electric car, they’re actually greener than the cleanest petrol cars.
The batteries on a Nissan Leaf are said to need replacing at around 160,000km. The production of the Leaf’s lithium batteries is quite carbon-intensive – emissions in the manufacturing process that conventional cars don’t emit. So, electric cars don’t get off to a very good start.
If we were living in a country such as Norway, where 100% of electricity consumed there is from renewable sources, owning an electric car would just make plain sense, despite the relative emissions-heavy production process of electric cars. But according to a study by the ICCT, in even in Germany, where 49% of electricity in 2017 was generated using fossil fuels, the life-time emissions from a 100% electric Nissan Leaf (in 2017) might be about the same as a Toyota Prius Hybrid (source).
Remember that 70% of Hokkaido’s electricity comes from fossil fuel electricity generation. For us in Hokkaido, purchasing an electric car doesn’t seem to be the eco-friendly choice right now – particularly considering we only use it on the weekends.
“No-emission” transport options in Hokkaido
So you’re living in or visiting Japan’s gem of the north, Hokkaido, and you want an eco-friendly transport option for your adventures, grocery shopping with the kids, or driving your clients around to the next powder stash. What are the options?
Electric cars are not terrible polluters. Particularly if you own your own home in Hokkaido, and can put solar panels on your roof, then you could well drive by sunlight. In this case, you’ve got the option of a few fully electric cars in Japan at the moment (see the list here), including the Nissan e-NV200 minivan. Plus, combining Japan government subsidies (400,000yen) and Sapporo City citizen subsidies (250,000yen), you can get up to 650,000yen (about $6,500) off the price of a new electric vehicle.
HYDROGEN CARS (FUEL-CELL) IN HOKKAIDO
Speaking of subsidies, if you buy a hydrogen fuel-cell car in Japan, buyers can get up to 2,500,000yen ($25,000) off the purchase price, using government subsidies. You’d hope so, as a Honda Clarity fuel cell car will set you back 7,800,000yen. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are by far the least carbon-emitting, even when taking into account the fact that most hydrogen in Japan is produced using electricity that is generated using some degree of fossil fuels. However, as of 2019, there’s only two hydrogen fueling stations in Hokkaido – one in Sapporo and one in Muroran. The Honda Clarity has a range of 750km (with no Canadian canoes strapped to the roof), so that’s not far enough with only two refueling stations.
HYBRIDS AND/OR RENTING
As of 2019, we feel like the most eco-conscious choice for our situation (just using a car on the weekends), is to rent hybrid vehicles. Using Rakuten’s renta-car aggregation site (only available in Japanese), we can get super-efficient Nissan Note e-Power cars for about 5,500yen for 24 hours. That’s about 30% more expensive than renting a cheap car from our local Niconico Rent-a-car (also only available in Japanese), but we’re prepared to pay that cost to cut our emissions to get to the pristine natural environments we like to play in.
Note that Nissan Leafs are also available for rent – expect to pay about 11,000yen per 24 hours if renting from Nissan Rent-a-car.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Let us know in the comments below.