What It Takes to Get 100 Miles of Range in My Electric Car

By · August 25, 2011

After driving my all-electric Nissan LEAF like a madman for the past few months, I decided to see how far I could go with babying the motor and batteries to extend its range. But now, I think I’ll go back my speed-demon ways.

Average Efficiency in my Nissan LEAF

After 1,500 miles of driving my LEAF, the average efficiency is a modest 3.5 miles-per-kilowatt-hour.

I’ve owned gas-electric hybrid cars for years, so I’m used to driving with extreme caution—in order to most efficiently use the gas engine, and to get it switch over to electric mode whenever possible. That’s why it was such a relief a few months ago to start driving the Nissan LEAF, which obviously doesn’t even have a gas engine (or a tailpipe). My thinking: Given the superiority of electric motors versus internal combustion, any loss in efficiency—by driving with gusto— is relatively minor compared to the quantum leap in efficiency gained by going electric.

I had forgotten how much fun it is to just drive—speeding away from traffic lights and zooming ahead of other cars on the highway, etc. The LEAF is smooth, silent, fast, and simply a blast to drive. But after 1,400-plus miles of driving, I noticed (duh) that my efficiency wasn’t so hot at 3.5 miles-per-kilowatt-hour. More experienced EV drivers told me that 4 miles/kWh is well within reach.

Changing My Ways

So, I recently gave the LEAF a full charge, and took a (temporary) vow of automotive Puritanism to see how efficient I could be. The rules were simple: Drive below the speed limit. No jackrabbit starts. Long coasting to a stop. Keep it in Eco mode. And don’t use the air conditioning.

Lo and behold, I was able to increase the efficiency from my average of 3.5 miles/kWh to 4.7 miles/kWh (based on the dashboard efficiency display). That’s a 34% improvement in efficiency—just by chilling out behind the wheel. I hadn’t changed my daily driving route, which is about 80% city and 20% highway. I drive about 20 or 30 miles max per day, so it took a few days to run through a full charge. For the first day-and-a-half, I was at a solid 5.0 miles/kWh, but any stretch of highway driving—even at the speed limit—dropped the efficiency below that high mark.

This was not efficiency for efficiency sake. The idea was to see how this change in my driving pattern would ultimately affect range. On paper, a shift to 4.7 miles/kWh from 3.5—if you assume there’s about 22 kilowatt-hours of usable energy in the LEAF’s 24 kWh battery pack—should have pushed my range to 103.4 miles.

LEAF dashboard display for efficiency
LEAF dashboard display for efficiency

Driving like a saint, I was able to lift the efficiency of the Nissan LEAF to 4.7 miles-per-kilowatt-hour. That means, if I really wanted to, I could get a driving range of 90 to 100 miles.

For much of this experiment, the combined number of miles that I had driven—plus the vehicle computer’s estimated number of miles remaining—exceeded 100 miles. In the early going, it was as high as 110 miles. But as any LEAF owner knows, the car’s estimation of remaining miles is erratic. It’s usually generous when you first charge up—dangling a promise of triple-digit range—and then it gets very stingy toward the end, as if trying to freak you out that you’re going to run out even when there’s a decent amount of juice left.

The Results

By the end of the run, I had traveled 76.3 miles with an estimated 9 miles remaining, giving me a base number for the range of 85.3 miles. I know from multiple sources that even when the computer’s range drops to zero, there’s still about 10% state-of-charge remaining. So, I think it’s fair to say that the range for my LEAF, during my miles of cautious driving, was about 94 miles—yielding an efficiency rating of 4.27 miles/kWh. That’s pretty good, but far less than the 4.7 miles/kWh that the LEAF’s computer was telling me.

Of course, I would only drive so close to empty on rare occasions.

After my next full charge, fed up with driving like a wimp, I made up for lost time by driving really stupid: racecar acceleration, left lane on the highway, and AC blasting—just to see how low I could get the efficiency for comparison. I acted badly from a full charge to depletion. Boom: I dropped to 3.4 miles/kWh. My tally at the end was 59.1 miles traveled with an estimated 6 miles remaining for a base number of 65.3 miles. When you add in the extra 10% reserve, it brings the range to just under 72 miles—or 3.27 miles-per-kilowatt-hour—once again a bit off from the computer’s 3.4 miles/kWh reading.

LEAF dashboard display for efficiency
LEAF dashboard display for efficiency

Based on my experiment, the worst possible driving range in my Nissan LEAF would be about 70 miles.

There are a lot of experienced drivers of the LEAF and other EVs on this site, so I’m sure you’ll have a lot to say about my calculations. Bring it on. I’m just trying to learn the capabilities of my electric car.

What did I learn so far? Well, basically, what I already knew. If I drive without thinking too much, or I just want to have fun, the range in my Nissan LEAF is around 70 miles—no big deal if I know that I’m staying close to home. But if I drive carefully, I can get nearly 100 miles of range out of a LEAF on my regular routes.

For now, that works for me. I know this is only the first generation of the new wave of electric cars. Battery technology will improve and, soon enough, 100 miles of range will be the low end—no matter how I drive.

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