My Australian EV Journey Part 5: Confessions of an Australian Leaf owner

It’s taken a while (for reasons) but here’s my review of my imported Japanese 2016 Nissan Leaf.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I said I was going to write this some weeks ago, and I very much was. Then life got in the way, as it so often has the habit of doing.

If you’re new to the series, you should probably start at Part 1. It’s OK. I’ll still be here when you’re done:

My Australian EV journey: Why is it so hard to own an EV down under?
My Australian EV Journey Part 2: Let’s Talk About Range, Baby
My Australian EV Journey Part 3: Why not Tesla?
My Australian EV Journey Part 4: Getting The Actual Car, Or There And Back Again

So, I’ve now had the car that is formally known as Catweazle around these parts (because, you see, it runs on the electrickery) for basically a month now, which has given me plenty of scope to test out how it runs, how I’m able to charge it and what I like (and don’t like) about its operation.

But before I start this review, I’m going to lay down a few ground rules. I’m not a motoring journalist, and this isn’t intended to be an expert motoring journalist’s review.

Not quite that bad, space puppy.

I’m certain they’d have differing perceptions, biases, opinions, needs and frameworks to build a review around, and what’s more, they’d be writing for an audience interested in lots of car reviews.

I did mention I’m not particularly a “car person” before, right?

My intent here is more to highlight what I, as a regular consumer who needs a vehicle to get from point A to point B finds good AND bad in the 2016 Nissan Leaf.

I’m a firm believer in being critical in reviews, because like any other product, this car costs money that could be put towards anything else at all, and needs to justify itself. I’ve gone down this route because there really aren’t any affordable EVs in Australia yet, and it’s not even close.

Also, there’s a few details I’ve noticed that aren’t always covered in what I could read up myself before purchase that are worth highlighting.

If you’re an old hand in the EV space you may find some of this blindingly obvious.

If you’re somebody who thinks that EVs are coming to “ruin your weekend” and that you’d never buy a car that didn’t run on petrol or diesel… well, I think you’re sticking your head in the sand at this point in time, but whatever. Take from the review what you will.

Nissan Leaf 2016: The Right Stuff

  • Comfortable to drive: Driving around in an EV is an odd experience, and I’m not so much talking about the lack of engine noise, which is what so many people pick up on. Yeah, there’s no engine rumble, but what I notice so much more is that there’s so much less ongoing vibration. It’d be overkill to talk about gliding along the road — the tyres are still very much making contact and you will feel those potholes — but it’s an experience that does rather spoil me for when I get into the family ICE vehicle with its rumbly drive.
  • I can see… everything: OK, this is specific to this model of the Leaf, and not (I think) to some earlier models, but the 360 degree camera on the 2016 Leaf is a thing of beauty. My driveway is, to put it frankly, a near-vertical twisting nightmare, and that means that when I want to leave the house, I have to do a three-or-more point turn in my carport so that I’m facing forward and less likely to crash over a cliff.

    Or I could try reversing, which would end like this.

    Even with a reversing camera in some cars, that’s a tricky prospect. The side and front cameras on the Leaf 2016 make this easier and considerably faster, because I can move around with a lot more confidence and speed as a result.

  • Power where it counts: Can the Leaf do 0-60 in under 2 seconds? No, it cannot, and I don’t care a whit about that. However, one thing I was a little concerned about was using its most power efficient modes — B mode regen braking and ECO mode on — while driving around, because so much of the writing suggests that what you gain in battery life, you lose in acceleration. I’m not a speed freak for sure, but on Sydney’s aggressive roads, I didn’t want to be the driver crawling away at a green light with aggressive morons Sydney drivers beeping at me or pushing behind me.

    Artist’s impression of me accelerating at the lights (as I imagined it)

    However, I really didn’t have to worry about that at all. Even in ECO and B mode driving, the Leaf peels away at the lights with nary a worry, and pretty often faster than the cars around me. Indeed, I have to keep a close eye on Catweazle, because he really does want to jump up in speed if I’m not closely watching him.

