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Range anxiety – a real-life tale about why it shouldn’t bother you

April 21, 2015 by

The only thing stopping electric cars taking over the motoring world is the human tendency to panic when we’re faced with the slightest hint of uncertainty – think of the awful moment when the ice-cream van had run out of your favourite Magnum ice-creams, and a hastily chosen Calippo then ruined your afternoon.

Living with an electric car is a bit like that.

We recently tested the Nissan Leaf – the Japanese giant’s electric car – and it’s great, as long as you learn to live within its limits.

Being all-electric (it has no petrol-powered engine to charge the batteries, like the range-extending BMW i3s) means it has a fairly limited driving range before you need to plug it in to charge – about 90 miles in our test car.

This isn’t a huge range, but the flip-side is its efficiency and generally calm aura make it a perfect partner for urban driving and short trips in general – especially where stop-start driving can help them save energy compared to conventionally fuelled cars.

But what happens when you try to tackle a journey at the upper limit of an electric car’s range?

You panic like mad, that’s what.

Route choice for electric cars

Our plan was to pig-headedly ignore the Leaf’s limits and go for broke with a 80-mile trip to Essex from southwest London. Immediately the panic set in – there was no way we’d make it around the M25 on a single charge, and in time for a family member’s birthday. Argh!

So, we adjusted our route. Instead of cutting around London on motorways, we’d head straight through the middle. Stop-start traffic usually savages a conventionally fuelled car’s efficiency, but the Leaf’s electric motor doesn’t use any power at all because it doesn’t need to idle. Cutting through London sliced almost 30 miles off our journey, taking us down to an estimated 55 miles – easily doable within the 90 available in our Leaf’s battery pack.

Charging points – there are too many networks

The charging cards provided with our Leaf covered two of the biggest charging networks in London – no use for recharging our Leaf for the return visit from Chelmsford. It’s at this point we discocvered that finding charging points is easily done online – Zap Map was our favourite resource, but it still takes a lot of time to find a plug socket that’s run by a network you have a subscription to – there are already about five or six large networks in the UK.

Fast chargers are few and far between

It took us about half-an-hour to plan a charging strategy – we’d stop on the outward journey at Glyn Hopkins Nissan dealership in Romford. As a large dealer, Glyn Hopkins had a 6kW fast charging station – good for a quick but substantial top-up of the batteries.

As it transpired, the showroom staff agreed to let us un-hitch their demonstrator Leaf and couple up our test car for a half hour – enough time to give a near-full charge, and plenty of juice to cover the remaining 22 miles to Essex and the 55-mile return leg.

Electric driving: the perfect antidote to range anxiety?

Before we were five miles into our journey, however, things really got interesting. After a night stressing our about the journey (and laughing at how ridiculously simple an 80-mile drive is in a conventional car) we headed out into the inner-London Saturday traffic. And we started to realise that actually driving an electric car is the ying to the panicked yang of the planning stage.

Soothed by a seamless powertrain, no need to change gears, plenty of power to accelerate from traffic lights and light steering, we powered through the Capital without worrying about stalling, missing gaps, changing lanes or developing RSI. Things were helped by the Leaf’s reassuring Eco mode, which softens the throttle response, limits your speed and generally helps maximise your driving range.

Eco-driving – an addictive way to get about

In a world where it’s impossible to leave an online review for a derelict holiday home without being rewarded with meaningless but addictive badges and titles, it’s no surprise to find that the Leaf has turned driving into a game. In particular, as you drive smoothly and economically the upper part of the dashboard screen sprouts virtual fir trees – you can earn up to five in a drive, and you can see how you’ve improved over past journeys on Nissan’s Car Wings website.

3 Trees out of 5. Must try harder

This impromptu arborism goes hand-in-hand with the Leaf’s power gauge on the dashboard. A number of horizontally arranged blobs line up to show how much power you’re using during acceleration, and there are five blobs at the left-hand end which light up green as you put power back into the batteries during deceleration. This is done using the brakes as normal, or by switching the gearbox into ‘B’ mode, which gives you more engine braking effect as you lift off the accelerator.

Subconsciously, those green blobs become an attractive target, and you start planning deceleration for traffic lights far earlier than you normally would, aiming to keep them lit up for as long as possible. Getting all five lit at once really requires a long period of coasting down from a high speed before slamming the brakes on, which probably isn’t terribly wise. Or eco-friendly, come to think of it.

Regularly fuelled cars start to seem crude

Pardon the pun, but after a weekend cruising about in near silence in luxuriously padded leather seats, something very unusual started to happen. Even the most stubborn petrolheads on our test team (one of whom rides a motorbike that puts as much unburnt fuel out the exhaust pipes as it does into the engine) became a little ‘eco-happy’ after spending time in the Leaf. Hearing diesels chatter into life and gearboxes crunch suddenly seemed old-fashioned and vulgar.

Once electric cars such as the Leaf get longer ranges and the initial anxiety about driving them is removed, will there be any comeback for cars that burn crude oil products?

Part of us hopes so – but for the mass-market, electric is surely the future.

What next?

If you think you’re ready to make the change to an electric car and say goodbye to fuel bills for good, why not spec up a Leaf in our car configurator to see how much you could save. For more options, take a look at our deals page to see our latest discounts.