Home » The First-Generation Nissan Leaf Was One Cooling System Away From Greatness

The First-Generation Nissan Leaf Was One Cooling System Away From Greatness

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I’m working on my Jeep Wrangler right now, and I’ve lent my BMW i3 out to Jason’s wife, Sally. This means I have been stuck driving my $1000 Nissan Leaf, which infamously has a remaining range of only 25 miles due to battery degradation. Well, yesterday, while driving it 15 miles from Van Nuys to Santa Monica, I couldn’t help but think: My god this car is good. It’s such a monumental shame that its battery is trash, because everything else about this car is just fantastic. Here, allow me to explain what I mean.

I cannot even imagine what it must have been like stepping into a Nissan Leaf back in 2010. It must have felt like a spaceship. You step in, hit the start button, and a bunch of futuristic beeps and bongs play over the speakers as the screen and gauge cluster fire up. Ahead of you at eye-level is a digital speed readout, along with a clock and an instantaneous semi-circular eco-meter that tells you how efficiently you’re driving. Above the “nine and three” spokes of the steering wheel is the gauge cluster, which shows battery temperature, an indication of the power to and from battery (when accelerating and when regenerating), a battery health gauge and a battery state of charge gauge.

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2011 Nissan Leaf 12 Source

Off to the center of the dash is a big (by 2011 standards) center-stack infotainment display, with nice physical buttons for radio (including satellite radio), HVAC, and navigation. I like the blue trim around the HVAC controls:

2011 Nissan Leaf N 43 Source

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Then you grab the weird round shifter, pull it to the left and up, and you’re in reverse. You watch the backup camera — which, by modern standards, seems to offer almost CRT-levels of clarity — and then push the shifter left and back for drive. Then you step on it.

2011 Nissan Leaf N 41 1200x800

“ZIPPPP” the car bolts from a standstill with alacrity, sometimes chirping its front tires (the entire electric powertrain is under the hood) mesmerizing you with its pairing of speed and silence — something you likely had never experienced before back in 2010. You lift off the accelerator and… nothing happens. The pull your right foot back a bit, wondering if maybe you were still touching the pedal — nope. The car just rolls, and with an eagerness you’ve never experienced. “What the hell? How aerodynamic is this thing?” you wonder. “How low-friction are these wheel bearings?”

The vehicle just moves forward, as if in its own world devoid of friction. It’s actually really nice, and it just feels efficient. Of course, when you have to slow down, you tap the brakes and things feel quite the opposite, with you wondering how much of that stop was regen and how much was friction braking.

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The ride quality is phenomenal. It’s magic carpet-smooth, shrugging off expansion joints, potholes, and speed bumps, and yielding a cocoon of comfort for the driver. That cocoon is created by a whisper-quiet cabin that doesn’t transmit much wind or road noise, and by a beautifully light and cushy interior whose seats are made of this almost felt-like cloth. Those chairs coddle your body in a way that would make driving the Leaf for hundreds of miles at a time totally comfortable.

Leaf Int

But “hundreds of miles at a time” will never happen because the Leaf was only ever EPA rated at 72 miles of EV range. And while that’s totally useable, the problem with the Leaf — one that will lead it to become extinct in the not-so-distant future — is that its battery pack degrades unbelievably quickly.

2011 Nissan Leaf 11 Source

2011 Nissan Leaf 14 Source (1)

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[EDIT: OK, I’m not kidding when I say: I closed my laptop in the middle of writing this article, then left for O’Reilly Auto Parts to grab some fuel system parts for the Jeep whose tank I have to install in the next two hours, then started driving to work. I was using the car’s rather antiquated Bluetooth, chatting with my brother, when I looked down: SIX MILES OF RANGE LEFT! At the start of my trip, the car said it had 34 miles of range, and now, just 13 miles in, only six?!

This is what it’s like to drive an old leaf. If you ever, ever find yourself on the highway, get ready for the range to absolutely tank. You have to pay attention anytime you’re on the freeway, because the car just cannot deal with the current draw needed to overcome the aero drag.

Leaf 15miles

Anyway, now I had to duck into the nearest charging station, which was at the Getty Museum just at the base of the Sepulveda pass, which I definitely would not have made it up without charging. So here I am, writing from the Getty center.

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Proudstranded

What a shame this car is. It’s so good otherwise! -DT].

