My title may read a bit like David & Goliath, but don’t worry there is no religious story here. In fact, this article is less about a victor between these two strange opponents, and more about the pros/cons of each vehicle in real-world practicality. We recently added a 2014 Tesla Model S85 to our stable to sit alongside the 2-year veteran 2012 Nissan Leaf SL that we have been leasing. Check out my full post to learn about how these two seemingly different cars have more in common than just their classification.
First a little bit of background….
For the past few years my wife and I have commuted to work together from our Cleveland, Ohio suburban home to our place of employment, downtown. Our work commute is only around 25-miles daily, though it can vary due to errands we run, or needing to pickup/drop-off our daughter at/from school. Prior to purchasing either of the two current electric vehicles (EVs) that we own we spent ample time analyzing our driving, figuring out average daily distance, long-term and long distance needs, etc.
If you are considering an electric vehicle most of the major manufactures will give you projections that help you determine both if the car is right for you, and what your potential savings may be. Keep in mind most of these cars can be charged at home on a standard 110v outlet, but will benefit greatly (read: charge faster) using a 240v charger (also known as Level 2 charging). These can be installed in your home relatively inexpensively, and for suggestions on some great units I’ve tested go check out my recent COMPARISON & REVIEW POST HERE. Also, for a great way to locate public charging stations, check out PlugShare, a site that lists public & private charging stations all around the globe.
Two years ago we picked up a 2012 Nissan Leaf SL and to date we have put 20,000 miles on that car (over 830-miles per month, average). We’ve really enjoyed our experience owning an electric vehicle, and the Leaf being 100% electric with no range extending petrol motor gives it a quite unique, albeit limiting, function. You just need to know how to maximize the use, and of course utilize public charging stations from sites like PlugShare. And just recently we added a 2014 Tesla Model S with their 85 kWh battery to our stable, replacing my Audi and leaving us with a stable of cars that are 100% electric.
SIDEBAR: With gas prices having recently dropped significantly, many folks are speculating that this will hurt electric vehicle sales. I disagree, because the cost is still less per mile for an EV. The emissions output is removed entirely (one of the many reasons we went with the Leaf originally). And you don’t find very many free gas stations, compared to all the free EV charging spots. Plus let’s face it, people buying many of these cars are doing so for the love of technology (and the planet). It isn’t always just about the dollars-and-sense of it all.
Unlike cars such as the Chevy Volt that also have an internal combustion engine (ICE), the Tesla Model S and the Nissan Leaf are both purely run by the battery packs in the car. That makes them both similar to one another, and akin to the new BMW i3 which typically comes in 100% electric trim, though the BMW can be purchased with a range extending gasoline motor. Rather than make this your traditional “car review” — I’m instead going to touch down on the points about the two cars I think are most noteworthy, and compare/contrast them based on the features & values that matter most to me.
Range & Efficiency
When you drive an EV the most common question you’ll hear from others is “how far can you go on a charge?” — and that is a reasonable question to ask. Someone with a Nissan Leaf once told me their answer was always just to say “far enough” and frankly, I think they are right. Except for many people that isn’t going to cut it, so allow me to elaborate a bit.
Our 2012 Nissan Leaf is rated at 73-miles on a full charge, though in 2013 they updated various bits-and-bobs to achieve 84-miles (an 11-mile improvement), from the same 24 kWh battery pack. Being the SL-trim our Leaf had an MSRP of $37,250. In comparison, our 2014 Tesla is the larger of the two battery options (60 vs 85 kWh) and the MSRP was $79,900 plus options. The published range for our bigger juice-box is 265 miles per full charge.
As those figures are based on
ideal conditions the EPA standard 5 cycle test, with seasonal adjustments (flat road, no wind, no heat/air running in the car, constant speed, etc)- you should take them with a grain of salt. And the manufacturers know that too, having published pages that dig deeper into the subject (see NISSAN HERE, and TESLA HERE, for their answers to the ever-popular range question). Factors like elevation, speed, ambient temperature, and much more play a role into the actual efficiency you’ll get from that published range figure. Each car is designed to be as efficient as possible, but we have found some key differences in our time with both. (Note that we had some “loaners” that we managed to put hundreds of miles on before our car even arrived in our garage, giving more depth to this review).
Sidebar: Check out THIS GREAT BLOG POST that just occurred the day after this was published– from Tesla, regarding range details and dynamics.