  • Power that lasts: So, the claim for Catweazle before I bought him was that his battery capacity should allow for around 154km of town range and 126km of highway range. I took those with a grain of salt, especially as I got him in the middle of winter, when battery life on EVs is at its worst.Turns out, I needed a bigger salt shaker, because my own driving tests show that he can manage a tad more than this in a pinch. The longest regular drive I’ve done has been highway driving up to the Central Coast and back, a round trip that ends up at about 130km or so. I’ve managed that with 20%+ battery remaining, which is really pleasing. For city driving, it’s even better (with one caveat, which I’ll get to a little later). I don’t really have range anxiety to speak of at all, even though I’m driving to a battery percentage rather than the “guessometer” of kilometres left.
  • It’s changing my driving habits for the better: So, that driving figure for Catweazle might befuddle you if you’re used to petrol cars, where the highway range is always stated as better than the town range.It’s an inversion of the usual thinking, because highway driving is a regular drain with no battery recovery, while city driving, with its frequent braking, allows for more battery regeneration.So what does that have to do with my driving habits? I’m less aggressive myself as a result, not that I was ever the road rage type to begin with, but now I have good reason to slow down for lights and watch my speeds, because braking isn’t “wasting” momentum any more. There’s an odd gamification to the whole process, because those (few, rare) moments where I’ve seen a battery uptick due to braking are genuinely fun.
  • Smug mode: Yeah, OK, I AM pretty happy to be driving an EV and not to have to pull into petrol stations any more with it. I don’t want to be that kind of EV wonk — but I can see where the thinking comes from. Again, I’d return to the point that it’s a damned shame that the Australian EV car market isn’t more advanced and that there aren’t more affordable options available locally.

The bad stuff

  • It’s extra stressful when things go wrong: So, remember that caveat? And remember how I dropped off weekly updates on my EV progress? There was a reason, and that reason was to do with getting the electrons into Catweazle. Heck, it’s part of the reason he’s called Catweazle, because sometimes — just sometimes — the magic does not work.Specifically (and stressfully) on the day I went across Sydney to get vaccinated (reminder: Get vaccinated when you can, I’m old which was why I’d finally qualified) I got home from a drive over to Olympic Park with a healthy 38% battery capacity left in the Leaf.

    Not so fast there, Prince Adam.

    Not a problem, I figure, and so I go to plug in the charger… erm… EVSE. I have to be careful with the terminology here, which is confusing to outsiders. The plug bit where I connect wall socket to car? That’s what I’d call a “charger” for most tech gear, but the way most EVs (including the 2016 Nissan Leaf) work is that the actual “charger” bit is in the car. The charging cable has some power selection functions… but it’s basically just a cable. If you know EVs, you know all this, but anyway, I digress.

    It’s consistent, but confusing if you’re not across the jargon.

    I plugged in the EVSE… and the Leaf beeped three times and refused to charge. I tried reseating the plug… and I still got the 3 beeps. Me being me, I hit the Internet to check details, and the suggestion was that the timer switch was still on. I was sure it wasn’t… and I was right, it wasn’t, but putting it in either position made no change to the Leaf at all.


    Now, at this point, I’d had the car a bit over two weeks, so I figured I’d contact the company I purchased it from — the Good Car Co, to be specific — because I had no way to progress from here depending on where the fault actually lay, but Australian Consumer Law was pretty solidly on my side, even for a second-hand imported vehicle.So I called their number, only to find that I was outside office hours by about 15 minutes, which was galling. I sent a polite email, and was stunned to get a call from the MD about three minutes later. Not an office person, not a subcontractor, but the guy who is (at the very least) the “face” of the company.I have no reason to think, by the way, that he was particularly chasing this up due to my job as a journalist, because the amount of impact I have in the motoring world is precisely zero.

    Precisely that much.

    He worked through the obvious test stuff with me, and having worked many years ago in tech support (you can read about that over at Lifehacker if you like) I appreciated the start-from-the-basics approach.I also appreciated that he kept in contact with me to work through the issue, determining that it was an odd one over a couple of calls and a FaceTime session to work through what the car was doing.I even ducked up the road to the guy who I’d mentioned back in part 2 who was willing to share his solar panels, because that way I could work out if it was the car or the EVSE at fault.

    The EV community has its oddballs (like any group) but there’s a lot of willingness to share and help out, which is GREAT.

    Sadly, while he was willing to accommodate me, his Plugshare listing was out of date, and he’d shifted to Type 2 charging EVs only, so that was all he had. Bummer.
    Ultimately it seemed as though the EVSE might be faulty (it does happen to any tech product), so a new one was sent out to me.Of course, all of this happens as Sydney started its current wave of Delta COVID transmission, and it took a little while to actually get to me.The whole time i was worrying I’d bought a lemon, because if the EVSE didn’t fix it, it’d be a more complex job to get done. Thankfully, it did, and I can now once again charge Catweazle without issue. An absolute 10/10 for customer service there for the Good Car Co, and I don’t hand out 10/10s all that often as anyone who follows my writing will know.
    However, for me what it also highlights is that this is still a second-hand car built on a tech platform that isn’t super common in Australia. My nearest compatible charger isn’t terribly close, and as a precautionary measure I’ve bought my own backup EVSE, just in case.

