Driving an electric car, part 1 – it’s about time

Hello, reader.

I envisioned this post to be a part of a series, so bear with me. Right off the bat, a quick disclaimer. This is not a sponsored post, nor is it supported by any company or individual. I’m not getting kickbacks, or perks. I’d like to – but that’s not what this is about. I just wanted to share my personal thoughts on driving (and owning) an electric car in Toronto, Canada. I should have posted this story months ago – but kept pulling out – there were many reasons. Regardless, better late than never.

So here we go – I got a Nissan Leaf a few months ago – back in May 2012. A fully electric vehicle, no stinky gas tank, no loud engine, no expensive transmission, no tailpipe. End of story, right? Actually, there’s a bit more to that. For me, it was a decision a few years in the making, and sadly – after having multiple chats about it with family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors – for some of you, seems like a decision you simply refuse to even consider. So let me try to convince you to take a closer look at electric cars. Let me sell you. At the very least, make you chuckle a little.

There’s always a back-story

I almost bought into the hype of hybrids back in 2008, when it was time to return back the ol’ Civic, and move up to something bigger. My family’s just grown to 4.0 units (not counting the cats), and Toyota Prius was all the rage. Sleek-looking, quiet, full of wonderful new technology that allowed you to … gasp … charge the battery as you were slowing down for red lights, converting that kinetic energy in brakes into an electrical charge. Spend enough time in a morning commute, and you have a few extra kilometers in the evening. Use less gas, save the environment, feel pretty good about yourself. Sounds like a win-win solution. The future. And I almost got that Prius, except the difference in price (even after heavy Provincial and Federal incentive discounts) did not add up. And the extra battery in the back of the car, filling up a third of the trunk – did not impress. With a new baby on board, a more expensive car, which I would still need to fill up (albeit, about 30%-40% less frequently) would just be too much to take on. No matter how cool, and efficient the Prius was, that was not the financial decision I could afford make at the time. So I passed – after a lot of arithmetics (with and without some very patient car salesmen). And I went with a roomier Nissan Altima. All four of us fit in there nicely, the extra horsepower helped us get around faster, further, and more often. And as for the bigger tank – well, that only became an issue a couple of years ago – when gas prices over 1.20/L became the norm. But most surprisingly, luxury SUVs started polluting the streets of Toronto and my suburban streets. Either all my neighbors suddenly became rich, or stopped looking at their car maintenance costs. Something was wrong with that picture. I knew I was spending more on gas – and I was convinced that bigger, roomier cars guzzled even more. But they were everywhere – what was I missing?

Time to change

So when the time came to part with the Altima earlier this year (ahem, last year – this post has been ‘in draft’ for over 8 months), I decided to do a little homework. Yes, I could replace a mid-size vehicle (remember, all 4 family members are now a little older, a little heftier, and going back to Honda Civic days was now just a dream) with something similar, in the $350-400/mo range, and be stuck with the same routine. Fill up every week, a tank of 70 or so litres (that’s about 90 bucks or more), or try something different. Try to change the routine, change the game. I remember when Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt came to Toronto in fall of 2011. There was a lot of brouhaha (did I really just use that word?) about the next generation of cars – completely tank-free, and emission-free – and a few happy early customers drove away in sleek, compact new cars. There was also a talk of Mitsubishi selling electric cars. So I decided to follow up. My trip to a Chevy dealership was pretty quick. Volt is a great little car, but it compromises its range for more room. And it does have a gas tank. So it`s still a hybrid. You`re still using gas. Kudos for adding the many-many efficiencies, but it won’t get me far. Definitely kudos on marketing itself as an electric car :) The visit to Mitsubishi was also very brief. Car was too small. Affordable, really cute, but we’d have to actually lose weight as a family, and I wasn’t ready for such drastic measures just to get a cheaper car ride. I’m fat, get it?

Don’t even get me started on the transit option. I live in Maple, a suburb of Toronto. I do regularly (and happily) use the train to get to work, but things like shopping, family visits, movie nights – out of question. Bus routes are so few, and so poorly mapped, I can only rely on GO Transit – and it only has two lines in my vicinity. Both going North-South. Yep, Toronto is a world-class-city, when it comes to transit. But that’s a rant for another day.

So back we went to Nissan, and had a few test-drives. I admit, I planned these test-drives strategically. First, with my 7-year-old (who was instantly impressed with it – well, it’s a small space, lots of buttons, he can charge it all by himself, and knows his way around the dashboard – he was sold on it instantly; the sad reality is that I know a few grown men who make their car-buying decisions based on shiny buttons, bluetooth capabilities, and back-lit dashboards). The next test-drive was with my wife, and this is where the practical mind prevailed. How much? No, really, all-in, how much? So here are the numbers, to (hopefully) win you over.

Those pesky numbers

Nissan Leaf, even after all the discounts and incentives, would still cost around $600/mo. That’s about 240 bucks more than we had paid before – but add up the zero dollars spent on gas – literally zero – there’s nowhere to put it – and suddenly the car is beginning to look like a practical, actually, efficient vehicle. Of course, you still need to charge it up – either at home overnight, or in-between destinations, on the road. Currently the road charging stations are mostly free. Some government buildings install them, some parking lots. You pay for parking, but the plug-in is free. So the costs for that are minimal. And the home charging – after a few months of getting into the groove – add up to $30/month. A far cry from the weekly $90 payments to the oil companies. The car is more expensive up front, but a lot of invisible, assumed costs are near nil. Another pleasant surprise was finding out that insurance on it would be about 20% cheaper. After all, it’s a smaller car – but any savings are welcome. So all-in, dollar for dollar – an electric car is cheaper to maintain than a gas alternative (for similar package). And yes, we do drive quite a bit – but more about this later. So at the end of the day, I’m not just feeling good about my (non-existent) environmental impact and the (doomed) future I’m ensuring for descendants (he-he-he). I’m actually spending less on getting around.

After a few rather interesting weeks, we’ve checked the bills, checked our schedules, and were surprised. The math adds up, the family fits, the car is sleek and silent. It really is a cheaper alternative, and somehow we don’t miss the weekly trips to the gas station. So why didn’t I brag about it back in May? Come back in a few days for part two – the reality of driving an electric vehicle. Things do get interesting once you’re behind the wheel of a Leaf.

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