Our driving of the Nissan has typically been around town, and it does great as a city car. Rumor has it the range/testing that Nissan does for this car is based on a speed of 38-mph, and that seems definitely to be a sweet spot for the car. The moment we hit the freeway we see a huge dive in efficiency, so we tend to take back roads and skip the expressway whenever possible. During the summer months our average yield is around 90-95% of that 74 mile range (65-70 miles if we took it to empty, which we never do). But come winter time, the Leaf suffers horribly, and it isn’t uncommon to see half the charge gone in 20 miles, indicating as low as 40 miles on a single charge, or roughly 54% efficiency.
Though the Tesla has fared better for our testing, we’ve not yet had any real hard-core winter weather to push though. Still, the Tesla does amazingly well on the expressway, getting easily 75-80% effective range even at speeds of 75 MPH. Around town, 85-90% was seen even on days near freezing temps and with the 21-inch wheels. Given that the Tesla is over 4,600-pounds (curb weight), you would expect it to do better in-motion (Freeway) and worse around-town stop-and-go than the 3,300-pound Nissan, and it does. But what really surprised me was how amazingly well the Tesla handles the open road. Not only with the added pick-up of power over the Nissan, but also managing really great range.
Real-world miles on the 85 kWh battery Tesla Model S isn’t the 265 they claim, but more like 180-miles in the winter, and 200-220 miles in the summer. That makes it just over 3-times the range of the Leaf, for a battery that is also just over 3-times the size. But you’re also paying more than twice the price— yet if range is what you care about most, then the bargain is there in the Tesla, as dollar-for-dollar spent you get a better price-per-mile-capable of driving, and more amenities as well.
Trim & Toys
Given that our Nissan is the top-of-the-line SL-trim, there is no shortage of goodies to make the car worthy of the price tag it demands. Features are as you’d expect (power windows, keyless entry, cruise control), plus plenty of other additional items (backup camera, heated steering wheel, heated front AND rear seats, navigation). Let me just say that again– a heated steering wheel! Apparently the cost to heat that (and your buttocks) takes less energy than heating the cabin air, so it is suggested that you use those features in lieu of the HVAC, to be more efficient when driving in cold conditions.
Of course the Tesla offers all the same features (though no heated steering wheel, sadly)– and adds on top. Where the Nissan has a 7-inch touch screen navigation, the Tesla unit is 17 inches and is more like an iPad. Both have easy to understand, intuitive user interfaces, and both have plenty of cool options. It is interesting to see the differences, though. Nissan will let you set an “end timer” to make sure you leave the house with a full charge, but allowing you to not have the car sit at 100% for too long (if you choose that charge level). However, your only choices are 80% or 100% — where the Tesla lets you pick 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 or 100 percent. The Nissan can also alert you if you’ve parked at a known charger but failed to remember to plug-in.
Both have mobile applications that permit you to do things such as monitor charging, or pre-heat/cool the car with the HVAC system. Tesla takes things one step further with features such as opening the charge port, or even allow you to drive the car without the key, so long as you use the mobile app to do so. Both cars have a 3G wireless connection, but in the case of the Leaf it is limited to providing the data for the app, and charging locations being kept up to date. The Tesla takes the full monty there, using the 3G for everything from updates for the car’s OS, to streaming music services, to Google Maps, and more.
As you’d expect, the Tesla takes the cake in this category, but that isn’t to say that the Leaf doesn’t shine quite nicely. And with some of the features the Leaf has to offer, Tesla could take a few pointers from the competition. Our car (Tesla) is a pre-Autopilot vehicle, but I’ve driven cars with the lane assist and speed limit reading camera. I’m excited to check out more of those features in the future as they become available, and suspect the Tesla will continue to prove itself as a premium auto in the luxury market.
When people ask how the Nissan Leaf drives the answer is pretty simple: it drives like any other car. With a curb weight just under 3,400 lbs it has about 5% more heft than a Volkswagen GTI turbo, which makes only 20 lb-ft of torque more. And the GTI needs a few thousand RPM to spin up the turbo, where the Nissan gets 100% of its power from 0-RPM thanks to the science behind electric vehicles. So if you’ve ever driven a turbo Volkswagen and played with the torque steer, you already know exactly how the Nissan driving experience is going to be. Add to that the low center of gravity of the battery packs and you have a front-wheel-drive car that is exceptionally fun around town, perky when you need it, and light feeling overall.
We typically drive our car in ECO mode since 99% of our driving has been around-town on non-freeway settings. Even on the expressway we have found ECO mode works fine, and maximizes brake regeneration power when slowing down. Some of the newer Leaf models have a (B) mode (or so I’ve read) — but ours pre-dates that feature. I can say that I’ve found driving the car in ECO mode took some getting used to, but now it is just the norm. We enjoy the efficiency benefits of driving the car in this mode, and the drive-by-wire acceleration is already mapped differently to prevent hard accelerations. It makes for a unique, at times “Granny” like driving experience, but it reminds you that any car (gas or electric) benefits from smoother driving.
