Buying a Used Nissan Leaf Is Really Smart
Updated: Oct 8
[UPDATED OCT 2020]
Somebody approached me in a parking lot this week to ask whether I liked my used 2013 Nissan Leaf because they were considering buying an electric car.
I get this question a lot, so I thought I would write down all the reasons why I LOVE my Leaf and would strongly recommend it to anyone who (1) needs a car for routine commuting (not long distance driving), and (2) has a place to charge it (i.e., not street parking).
There are three primary reasons to get that used Leaf
(1) Electric cars are incredibly fun to drive
(2) Used Leafs are impossibly inexpensive to buy
(3) Used Leafs are even less expensive to own -- no gas, little maintenance.
First I will detail the many advantages. Then I will describe the few genuine disadvantages. Finally, I will briefly compare the other options: A NEW Leaf, or DIFFERENT kind of electric car (e.g., Tesla, Bolt).
1. Cost to Buy
2. Cost to Own
Fueling your Leaf will cost way less per mile than a gasoline-powered vehicle, especially if you live in a state with cheap electricity. My electric rates (California, PG&E) are high during peak hours (45-cents per kilowatt-hour), but I can charge the car at night for $0.16/kwh, which is closer to the national average. The car gets about 3.7 miles per KW, which means that fueling the car costs about 3-cents per mile. Compare that to gasoline at $3.00/gallon -- even at 30mpg, that's 10-cents per mile for an internal combustion engine. That's 3X or more to fuel the gas-car, and most gas cars don't even get 30 mpg. Even a Prius at 50 mpg is going to cost more than a Leaf at $3/gallon -- 6 cents per mile -- unless your electricity costs more than 22-cents per kwh.
According to the Idaho National Laboratory, electric vehicles operating at 4 miles per kWh are 78% cheaper to fuel than the average gasoline-powered vehicle in the U.S.
But fuel savings isn't the biggest advantage in cost-to-own. Consumer Reports says that electric cars cost less to own by $6K-$10K over the lifetime of the car. That's because your electric car also lacks the following components, so they don't break:
That is a LOT of things that won't break and never have to be replaced or maintained. The one you notice most is not having to change the oil regularly, and you'll never pay for a smog emissions test. Catalytic converters cost a fortune, and they are typically treated as a wear-and-tear item not covered by warranty, but EVs don't have them.
Oh, I forgot:
Electric cars do have brake pads, which may eventually need to be replaced, but because the car mostly uses the engine to brake (recharging the battery), the brake pads don't get that much use, and will last far longer than on a gasoline-powered car. How much longer? Maybe hundreds of thousands of miles. Elon Musk says they might never need to be replaced.
3. Fun to Drive
Electric motors are high torque at low speed, so you can go zero-to-30mph in about two seconds, regardless of whether you are driving a dorky old Leaf or a sleek Tesla. That means you are first off at the green light every time.
Also, the Leaf's battery gives it a high-weight and a low-center of gravity, which makes it hug the road like a sports car even though it has a higher profile.
4. Safe to Drive
Because electric cars are so heavy, they do a better in a collision than other small cars. And the same speed burst and maneuverability that make the car fun to drive also can help clearing a tight left turn and otherwise getting oneself out of a jam. Leafs get consistently high safety scores.
5. Green and Clean
In addition to the self-righteous feeling you get from having a low carbon footprint and not polluting the air -- especially if your electricity comes from renewable sources -- there are real practical benefits to driving an electric car. First, they are silent, so the car isn't noisy, your music sounds better, and the engine never roars into overdrive, even on hills, which makes you a good neighbor. Second, because there is no exhaust at all, you are never spewing anything on bicyclers or pedestrians when stopped at an intersection.
The used Leaf is a way better car for way less money -- what's not to like?
1. Limited Range
Range is pretty closely tied to battery size, at about 3.7 miles per kilowatt hour, more or less. So for each model year, the Leaf's range is about:
2011-15 (24kwh)............85 miles 2016 (30 kwh)..............110 miles
2017-18 (40 kwh).........150 miles
2019-21 (40-62 kwh)...150 - 226 miles
Range anxiety isn't that much of a thing. If you're going a long ways, then you just use the other car. Because if you only have an 80-mile range, you pretty much HAVE to have a primary car. The older Leafs are just for commuting and around town.
