I drove a 2013 Nissan Leaf 200+ miles into the mountains

Nissan Leaf charging in Marion photo
© Sami Grover

And this is what I learned...

I had been driving for 8 hours on what is usually less than a 4 hour journey.

The 'guess-o-meter' was registering 18 miles of range, and I had 19 miles to go. I was also late to a fancy restaurant dinner date with my family. It was around this time that I started to wonder if this had been a good idea, and then I remembered:

We had known it was a terrible idea all along.

About a month or two ago, I asked readers for advice on taking a 2013 Nissan Leaf on a road trip from Durham, NC, up to Asheville in the mountains and back. Some of the comments I received were a little discouraging:

"I think the idea borders on crazy."
"My suggestion - don't do it."
"Seriously, I would not want to try that..."

But as I argued at the time, the idea was not to demonstrate that this is a sensible or practical thing to do. Nor was it to prove that a 2013 Leaf is somehow a perfect replacement for a gas car, or even a semi-decent option for a road trip. Rather, it was to explore whether it was even possible now that charging infrastructure is expanding, and what implications it might have for drivers of newer, longer range vehicles and/or taking a vehicle like this on shorter inter-city hops.

And the result of the experiment is yes, it's totally possible. That doesn't mean that anyone should buy an old Leaf for the purpose of taking road trips. But here's what it does mean (I'll get into the details of our trip a little further down).

Lesson One: Fast charging is preferable wherever possible. We never ran into battery temperature issues, which some had flagged as a potential problem in the Leaf. In fact, having at various points of the journey opted for both Level 2 charging because it was by the highway, and driven a fair distance off of our route to find a CHAdeMO fast charger, I would suggest that the latter is preferable, even if it means dealing with rush hour in a strange city.

Lesson Two: Steep mountains really do eat your range. We definitely got nervous as we watched the "guess-o-meter" (which is a range projection based on recent and current driving style) drop from 30+ miles to below 20 in the space of three or four miles of steep uphill. But we clawed much of that back once we topped Black Mountain, and ultimately only lost four or five miles of range thanks to a 1000+ foot ascent.

Lesson Three: Topography aside, the guess-o-meter actually turned out to be pretty accurate on the flat. Assuming you kept to a pretty consistent driving style (see below), we found ourselves arriving at charging points with roughly the range we had projected ourselves to have.

Lesson Four: Speeding is a self-defeating strategy. In fact, we found a massive difference in projected range between 60 and 65 mph, and another significant drop on the rare occasion we found ourselves driving 70 to keep up with traffic. We also avoided blasting the AC, which meant I turned up to that family dinner date smelling a little more aromatic than might have been appropriate for the venue.

Lesson Five: Developments in charging infrastructure are rising up to meet increases in range, meaning if I can do this in an older electric vehicle, it will be infinitely easier in a Chevy Bolt, a Tesla Model 3 or even the 2018 Nissan Leaf—all of which could have made the journey in one or two charges maximum.

But now, here's a little more about what we did and why:

As mentioned was the plan in my original post, I set off extremely early, drove 36 miles and charged up with coffee and electrons at TS Designs' public charging spot in Burlington. I didn't strictly speaking need to leave so soon as there was a fast charger nearby, but I was nervous about too many fast charges and figured I could get a first leg done before my friend and navigator could meet me around 9.

Having charged to almost full, we drove 47 miles to Flow BMW in Winston Salem. We rolled in with 26 miles on the clock, plugged in to their Level 2 charging station, walked around a rather industrial part of Winston Salem, and hit up a Waffle House for a long, slow and decidedly unmemorable late breakfast.

Having hung around the BMW showroom for as long as we could stand it, we rolled out around 11.30am, with 67 miles of projected range, and 42.5 miles to go to get to Classic Nissan of Statesville. There, we checked out the new Leaf in the showroom, and mused on how much easier the journey would be with 150 miles of range. Then we hung around some more on the dealer's Level 2 charging station for what felt like an eternity.

It was at this point that my co-pilot started to seriously question the nature of our endeavor:

The next leg should have been easy—meaning a quick run of 31 miles to Modern Nissan of Hickory, where we planned to hit up our first fast charger. But it was at this point that we probably did ourselves no favors, hitting 70 mph at several points. As we pulled off the highway feeling confident in our range, the guess-o-meter suddenly dropped from having 7 or 8 miles left to showing literally blank (---). I now know that this is the Leaf's way of telling you to stop messing about, and go find somewhere to charge. But as someone who had never seen his battery get so low, I'm not gonna lie—it caused some nerves.

Having now done some reading on this, I'm confident that we genuinely still had 7 or 8 miles left in reserve, especially at non-highway speeds. But still, it was a sign not to push things. So we pulled up, plugged in, and were pleasantly surprised to see the fast charger take us from 16% battery capacity to 97% in just a little over half an hour. (We quickly resolved to prioritize fast charging on the way home.)

