With more than a dozen plug-in cars on the market in California, this was the year we decided it was time to trade up — and swap one electric car for another.
Since March 2011, our household fleet has consisted of a 2011 Nissan Leaf and a 2011 Chevrolet Volt.
We took delivery of our Leaf in February 2011, and over the next two-plus years recorded more than 16,000 trouble-free miles.
The big jump
But with the consistently positive reviews of the upscale Tesla Model S, this year we decided to make the big jump to that car. Our home delivery and first drive came on July 9 of this year.
We now have about 5,000 miles on our Model S, and it recharges each night in our home garage using a Coulomb Level 2 charger that was first installed for our Volt. We now recharge the Volt on 110-Volt power each night.
So our previous combination of the Leaf and Volt has now become a combination of the Model S and the Volt.
2011 Leaf: learning experience
The Leaf was a solid first effort, but the 2011 models were, we’re sad to report, something of a learning experience both for Nissan and for early-adopter buyers.
Our Leaf (VIN 000320) performed and continues to perform very well as a basic commuter car. Casual mentions and early advertising that mentioned a range of “100 miles” aside, the range was always more realistically right around the 73-mile EPA rating.
And the range projection display came to be referred to as a “guess-o-meter” by many 2011 Leaf drivers. Even after several software upgrades with supposedly better algorithms, the Leaf typically lost 6 to 8 miles of projected range during its first 2 to 4 miles every day.
Performance of the Leaf in stop-and-go driving was excellent, and the air conditioning was very effective.
Negatives: heating and range
But the 2011 Leaf did not offer either heated seats or a heated steering wheel, and running its heater in colder areas has a major negative impact, cutting actual driving range by as much as 20 percent.
The Leaf was adequate for merging at freeway speeds, and in many respects, its biggest plus for us was that it could transport five people. It was our “go-to” car for group dinner outings, as its back seat was far more roomy that the one in our Volt.
Our Leaf had the Pearl White exterior, so it was also the car of choice when parking outside during hot Sacramento Valley summers.
But the big negatives with the Leaf were the poor winter heating and lack of heated seats, along with an electric range that is minimally realistic for our needs. The Leaf was clearly a “second car with specific limits” on its use.
Virtually no limits
With the arrival of our Tesla electric luxury sedan, we now have an emission-free car with virtually no limits on its use.
Our Model S (in multi-coat red) has the 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack with the standard 362-horsepower motor, air suspension, leather, technology package, twin 10-kilowatt chargers, and upgraded stereo.
We are seeing a realistic range on a full charge of 272 miles, and regular charge projection of around 242 miles — and these projections are actually consistent with our driving! Three miles into a drive, the Model S has lost three miles of range.
The only negative so far is is having to get used to how big the Model S really is. It’s longer and especially wider than anything we have owned before, and it rides like the big vehicle that it is.
Switching from our Chevy Volt to the Tesla Model S highlights how much the Model S wants to continue straight ahead, versus the Volt’s quicker response to steering input on sharp corners.
The Model S is much bigger and heavier than the Leaf, too, but it pays back occupants with more interior space, especially in the back seat, as well as a much more comfortable experience during freeway driving.
The heated seats and air conditioning work superbly, and the access to freeway “Supercharger” quick-charging stations make it possible for us to plan future road trips with this car.
Joyful play behind the wheel
Even more, especially in contrast to the Leaf, almost every drive in the Model S includes moments of fun. The regenerative braking is strong enough that the brake pedal isn’t needed except in rare circumstances, and the acceleration away from a stop is simply joyful play.
We also appreciate Slacker Radio. We’re in the process of creating our own themed radio stations, and the verbal commands for the audio system and the GPS navigation actually work.
When we got our Leaf in 2011, the GPS maps Nissan provided were at least five years old, and the company never provided any updates. Almost three years later, our West Sacramento home is still not on the maps in the Leaf, and this neighborhood is about to celebrate its tenth birthday.
During our early Leaf ownership in 2011, I regularly parked it in high-traffic locations and sat back to watch how others noticed or reacted to it. The Leaf appeared to be invisible to passersby; it was just “another white hatchback.”
During those same early days, people stopped and noticed the Volt and even got out their cell phones for cameras to take pictures.
But the Model S is the “rock star” of cars, it would seem. It has become normal for us to have people ask questions about the car, want to look inside, take pictures of it, or simply give us a thumbs-up on the freeway. Many have commented that it’s “the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen.”
There are, of course, some niggles in the Model S design that many owners have noticed and commented on. Those include the cheapest, smallest, and flimsiest sun visors ever fitted to a car, no real center-console storage, and — absurdly — no cup holders for back-seat riders.
However, after the first stop sign or traffic light during any drive or the total domination of of any freeway on-ramp, these become simply melt away and become niggles forgotten.
In the end, the Nissan Leaf is a wonderful and functional city car. After the 2011 model year, Nissan addressed the interior heating issue, and at today’s lower prices, a new 2013 Nissan Leaf makes a most practical second or commuter car.
But the 2013 Tesla Model S, with the 85-kWh battery pack, can pretty much be your only car — and the experience behind the wheel takes driving to a much higher level. And that’s something to celebrate indeed.
This story originally appeared on Green Car Reports. Copyright 2013