Being a pioneer isn't easy.
When you're pioneering new automotive technology, it can be challenging and sometimes costly. Just ask anyone who owned an early turbocharged sport sedan, for instance.
That also applies, in some cases, to some of the first modern electric cars, and in particular the Nissan Leaf.
As the first mass-produced battery-electric car, the Leaf included one design compromise that would come back to haunt some owners: its lack of active thermal conditioning for the 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack under the floor.
2011 Nissan Leaf - battery pack
The Chevrolet Volt and the Tesla Model S, two other early plug-in electric models, both used active thermal management for their batteries.
That meant, in simple terms, radiators with liquid coolant to shed heat from the battery.
The Leaf, however, relied on the pack simply radiating heat to ambient air—which proved insufficient in extremely hot climates like Phoenix, Arizona, where parking-lot surface temperatures can reach 140 degrees F.
For the 2015 model year, Leaf batteries switched to an updated cell chemistry (known as "lizard cells") that promised to tolerate high ambient heat far better than the cells used in 2011 through 2014 models. Thus far, those cells have not been reported to suffer the same capacity loss.
Nissan added a battery-capacity warranty after the problems came to light, and promised a replacement battery pack with the new chemistry if older batteries fell below nine capacity bars within the first five years or 60,000 miles.
READ THIS: Nissan Leaf New Battery Cost: $5,500 For Replacement With Heat-Resistant Chemistry (Jun 2014)
Some Leaf owners, however, have reported difficulty in getting these warranties honored despite their batteries losing enough capacity to trigger the warranty.
In 2011, Linda and Rick SantAngelo became the proud owners of one of the very first Nissan Leafs on U.S. roads. Six years later, they're deeply unhappy with the car's durability.
As Rick told us three weeks ago, "Just a couple days ago, my Leaf dropped to 5 bars down and its range is now overstated at 35 miles"—against its original EPA range rating of 73 miles.
What follows is Rick's story, edited by Green Car Reports for style, flow, and clarity.
Rick and Linda SantAngelo with the 2011 Nissan Leaf at 96,000 miles
We were among the first to purchase a Nissan Leaf in 2011. Oh, how we loved it!
We could drive all we wanted for less than $1 a day for electricity, and it got better: we mainly charged at night here in the Pacific Northwest, when virtually 100 percent of our electricity is generated from hydro and wind.
The car was great in that respect, and it hasn't cost us a dime for maintenance, except for new tires.
But six years later, we are totally bummed! At 91,000 miles, our battery pack is at less than 60 percent of original capacity and our range is around 35 miles.
That's all but unusable for us since we live up a hill 15 miles out of town.
When we bought the car, Nissan's official statement was that the battery should be at 70 to 80 percent of capacity at 100,000 miles, and it was backed by an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty.
2011 Nissan Leaf at 96,000 miles, photo by owner Rick SantAngelo
Today, Nissan Leaf Customer Support tells us that our battery condition is normal and to be expected, and that the car is not worth enough to spend more than $8,000 on a new battery.
Our local dealer claims to know nothing about the $6,500 price for a new pack announced almost three years ago, and Customer Support could not help on this either.
2011 Nissan Leaf
As a concession, Nissan has now offered us employee pricing on a new Leaf.
So the conclusion we have to draw is that except for Tesla, the resale value of early electric cars is terrible, and the life expectancy of a Nissan Leaf battery will continue to be very short.
EDITOR'S NOTE: It's dangerous to generalize on the battery life and durability of electric cars, because it varies significantly by vehicle. Early Chevrolet Volts, for example, have demonstrated little to no capacity degradation, including one that's now covered more than 300,000 miles.
One day, we hope that aftermarket battery replacements will be available—most likely better and cheaper than the original packs. That could spawn a secondary market and drive a whole new wave of electric-car adoption.
In this phase of development, electric cars are all about battery capacity and lifespan. My mistake was trusting that Nissan’s battery would hold up better.
Here are some lessons I learned that you might consider before acquiring an electric car.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Lease, don't buy!
Let the leasing company take the risk. Expect to trade in your electric car for one that is better and cheaper two or three years down the road.
Do your research on the battery first
To some degree, all electric-car battery packs are unknown commodities. We simply don't have the eight to 10 years of data yet to know how durable they are and how well they perform.
Warranties may not afford much protection from the inevitable loss of capacity. Your purchase decision should be based on your trust in the battery to hold up as expected, and how the manufacturer will support it.
2011 Nissan Leaf - battery pack cutaway
Avoid used electric cars with degraded batteries
I'd advise you not to buy a used electric car if the battery pack shows even the slightest degree of degradation.
On the other hand, a used Nissan Leaf with a good battery can be a bargain. Three-year-old cars with less than 40,000 miles can be found at prices of $6,000 to $9,000 as more of them come off three-year leases that started in 2014.
Battery improvements are coming quickly
High-capacity EV batteries are evolving quickly: in 2016 Nissan boosted the capacity of the Leaf battery pack by 20 percent, from 24 to 30 kwh, for a range of 107 miles versus the previous 84 miles.
At 60 kwh, the LG Chem battery pack in the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV is double the size of Nissan’s current best pack, in almost the same size and weight.
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, road test, California coastline, Sep 2016
Panasonic is now producing its latest battery cells for Tesla cars that has 50 percent better energy density than earlier Tesla cells.
There are so many battery development in the works that we might expect capacity and lifespan to double and triple over the next few years.
In the meantime, let the buyer beware.
EDITOR'S NOTE: We have reached out to Nissan for comment on the SantAngelos' experience with their 2011 Nissan Leaf, and we'll update this article if we learn anything new.