New electric car owners learn the ropes.

Story - Wendy Isenhart, Photos – Ed Isenhart

Electric car #1 Full disclosure-- -this isn’t exactly our first electric car. That honor goes to the pink Barbie electric jeep we bought our granddaughter for Christmas ten years ago. Our daughter was irked, “You are the guys who wouldn’t let me have Barbie dolls-- -!” But she came around fast, anointing it “the first electric car in the family.”

Electric car #2 - The second electric car in the family belonged to our son, Wolf and daughter-in- law, Naoko who work in high tech in Seattle. They leased a red 2012 Nissan Leaf, the first year it came out with a built-in fast charger. They loved the car, we loved the car, everyone who got a chance to drive it loved the car. Perfect for short hops around Seattle, it was plugged in at home every night, warmed up remotely on house power before work every morning and never ran out of fuel—well, almost never. Four years later, with lease returns showing up in the used car ads, we wondered about an electric car for our second car.

Ed and I were down to one car after a car/deer collision (mine) totaled the good old Highlander and a sports car liquidation sale (his) and the cherished 1972 Volvo 1800ES is now in California with younger, more limber owners). We’d been trying to get by with one car, but one just wasn’t enough. Someone was always getting stranded.

And then-- -I’m on the board of Plug-In North Central Washington, (PINCW), a nonprofit focused on building charging station infrastructure up and down Eastern Washington’s highways to encourage adventurous EV owners in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. to come visit our fruit and wine wonderland, drive their electric cars through scenic routes, stay in our unique towns-- -so, there was pressure to practice what my team was preaching. After the deer encounter, we replaced the Highlander with a 2009 diesel VW Jetta sports wagon. When they found out, I was booed.

Our experiences brought us, in late September, to wandering around the Town Nissan dealership in East Wenatchee, looking at a few uninspiring used cars in our $5000 price range. Beyond, in the new car section, a 2016 electric Leaf caught a golden shaft of late afternoon sun. The deeply lacquered bronze metallic new car paint seemed to glitter. Our salesman perked up and asked if we’d like to take a look?

Electric Car #3 - Two hours later, let me just say that shopping on the last day of the month and the last day of the quarter, plus $5000, put us into a brand new electric car lease at a monthly fee even we could afford. So-- -after the paper shuffling and signing, Ed drove her home to Chelan. I followed behind in the VW that had just lost its new car status. He’d come up with other names, “Leaf Erickson” and “Cleveland Brown”, but she was too close in shape and color to be anything but the Coffee Bean.

In my headlights, I admired the sleek, not-so- little brown beauty. Muscular sports car haunches hinted at her torque off the line and bright LED headlights swept the road ahead, illuminating orchards alongside. I was in awe but, even after a quick lesson from Salesman Dan, all I knew for sure about the Leaf was how to answer my iPhone with no hands. The dashboard was a high-tech monster, replete with Sirius radio, GPS, touch screen navigation and choices, choices, choices.

The rest was an operational blur-- -three different forward drive gears? Birdseye camera? Big and little connector ports? How was I supposed to know which one was the right one? I flashed back to us walking out of the hospital with our first baby, thinking-- -they trust us to take him home? Don’t they know we don’t know what we’re doing?

Two months later - Well, now the Bean has 1200 miles on her, we’ve learned some things that may be helpful to you when you get behind your first EV steering wheel.

1. Read the manual, then sit in the car and read it again. After following my own advice, some things were still outside my brain, waiting to be absorbed.

2. Talk to everyone who has owned an electric car. They love giving advice and can answer most questions, although the technology keeps advancing, so your new car will be different and better in some ways.

3. Visualize your Leaf (and any similar-capacity electric car) as a fossil fuel car with a 5-gallon tank. It magically refills every night when you plug it in, but for longer trips, plan ahead.

4. Take a friend who has had an electric car along for a ride. After muffling through suggestions one, two and three for a few weeks, I asked fellow committee member and one-time 2011 Nissan Leaf owner, Randy Brooks, to ride with me to the November PINCW meeting in Wenatchee. We often use the Executive Boardroom at the Hilton Embassy Suites since PINCW installed and provides maintenance for two Level 2 chargers in the front parking lot. Randy said,

“This plan will work out great-- -we’ll drive 40 miles to Wenatchee, plug in for the two-hour meeting and then drive home to Chelan on a full battery.”