During the winter months we have a dedicated set of snow tires that we mounted to the factory 15-inch wheels. For summer, we have a set of 16-inch white/pink wheels (the car is in my wife’s name after all) that have 3-season tires. We made sure the summer setup tires are still rated low-rolling resistance (LRR) so help maximize range and efficiencies. Though I’ve wondered how this car might fare with sticky tires at an autocross (given the awesome torque), we don’t usually drive it like we stole it. Part of the fun of owning a car like this truly is besting your previous efficiencies, but you can certainly drive the car like any other vehicle, if you want.
In comparison, the Tesla offers “Range Mode” which is similar to ECO in that it limits how the HVAC system operates amongst other items, and helps you get the most mileage out of each drop of energy in the battery pack. But unlike the Nissan that remaps the throttle/brakes, the Tesla does not do so but instead has a separate setting for regenerative braking (setting it to standard, or low). Ideal conditions are standard, and the braking is so intense on the Tesla at times that it can actually invoke the brake lights for you just by lifting off the throttle at higher speeds.
As you’d expect then, the Tesla feels like a bigger car, but it is no slouch. Where the Nissan does 0-60 in just under 10-seconds, the Tesla we have can do it in just over half that time, and you can tell as it feels quick and punchy. I’ve driven the P85 RWD and that car fights for grip in ways you wouldn’t believe. Around town the Nissan wins in being a toss-able, small agile car (again, like a GTI in many ways). But the Tesla feels more composed, taking the bumps with a more regal stride. Where the Nissan is a “hot hatch” to me, the Tesla is more like a BMW 7-series or Audi A8L, both in size and handling. You don’t want to fling the Tesla around as much in town (though you do find every chance you can to accelerate quick from a stop), but on the expressway the Tesla loves to make quick effort to pass cars and jump up in speed swiftly.
Our Tesla has the standard coil suspension, not the air-ride. It also sports the optional 21-inch wheels with performance tires. Overall I find this combination offers the best road feel and handling without jumping up to the P85(+) upgrades. The air ride disconnects you from the road slightly, in a good way if you’re after comfort, but does seem a bit less communicative with the pavement. I’d imagine that best combination comes from the new P85D with air ride but also the beefier components that they include in the sporty car’s hardware. Perhaps someday I’ll have the means to upgrade to that.
As a side note, we did purchase the 19-inch winter wheel/tire set for the Tesla and hope to find it adequate in the winter months, even being rear wheel drive. After watching videos like THIS ONE, I’m excited and confident we’ll be just fine!
In the end, both cars are great…
Both cars have a purpose, and to me are both representative of the future of the automotive world. When you drive either car like any other car, you quickly realize that they are both fun, spirited, and VERY well-appointed. Sadly for us the Nissan often tended to fails as an appliance to provide the best usefulness that most people desire. It was often a weekly occurrence where we would have maxed out our Nissan Leaf’s range, not had time to recharge, and as such had to stop home to swap cars for my ICE vehicle to continue our evening plans. Or go a long distance beyond the round-trip feasibility of the small battery equipped Leaf. For this reason alone the Chevy Volt is more attractive to MOST buyers. But then maintenance costs go up, as does the cost-per-mile.
If you can make the Leaf work for you the savings is profound. We’ve already saved $3,000 in two years, though we did spend about one-third of that on a home charging station. Still that is a gross savings of $125 per month which is quite significant when you consider the Leaf starts at $199 per month for a lease. We love our Leaf and will continue to enjoy driving it for the remaining 19 months of our lease. It remains a great option for us, and keeps our daily commute costs down.
Ultimately we picked up the Tesla because there were great year-end discounts, the federal tax credit to boot, and the range. Where we never could even make it one-way to my in-laws with the Nissan, we’ve already tested the Tesla and it does just fine round-trip without needing to touch an outlet. We’ve been to Pittsburgh and back home to Cleveland, in the Tesla, and enjoyed using the Supercharger in Cranberry. And we’re already planning a trip to the east coast come spring.
I’m excited to see what the Tesla can do for us, and proud to be a 100% electric vehicle household. If you have questions about either car please let me know, as I’ve quite enthusiastic about this and happy to share more details about our experiences as they unfold. Cheers!
** Photos below of our Tesla show the current state of the car with the 19″ winter wheels, as well as a shot or two of the car with the 21″ summer wheels too! **