My Nissan Leaf life: the Times's Tesla mistake

The New York Times report of a Tesla's failed test drive misses the point. You can't bring gas-powered car expectations to an all-electric vehicle. 

The fuel economy of Tesla's Model S Signature is rated by the EPA at 89 miles per gallon gasoline equivalent. But a New York Times reporter's test drive shows how winter weather can bring that down.

Pity the New York Times reporter who took a fancy Tesla Model S all-electric car on a long-distance winter journey, but ended up calling a tow truck. It seems that running the car’s heater in snowy Connecticut quickly ate up the extra battery power he needed to finish his trip.

That writer could have called me – or, better yet, my wife, who drives our Nissan Leaf most of the time. She could have set him straight. When you drive an electric car, you have to temper your gas-powered expectations.

Electric models aren’t the do-all, go-everywhere vehicles that conventionally powered cars are. They can meet 85 or 90 percent of your needs. The rest is compromise.

Take that heater that proved so troublesome for the Times’s reporter. Turning the heater down, as he did in the Tesla, doesn’t give you that much extra juice, at least in a Leaf. You have to turn it off completely – relying on the electric seat warmer and heated steering wheel to keep you warm.

Another compromise: You have to calculate precisely how far you can go. We were pushing into single digits remaining on the battery when we visited New Hampshire relatives last fall – a 90-mile trip in a 100-mile-per-charge car. Still, we made the return trip (after charging overnight) without a stop to charge.

How? By driving a little slower (about 40 to 50 miles per hour) on secondary roads instead of highways. It added 20 minutes to a two-hour trip and we saw smaller towns we liked.

It’s our second winter with our little electric Leaf and so far we haven’t run out of juice or called a tow truck. But for longer trips, we leave the Leaf at home and use our gas-powered van, instead.

Why make such compromises when we could own a gas-powered car for less money? Because there is something immensely satisfying about tooling around town in in electric-drive luxury with quiet, quick acceleration while passing every single gas station. That’s something even the popular Toyota Prius can’t do. (Leaf owners talk about having a “Prius superiority complex” or PSC.)

And there’s also a satisfaction in driving on electrons generated in the United States rather than oil produced in foreign nations that sometimes profess to hate America.

With gas prices where they are, that stance may seem more foolish than patriotic. The latest Tesla debacle certainly has offered grist for electric-car doubters (although I should note that Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted that the Times report was a “fake” and that “vehicle logs” show he “didn’t actually charge to max & took a long detour.”)

“The Obama administration’s electric-car fantasy finally may have died on the road between Newark, Del., and Milford, Conn.,” opined the Washington Post under the headline “The Electric Car Mistake.”

Even with some $5 billion in federal grants, guaranteed loans, and tax incentives for buyers, sales of electrified vehicles amounted to just 71,000 over the past two years, the editorial noted. President Obama’s goal of having 1 million plug-in vehicles on American roads by 2015 now looks wildly unrealistic.

The apt comparison, however, is not the prophecies of politicians but the history of the market.  Battery electric car sales grew by 20 percent last year and plug-in hybrid sales more than quadrupled, writes David Friedman, deputy director of the clean-vehicles program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. And that two-year sales total of 71,000 plug-in vehicles looks solid compared with the Prius, which took far longer to reach the same sales level. Nobody today is calling the Prius a loser.

The reality is that the fate of electric cars will not hang on a single reporter’s foreshortened test drive in Connecticut. It will depend on consumers’ calculation of value.

With gas averaging $3.60 a gallon, plug-in vehicles are an intriguing curiosity. But with improved technology and gas prices at $4.50 or $5 a gallon, more and more drivers would take a close look at the Nissan Leaf and its competitors.

And those electric-car compromises? They would loom small.

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