[Editor’s Note: I sometimes wonder if David can hear himself. “It’s so good,” he says, before adding in a word that’s doing so much heavy lifting it has an 8-pack and its arms look like a garbage bag crammed full of snakes, “otherwise.” In this context, “otherwise” leads to exchanges like this:

Dtslack Leaf

I’ll cut the tension and let you know that thanks to the time at the Getty and moving to surface streets (after a bout of driving 45 on the 405, an offense which California may consider dusting off their electric chair for) David did make it to the office, but just barely. At one point the range guessometer read 6 miles and it was 6.7 to work. I’m not sure you get to still say a car is “so good” if you have to put up with shit like this. Would David be as enamored by a Nissan Versa with a 0.8 gallon gas tank? Because that’s pretty much what he has! Oh well. Cars aren’t rational, and we all know David sure as shit isn’t, either. – JT]

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2011 Nissan Leaf 15 Source (1)

 

My 2011 Nissan Leaf, which has only 70,000 miles on the odometer, runs out of juice after under 20 miles of freeway driving, and part of the reason is that the pack has no active cooling whatsoever. Most modern EVs have liquid-cooled battery packs to make sure the cells stay at their optimum temperature when charging, discharging, or even just sitting. But early Leafs had nothing, and the result was severe degradation in hot climates like the American southwest, where my car spent all of its life.

 

2011 Nissan Leaf 16 Source (1)

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Nissan redid the battery, rolling out the “Lizard” pack in 2015, and while this battery was air cooled, it lasted significantly longer before seeing the kinds of degradation I’m seeing in my Leaf. Anyway, I’m going to have to truncate this post, because I need to see if my Leaf is charged, and if so, I have to run before I get charged $25 to park (it’s free if I leave within an hour). I’ve run the numbers, and given that I’m 10 miles from work, and the car does about 3 miles per kWh, I really just need about 3 and some change kWh of charge to make it there. Actually, if I factor in the steep grade, maybe I need 5. Given that The Getty Museum’s chargers are Level 2s, and therefore probably crank out 6kW of power, I gotta make sure I stay plugged in for 50 minutes. But not more than 60.

So I gotta thread this needle here, so you’ll have to excuse me for shortening what was going to be a long blog about how much I love the 2011 Leaf, and how much of a shame it is that it didn’t get the battery it deserved.

[Editor’s Note: Just to re-iterate, the reason he’s cutting short his blog about how much he loves the 2011 Leaf is because his 2011 Leaf almost left him stuck on the side of the cruel and unforgiving 405. Oh, David, you idiot, this is why I love you, you poor delusional dummy. – JT]

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Ryan S
Ryan S
17 days ago

I don’t think that active cooling would have saved the 1st gen Leaf battery pack. Yes, it’s sensitive to heat (hence the nickname “Canary pack”) but not just charging/driving heat. Aging on this pack is bad in general and seems to be accelerated in hotter climates. That is to say, even higher storage temperature was problematic.

And aside from that – look at the history. Nissan produced 3 different 24kWH packs with each subsequent pack design gaining improved resilience over time and temperature, earning them the nicknames “wolf pack” and “lizard pack”. And in the last years of the 1st gen Leaf, Nissan offered a 30kWH pack on some models that was a step backwards in aging performance. This pack aged perhaps as badly as the “canary pack” but it came with an upgraded 8 year battery warranty (vs. 5 years for the 24kWH pack). By the time these packs got bad enough to replace under warranty, Nissan had moved on to 40kWH and 60kWH packs of the gen 2 Leaf. Amazingly the 40kWH packs fit in place of the 24 or 30kWH packs so Nissan was replacing crappy 30kWH packs under warranty with the 2nd gen’s excellent 40kWH pack for a huge improvement in range and aging.

The 2nd gen Leaf packs, in either the 40kWH or 60kWH size, seem to be the best performing of the family (and come with a 10 year pack warranty). Still not as good as Tesla packs which, admittedly, have active cooling. But the point here is that Nissan found plenty of improvements to make since its initial design before spending a dime on active cooling.

I hope that folks won’t take David’s experience as the typical Leaf experience. Remember that he specifically looked for the cheapest EV he could find – it was bound to have problems. Imagine the cheapest Toyota Corolla you can find. Ew. I have friends with a very early Leaf that’s at ~40 miles range. Their teenage son drives it now and aside from the limited range (a plus if you want your teenager on a tight leash) it’s been crazy reliable.

As for the value proposition, consider this. What’s the nicest electric golf cart David could have bought for $2000? How would it compare to this Leaf? Range, power, speed, features, air conditioning. Seriously, you can pay a lot more for a much crappier cart.

Ben
Ben
23 days ago

Leaf: Ugly, unique interior, rapidly degrading batteries
i3: Ugly, unique interior, rapidly degrading batteries

David has a new car type. Sorry Jeep.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
23 days ago

I have quite a soft spot for the first-gen Leaf. In fact I think they should have also made an EV Cube just to hmer home that it was meant as a city car, not a highway cruiser.

