Fast charging a Nissan Leaf (or not)

17 April 2012

Nissan Leaf on a trailer

Nissan’s 100-day The Big Turn On campaign rolls on, but my role as a roving billboard is no more. Nissan Leaf car 23 was hauled away yesterday afternoon by a man with a Nissan Navara pickup truck and a trailer.

The diesel-powered manner of my Leaf’s departure underscores the big, divisive issue that hangs over all electric cars like an obdurate cloud – severely limited range. From my front door to Worcester, where Nissan stores its press vehicles, is about 137 miles. That’s much too far for one lot of charge (even if I had returned the Leaf with a full battery, which I didn’t).

On a warm day, driving slowly and carefully, in eco mode, a freshly charged new car offers 109 miles from its battery, but that is very definitely your lot.

The Leaf does of course support fast charging – one high-power session will leave the battery 80 per cent full after half an hour. I do know people who have clocked up big annual mileages in their Leafs by relying on this facility, but it takes patience and planning. The fact that Nissan itself chooses to rely on a trailer as a more practical solution for long-distance journeys says all you currently need to know about fast charging.

Charging point blocked by SUV

I had wanted to experience the rapid charging process for myself, so while I had the Leaf in my hands I drove unannounced to Nissan’s dealership in Eltham, about 10 miles from my house. There I found the rapid charging space, right next to the workshop, occupied by a Nissan Murano (a large 4x4, which I’m pretty certain is not electric). No doubt staff might have moved the Murano if I’d parked, gone inside, found someone to ask, and drummed my fingers for a bit while they shifted it. This would have turned a half-hour top-up into a much longer and markedly less convenient performance, so instead I turned around and headed for The O2 dome, where I’d seen a Nissan fast charger lurking on the day I’d collected the Leaf.

O2 fast charger

The O2 fast charger, and indeed a row of slow chargers, live in Car Park 1 at the dome. And of course the car park was closed when I got there. And even if it were open, you are supposed to pre-book, which I obviously hadn’t done. However, with the battery now genuinely low on charge, I succeeded in sweet-talking my way in, hoping not to incur the posted £28 parking charge (reduced to £10 for pre-booked EVs).

A helpful member of O2 parking staff spent 15 minutes trying to make the fast charger work. She had an electronic proximity key to unlock it, but it also demanded a PIN before it would unleash any energetic electrons. And she didn’t know the PIN, since nobody had ever asked her about the fast charger before.

Nissan Leaf fast charger plug and socket

Several fruitless phone calls later, it became clear I wasn’t going to get a rapid charge out of this particular monolith. The cobwebs clinging to its big metal plug didn’t bode well. I dejectedly slotted the heavy-duty cable into the Leaf’s nose and took some snaps of it busily not charging.

Having successful evaded paying for my fruitless sojourn in Car Park 1, I debated driving back to Eltham. I’d set off with a half-full battery, and had dared to use the heater (which, incidentally, is about as warming as being breathed on by a sleeping lizard). As a result, I no longer had enough range to comfortably reach the dealer again and still get back home if there was a problem with either moving the Murano or getting the charger to work.

Range anxiety won. I gave up and drove home, charging the car up the slow way, from a three-pin plug.

Alas I didn’t have a chance to repeat the trip – I’d have phoned ahead on the second attempt. But I was left feeling a little less optimistic about Nissan’s fast-charging network than before. I applaud the company for investing in fast chargers, but it needs to put them in places where they can be easily got at and used. And it needs to remind its dealers not to use the precious fast charging spot as a handy slot to store 4x4s.

And as I amply proved, if you want to use a rapid charger, don't expect to treat it like a petrol station and just roll up with an overdose of optimism. Get on the web, plan your trip, and above all phone ahead.

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