It is unusual that I go out on a short trip that gets unexpectedly diverted into a long trip. However, for those occasions, having a longer range is obviously better.
Charging stations are a possibility, but they have to be available, functioning, and not occupied, which is not a sure thing -- so you might be uneasy relying on those -- although that situation has improved in 2020.
2. Forgot to Charge
If you are like me, then eventually you will forget to plug it in or the charging timer will get confused by daylight savings time, or something, and you'll wake up with your car not fully charged. That's a lot like letting the gas tank get too low, but it takes longer to fix, which is another reason why electric cars are not ideal as your only vehicle.
3. Power Outage
If a serious storm knocks out power in your area for a day or more -- or if PG&E turns off the power in anticipation of fires, like in California -- you won't easily be able to re-charge. You would need to hook up your Level 1 charger to a generator, or find a charging station. In this situation, gasoline engines have an advantage, because you will probably have an easier time finding gas stations in service and gas cans to fill.
4. No Place to Charge
If you don't have a private garage or a driveway, or you rent and cannot install a charger, or you live in an apartment with only street parking, then re-charging the vehicle every night is not a fast, cheap, simple, care-free thing.
5. Cold Climate
The car's battery strongly prefers warm weather -- 65-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Below 65 degrees, you'll steadily lose range as the temperature drops until probably half the range is gone when you're in sub-zero temperatures.
6. Hot Climate
The air conditioner will cost you range.
7. Highway Driving
Just as you lose range when you go outside the optimum temperature range, you'll lose range if you like to drive fast on the highway. Drag increases at the cube of speed, so your Leaf will go 70 mph or more, but it has to work quite a bit harder to go 70 mph than to go 50 mph, and your range will take a hit. Not a problem on short trips, but you won't go as far on the highway as you'll go on surface streets.
8. Battery Life
Batteries gradually lose their power over time. Even the older batteries expect to retain 75% power after 10 years, but you'll miss that 25% if your range was already dicey or if the weather turns cold.
Ten years from now would probably be a good time to sell it and upgrade to whatever astonishing self-driving model is available then.
Or you might treat a replacement battery like an expensive repair that still leaves you with a lower total cost of ownership, because of lower operating costs and all the other things you did NOT have to repair.
Or you could just continue to use the very old Leaf with the smaller range.
9. No Discount Car Washes with a Full Tank at the Gas Station
Because you no longer have a tank to fill.
10. People Ask About Your Electric Car
It's not the worst thing.
FAQs for Potential Used Leaf Owners
Q: Does the battery run down when you're not driving it?
A: No, it holds a charge fine. When I get back from a week-long vacation it's still at 98%.
Q: Should I get the upgraded 6.6KW charger?
A: Probably. If you run the battery halfway down, the built-in 6.6KW charger means you can charge back to full in just 2-3 hours using a standard Level 2 charger. With the standard 3.6KW charger on older and base models, that would be 4-5 hours. It doesn't matter if you are only re-charging overnight, but if you re-charge between trips or at a charging station that charges by the hour, the faster charging rate would be helpful.
Q: Should I pay more to get the Level 3 charger upgrade?
A: Probably not. Level 3 allows a super-fast re-charge. It's not good for the battery, you probably won't have a Level 3 charger at home, and I rarely have seen them out in the wild, although in 2020 they are starting to proliferate. I've never used mine. The future might be different, though -- especially a future that involves 100kwh batteries that would take 16 hours to re-charge at Level 2 rates. But your used Leaf doesn't have a very big battery.
Q: Should I get a new Leaf instead of a used Leaf?
A: The newer Leafs are even better -- bigger battery, stronger engine, more features, less dorky. So if you can afford a newer Leaf, go for it -- especially if a combination of federal, state, local, and utility incentives make the cost somewhat comparable. But if you just want to pay the least amount possible for a great car, go used.