  • The software is, ultimately, a hack: So, before it was Catweazle, the 2016 Nissan Leaf I now own was a humble Japanese 車, with language set to 日本語 and the appropriate feature set for tearing up the mean streets of Ikebukuro.Most Australians aren’t going to be too happy with that, so most of them get converted to an English language system with Australian maps and, typically, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on board. All well and good, right? Well… sorta.It is easier to use, but it’s a question of hacking the firmware which means you also lose a few key features.The 2016 Nissan Leaf has a CD player hiding behind a sliding display which (frankly) surprised me the first time I hit the tilt button, because I figured it’d just adjust the angle of the display for sunlight purposes. However, the hack disables the CD player. I can live with that, because it is 2021, and smartphone music streaming is totally a thing.

    You do get local maps, but they’re not great. Then again, I’ve never hit an in-car GPS/map system that was any good, and my entire plan was always to use Google Maps all of the time anyway.

    Which way is up again?

    The big downside here (and this relates to my problem above) is that you also lose the onboard charging timer.Ideally for long term battery health, you want to charge an EV to around 80% batttery capacity rather than 100%, and most will let you set timers and charge evaluators to make that happen without intervention.You lose that function on this particular modded Leaf model. It’s not an unsolvable problem, because I get about 10% capacity back per charging hour and I can set a timer on my phone, but if you’re planning on using cheaper off-peak power (if it’s available to you) I can see how that would be more problematic.The only other firmware quirk I’ve noticed is that if I set off quickly and want to engage the front camera, every once in a while it decides I’m also trying to change the contrast and screen brightness with a pop-up that obscures part of that front camera. If I wait about 15 seconds before starting, it doesn’t happen. Weird… but easily workable through.

  • Why is the gearstick like that? This one I knew in advance, and it’s a minor issue, but still an issue.Most automatic vehicles will use a mostly straight up-down shifter for drive, park and reverse modes, or maybe a slightly modified one from the manual model depending on the make. That’s not what Nissan did with the Leaf. Instead, it put a UFO in there. Really, the shifter is a UFO, and I cannot for the life of me work out what the problem it’s meant to solve actually is. If you’re thinking “it’s not an actual UFO, is it?”, then watch this actual Nissan (or in the US, apparently, NEEESAN) video:

    It works, it’s not impossible to discern or take in the muscle memory of how to do it… but beyond wanting to look different for the sake of it, I don’t get why it exists this way. Anyone got any insight that they’d care to share?
  • Public charging is still messy: So, before my EVSE adventures, I did try to charge the 2016 Leaf somewhere that wasn’t my carport. There’s still a real dearth of public chargers around Sydney to speak of, and this is a problem, but I found one via Plugshare at the shopping centre in Rhodes, not too far from where a good friend of mine lives.I had to be over there one day, so I figured that while I didn’t need power to speak of, in the name of research I’d drop a dollar or two on some tasty electrons to keep Catweazle happy. Here’s the charging bay, with plenty of parks and a range of connector types including just what I needed to add some power to Catweazle.To sweeten the deal, according to Plugshare and the site, it should be giving me those tasty electrons for the fine, fine price of nothing. For the record I’m happy enough with the idea of paying for my electrons, but hey, free is always nice.There was just one problem.It didn’t work. It wouldn’t work.

    You tell ’em, Ron.

    I struggled to use a couple of different stations because the only other car there was a Tesla on a completely different plug type, all to no avail. In the end, I had to drive away, defeated.

    I’ll get you next time, (charging) Gadget!

    The NSW government has committed to helping build out the EV network in metro areas, and I can’t wait… but I’m worried about maintenance, because there’s going to be real problems if they’re all broken!

The TLDR verdict bit:

The 2016 Nissan Leaf I’ve bought is a second-hand car, and that does involve a level of risk to be sure. I could have wished to not have the stress around the EVSE dying on me, but I’m also struck by the fact that the one thing that’s gone wrong so far was on the newest bit of technology I got with the car. The vehicle dates from 2016, but the EVSE was brand new and still managed to cark it.

Is this a route that everyone should take? Not necessarily, but it is clearly the future. Not just for environmental reasons, but also because this is just plain the way that the car manufacturing industry is going.

I can certainly do what I need to do, transport wise with this car, and I look forward to enjoying doing so for many years to come.

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