With close to 80 miles on the guess-o-meter, and only 77 miles to our destination, we were tempted to make this our last stop. But there's a little thing called Black Mountain between Hickory and Asheville.

So we drove—slowly!—the 43 miles to the rather picturesque town of Marion, NC, where we stopped in for cold beer and poutine at a new joint called McDowell Local. (Pro-tip: Level 2 charging is a lot more tolerable with good food and beverages.) Here, we topped up to something like 55 miles of range—I confess I had stopped taking notes by now—offered up a little prayer to the EV gods, and then made our way toward Black Mountain.

Now, a little geographical context: Between a town called Old Fort, and another called Black Mountain, there's a 7 or 8 mile stretch of extremely steep ascent, taking you from 1,447 ft to 2,405 ft. As I mentioned in my introduction, we watched the projected range fall a mile every few hundred yards or so at one point. But it soon leveled out as we crested the hill, and we coasted the rest of the way to Asheville with close to 17 miles to spare, plugging in to the hotel fast charger around 6pm, and heading out to check out the many, many breweries and restaurants of Asheville.

The next morning, following a quick top up charge during a business meeting at the stunning New Belgium brewery in the River Arts District, we set off down the mountain around 11.30am—aiming to reach Durham around 6 for dinner. The big unknown was just how much range we'd claw back from regenerative braking as we came down the ascent that had killed our range the day before. We had hoped to get just enough range to eke out the full 77 miles to the same fast charger we had used in Hickory, and indeed we did watch the projected miles go up from the 50s to the low 60s as we reached the bottom of the hill.

But just as the guess-o-meter gets overly pessimistic going uphill, it appears to calculate your future range assuming you're going to keep going downhill at the same rate for the rest of your journey. With the charging stations up there being few and far between—and our projected range flattening out to roughly the distance we had left to travel—we decided to err on the side of caution, go antique shopping, get a quick 25 minute charge on a Level 2 station in the town of Valdese. This gave us enough to hit up Hickory, where we did another quick charge from empty to full, and started mulling on whether we'd make it all the way to Winston Salem.

That, again, proved to be unrealistic—or at least risky—so we stopped in again at an Ingles in Statesville, quickly topped up for 15 to 20 minutes, and then kept on rolling toward Winston Salem. Here, this time, we drove around the city in rush hour to get to Modern Nissan, North of downtown, where the city's only CHAdeMO fast charger is available. (Placement of which seems specifically designed to make technicians hate EVs...)

Fortunately, the charger was available—and we spent half an hour topping up, before dropping my friend back in Burlington. At this point, it was 5.30pm, I had 36 miles left to go, and dinner was booked for 6. My hope was to get a quick 10 minute fast charge, squeeze just enough into the battery, and arrive around 6.20 for entrees.

But alas, of course, for the first time on our entire trip the charger was in use. And another Leaf pulled up behind me waiting to charge too. Some 20 minutes later, I had plugged in and got a little too antsy to be done with this folly. So I set off with barely a 50% charge, and drove a little too fast toward dinner.

As I mentioned in the intro, I was soon sweating it, watching the miles to go on my navigation fall almost in synch with the range on my guess-o-meter. I did a little math, figured an alternative end route, and staked my hopes on the fact that the last five miles or so would be city traffic and non-highway miles. Indeed, I was still on the highway as the guess-o-meter went blank, I eaked out another few miles downhill on the highway, and then took the first possible exit for Durham—flying blind in terms of range, but relatively confident that I had 6 miles of city driving to do, with about 6 miles of highway range to do it in.

I'll never know how close I came to the famed "turtle mode" (where the Leaf goes into a ultra-slow mode to get you to safe spot for charging), but I managed to park, hug my family, wolf down a couple of Old Fashioned's and a bucket of mussels, and crawl uphill to home. And by the time I'd charged the next morning, the Leaf said it could do 90 miles easy on a full battery.

I guess I certainly learned how to maximize my range...

So, the short story is this: don't try this at home, kids. Although we had fun, in a perverse sort of way, it is undoubtedly an astoundingly dumb idea right now. But given a little more range in the vehicle, a few more charging stations along the route, and slightly faster rate of charge, and it would suddenly go from one of the silliest things I've done as an adult to a total non-issue.

Yes, we pushed our range a little too far in places. Yes, driving with a buddy and no AC is unpleasant. But there's no question that—in my neck of the woods at least—a journey like this is 100% doable. It would have been a heck of a lot easier in one of these, though:

If and when I take the plunge for a longer range electric vehicle, I plan on taking this journey again to compare. I suspect it will be an entirely boring story, especially if Electrify America's proposed network really does come into fruition.

A big thanks, btw, to all the dealerships and towns (and my friends at TS Designs!) that made charging possible—including folks who took time out of their work day to move vehicles and make sure we had access to charge. Also, huge thanks to commenters and twitter peeps for your advice, encouragement and words of warning! We did the journey so you don't have to. And finally, thanks also to my co-pilot Matt for being pretty much as dumb as I am...

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