It is worth noting that the last two generations of electric cars did not hold their value for re-sale, because the technology is advancing so quickly, the same might be true for the current generation of electric cars. So buying used protects you from the first, worst devaluation shock.
Q: Should I install a Level 2 home charger?
A: Yes. You can get a Juice Box on Amazon for under $600, and either plug it into a dryer/RV 240-volt outlet, or get a hard-wired version and have an electrician run a 240-volt line from your circuit box. The Juice Box I linked to is the one I bought, and is WiFi capable, so you can track your car's charging over the Internet, and see your charging history, and be alerted if the system goes off-line (e.g., if your house loses power). That's fun, but overkill, so there are cheaper charging units available, too, which I can't speak to, but which are no doubt fine. [UPDATE: This model by Siemens costs less. Morec has a no-frills model. ChargePoint has a new model for home charging stations with some bells I wouldn't pay for but someone might like.] A longer charging cable is really convenient if you end up parking in a slightly different position.
Q: How do I tell the Leaf to charge at night when the rates go down?
A: The Leaf has a charging timer. You can tell it to only start charging at 11pm (or whenever the rates are lowest in your location). Once you set the timer, the Leaf won't charge when you plug it in; instead, it will wait until the right time of day. For a one-time override, just plug in the car, then push the Timer-Override button:
That will begin charging immediately, but it doesn't turn the timer off permanently, so next time you plug in the Leaf it will wait until the designated time, unless you push the override button again or turn off the timer in Settings.
Q: Should I get a Tesla Model 3 or Model Y instead?
A: [Update OCT 2020] Teslas are better cars in all kinds of ways, and they are now pouring off the assembly lines, for about $35K with a 250-mile range. If you can afford it, go with the Tesla. People really like them. But for most people a $15K used Leaf is the way to go -- affordable and saves money every day compared to any gasoline vehicle.
Q: Should I get a Chevy Bolt instead?
A: I don't see why. The Leaf is a better value, and there are more used Leafs than used Bolts. If you can afford to pay more for a bigger range, then head to up Tesla. Bolt's stuck in the middle, and it's an increasingly tight squeeze as Leafs get better and Teslas get cheaper.
Not sure? Test drive a used Leaf. I bet you'll love it.
UPDATE: May 8, 2018:
"Because of the higher efficiency of these cars compared to gasoline engines, combined with lower energy costs for electricity compared to gas, charging an electric vehicle is like paying $1.50 per gallon of gas. On top of that, electricity prices are carefully regulated and rise at a much slower rate than gasoline, without the dramatic fluctuations in pricing."
UPDATE 2: May 14, 2018
This study finds that operating costs of a gasoline vehicle are about 2x what they are for an EV, with a payback of the upfront costs at 50,000 miles, and then all net gain after that. Of course, lower cost is just one reason to prefer an EV.
Update 3: May 15, 2018
This study found that electric vehicles reduce stress for drivers. An electroencephalogram indicated that drivers were more focused, calmer, and happier when driving the electric version of their cabs than a diesel version.
Update 4: August 25, 2018
Our daughter drives a 2016 Honda Civic Coupe, which is a sporty fun two-door with a sunroof, because she has to drive further than a Leaf can go, but today she was driving the Leaf and said spontaneously that she prefers it to even her gasoline-powered car, because the Leaf is quieter and more fun to drive. Wow.
Update 5: February 11, 2019
Fast Company says that electric vehicles are a better deal than people realize. They're not just greener -- they're safer, cheaper, and better. "Consumers consistently overestimate the cost and underestimate the benefits of buying an electric car." According to The Guardian, even brand new EVs are already less expensive to own in Europe.
Update 6: March 18, 2019
The City of New York, with a fleet of over a thousand electric vehicles, reports that maintenance costs for their EVs were "dramatically less" than for their gasoline cars -- about $200-$400 per year for electric vehicles, compared to $1,600-$1,800 per year for gasoline-powered vehicles.
DISCLAIMER: I do not work for Nissan, or get paid by Nissan, or own stock in Nissan. I'm just an electric car evangelist because electric cars are terrific and I think everyone who can drive one should!