Recent Trend Sees LEAF Owners in Harsh Climates Selling Their Cars
Almost two years after Nissan triumphantly introduced the first mass-market electric vehicle to the American market, there are signs the car is in serious trouble. The problem isn't so much disappointing sales numbers—few people expected a technology as radically different as the LEAF’s to take off overnight. Rather, there is growing customer dissatisfaction in some areas that threatens Nissan's efforts to grow demand for battery electric vehicles in the United States.
At the heart of the backlash lie two issues. First, despite pledges from Nissan that the LEAF would carry a range of "about 100 miles," for most drivers, it simply isn’t true. To be fair, the EPA debunked the 100-mile range claim before the first LEAF had been delivered, rating the car at 73 miles using official testing procedures. Still, some drivers in colder climates have found that decreased battery efficiency drops range significantly below the 73-mile mark during the winter—enough to render the car unsuitable for their needs.
The second gripe—one that many owners in warmer climates like Texas and Arizona have become more and more vocal about over the past few months—is much more troubling. On web forums like MyNissanLeaf.com, dozens of users have experienced battery degradation early on in the life of their vehicles, causing them to "lose bars" of charge capacity. In nearly all of these cases, hot weather is suspected as the major contributing factor.
Fears Stoked by Lackluster Response
Most owners experiencing these problems expressed dissatisfaction over Nissan's handling of the issue. In several cases, LEAF drivers have been told that the battery loss is “normal,” and as recently as last week, Nissan executive vice president Andy Palmer denied to an Australian newspaper that a problem even exists.
Several LEAF drivers, fearing their vehicles will soon rapidly lose value, have sold their cars, trading them in for a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid or opting to take a short-term lease on a LEAF instead of purchasing one outright. As one owner in Arizona put it to me, "I decided that owning a LEAF just wasn't worth the risk of losing thousands of dollars while waiting for Nissan to make good. I traded in the LEAF and signed a two-year lease on a new one,” he said. “Let the battery be their problem, not mine."
Over the past few weeks, I've contacted several former LEAF owners in an attempt to find what could drive members of one of the most proud and passionate vehicle ownership communities in the world to sell their cars. Every one of them remained just as passionate about the idea of driving gas-free as they had been before becoming disillusioned with LEAF ownership. But several decided the Chevy Volt—a car that some had previously disparaged as a half-way solution—turned out to be a better fit for their needs.
Paul, a former LEAF driver who lives in downtown Chicago, said he felt lucky to have only lost about $2,000 as a result of his temporary LEAF ownership. One weekend, after nearly getting stranded during a snowstorm with two small children in the car, Paul decided he had had enough. "The experience showed me that the LEAF was not for me, and I did not want to risk stranding my family again in a snowstorm," he said. "I am very happy with my Volt and 90 percent of my driving has been electric. It is amazing how accurate the Volt is in predicting it's electric range, especially after seeing how much the LEAF struggles with this."
For others, the decision to trade in their LEAFs was more financial, rather than based on range issues. Michael, a Phoenix-based driver who gave up ownership in favor of a lease, made the move after losing a bar of charge early in the life of his vehicle. Michael bought a 2011 LEAF, which he says his girlfriend instantly fell in love with—so he purchased a Volt for himself soon after. But after reading about battery loss experienced by other Phoenix-area LEAF owners, Michael figured he had a limited amount of time to get rid of his LEAF before it would lose resale value.
Luckily, Michael says a year of LEAF ownership followed by a trade-in for a two-year lease ended up costing him very little extra. "Considering the premium paid for the 2011 and the deal negotiated for the 2012, it was almost a wash,” he said. “It’s what we really should have done in the first place. We got the benefits of EV driving for three years total, without the battery responsibility." As for what happens to his car after two years, that's up to Nissan. "We have no intention of keeping this car at lease end."
Keeping Early Buyers Happy
Other LEAF buyers in adverse climates are significantly less happy about their situations. In some threads on MyNissanLEAF.com, accusations abound that Nissan knowingly misrepresented the effect that weather would have on range and battery life. Nissan has said for some time now that prolonged exposure to temperatures above 120 degrees could be a cause for concern for its packs, but says it is investigating the current reports individually to learn the circumstances at play in each case.
Why would Nissan release the LEAF in markets like Arizona knowing that users might experience losses in battery capacity? Why has the company's response to the issue been so lackluster in the eyes of so many owners?
Regardless of the answers to those questions, many eager early LEAF adopters are disgruntled. If Nissan plans to build its electric vehicle brand beyond the tepid sales numbers we're currently seeing, it can’t afford to be anything less than open and communicative about technical problems—and bend over backwards to make certain every last owner is satisfied.
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