My 2016 Leaf EV has the larger 30kw Lithium battery with about 100 miles, give or take, in a full charge. As I was learning, actual mileage depends on terrain and temperature and load weight and driving style, just like fossil fuelers, but they have more wiggle room. We had an 80-mile drive down and back, in mountainous terrain with the heat on and headlights one way. It would be a squeeker without a recharge.

I picked Randy up at his and Anne’s house north of town. He admired the Bean and her leather upholstery, and then asked, “Why aren’t you in ECO mode?” Well, I’d heard and read about it, but hadn’t tried it out. ECO is one of the three forward drive modes, the one that doles out acceleration in modest amounts, saving energy.

“Push the big button that says “ECO” on the steering wheel,” Oh, yeah, that one. “Anne and I always drove in ECO”, he said. “It could also be called ‘SNOW MODE, because it’s perfect for winter driving conditions.” Randy’s an early adopter and an engineer. Getting the most out of the least energy is his thing, while I guess mine is driving the Leaf like I’d drive any other sports car. Today, we’re being conservative.

ECO mode made an immediate difference visible on the mileage indicator. Randy explained that it was really a “Guess-O- Meter” and not a sure thing. I felt a shiver of “range anxiety.” I thought it was a promise, not a guess. But hey, no worries, I had the expert along.

Randy fiddled expertly with the NAV screen between us, changing from energy use readouts to charging station locations to GPS, showing me how to turn the eagle-eye camera to side view for parking and check the battery usage of heated seats and various elements, like interior lights. He marveled at the difference LED bulbs made. Much less battery draw, he noted approvingly.

Going down the Knapp’s Coulee grade, I shifted into DRIVE a second time, putting the car in “B” mode, the third forward drive gear. Randy was delighted. “We didn’t have that maximum regenerating mode in 2011,” he said, as we watched the Guess-O-Meter’s estimate of miles go up. I relaxed and enjoyed the learning experience all the way to Wenatchee, until I turned into the driveway of the Embassy Suites.

“OH NO!” Randy yelled. “We’ve been ICED!” I wasn’t sure what that was, but I was sure it was bad, real bad. “Internal Combustion Engines, parked in the EV charging stalls!” Randy spit it out. And sure enough, there they were, blocking me from the twin chargers.

The nice woman at the front desk sympathized, but there was a convention and all the suites were booked and there were no other parking places. The car owners were paying guests and, well, we weren’t. After the PINCW meeting, our President, Jack Anderson had the best idea-- -I should have parked behind them where the long EV cord reached, leave a note on the dash saying please notify the desk and I will move my car immediately-- -but it came too late. Randy and I were heading home with half a battery of juice and it was uphill all the way.

The Guess-O- Meter melted miles-- -by the time we came into Chelan, it had stopped showing any numbers at all, just three blinking lines -- - -- - -- -. “It will do that for awhile and then it goes into TURTLE MODE” Randy said. “Anne got that far down once. In TURTLE MODE, you can only go 35 miles an hour. Just enough to get you to a safe parking place beside the road.” And then what?

“Then, you call AAA and they come and tow you to a charging station.” Randy nodded, “every EV owner should join AAA.” Well, since I hadn’t done that, you can imagine my happy face when I saw the Clipper Creek charger on the wall in Randy’s garage. He plugged the Bean in for 20 minutes while we had a cup of tea and I drove home on 12 new miles worth of Randy and Anne’s electricity.

My last new owner advice would be to go ahead and endure Nissan’s clunky App setup (Randy helped get mine installed on my iPhone, Ed did his own on his iPad) as it leads to great things-- -like warming up the car on house power while you finish your coffee and getting a text message that your car is fully charged if you’re out and about.

And one more thing-- -join an EV group, like Plug In NCW. It expands the good feeling of being on top of the technology, which allows you to relax and savor the sheer joy of driving a responsive car that runs for FREE. Well, almost.