I really appreciate the clever thinking behind it, especially in contrast to traditional ICE vehicles. The small gear selector is like a computer controller, and clever in that it seemingly takes up less space because nothing mechanical is being directly actuate. Center-front charger port makes sense for international use.

It feels fairly nimble for what it is. Tall tail lights, and sizeable headlamps.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
23 days ago

you know, you can replace the weakest cells in the pack… https://dalasevrepair.fi/

John Patson
John Patson
25 days ago

The promise was that as batteries degraded, you would be able to buy new ones, cheap, and with better tech, to replace them.
Lying bastards.

Noahwayout
Noahwayout
23 days ago
Reply to  John Patson

I am searching internet posts and news pre 2014 and nowhere am I seeing promises of cheap replacement batteries. In fact it was quite the opposite – everyone complained about the unknown costs of replacement 10 years down the road precisely because of the lack of info.

The closest I could find is this Autoblog post from 2013 that says a replacement battery could be $100 / month on what sounds like a subscription basis. Over 10 years, you’d spend $12k (if the subscription cost didn’t go up) which is awfully close (or more) than what a replacement Leaf battery costs today. If you ask me, it sounds like costs were pretty close to inline with what was anticipated.

Last edited 23 days ago by Noahwayout
John Patson
John Patson
23 days ago
Reply to  Noahwayout

I was there, they used the promise of leap through battery technology to convince people that buying a new battery pack, for more than a new thermal engine, would not happen.
There was a big leap, around 2017, 2018, where Zoes, for example, moved from official 150km range (reality 90) to official near 300 km range (reality 230 km) with new electronics tech and bigger and heavier batteries, but the actual battery technology and cost per kWh remained the same.
Now they say (Saft in particular) that mass produced solid state batteries are just 2 years or so from the shops and cost per kWh will come down…

Noahwayout
Noahwayout
23 days ago
Reply to  John Patson

Per Bloomberg News battery prices have come down significantly in the last 10 years. $780usd/kwh in 2013 to $139usd/kwh in 2023.

I have no idea what “leap through battery technology” or “thermal engines” are. None of these words appear to have any context within the EV market.

Phuzz
Phuzz
23 days ago
Reply to  Noahwayout

I’m guessing ‘thermal engine’ is another way of saying ‘internal combustion engine’, whilst not ruling out the possibility of a steam engine.
(They’re both ‘thermal engines’, but a steam engine is an external combustion engine)

Fix It Again Tony
Fix It Again Tony
26 days ago

I cannot even imagine what it must have been like stepping into a Nissan Leaf back in 2010.

I test drove it back when it came out, it was just another budget Nissan interior back then too.

Last edited 26 days ago by Fix It Again Tony
Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
26 days ago

Or use LFPs like GM did with the first Spark EV, cheaper, handle full charges better. Not going to get as much range as regular Lithium ion but they didn’t have that much to begin with. Of course GM switched to LG Chem batteries for the Spark and eventually the Bolt and that worked out so much better(not!).

Last edited 26 days ago by Fuzzyweis
LeftCoastDad
LeftCoastDad
26 days ago

We picked up our first Leaf in 2011 and LOVED that car for all the reasons David starts his article with. We’re on our 4th now, having bought out our most recent of the 3-year leases. Ours is now 4 years old, still takes 100% charge, which is good for 225 miles (we live in cooler-than-California northern Oregon). It’s a small, silly thing, but the Leaf has always had the BEST turn signal sound of any car I’ve ever driven in my 42 years of driving– an incredibly satisfying and soothing bamboo chime sound. It’s immaculate. Outfit these with the NACS port, and there’s still plenty of utility and space for these in the market. There should be way more of them on the road than there are.

World24
World24
23 days ago
Reply to  LeftCoastDad

If things could fall into place, I’d buy a 2nd gen Leaf in an instant. Just seems like the right vehicle for me!

Hamish48
Hamish48
26 days ago

the perfect argument for hybrids

Greg
Greg
27 days ago

Someone should develop an aftermarket cooling solution for these batteries. Maybe a bank of fans. They could call it… the Leaf Blower.

I’ll see myself out…

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
25 days ago
Reply to  Greg

I had the same thought reading—then realized I don’t know enough to balance the current-draw from the fan(s) with optimized battery temperatures for maximizing range. Given what I do know about (AC) motors, and a bit about air-cooling, I suspect it likely wouldn’t work unless the pack had been designed for the fans to begin with.

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