Nissan Leaf owner with ‘range anxiety’ told new battery for $13,000 car would cost $121,000

Gill Higgins
Source: 1News

When Zoe Alford bought her second-hand 2011 Nissan Leaf, she couldn't have been happier. It cost $13,000, had low mileage and was in pristine condition as far as she could see. She was looking forward to hours of almost-silent driving without having to fork out for gas. She felt she could save the world and save her money all at the same time. 

But within months, worry set in. When she first had the car, she'd charge it overnight and look at the dash to see a range of 115km or so. The range indicates how far a car will travel before it needs charging again. 

However, a few months in, and that range had dropped to around 70 or 80km. This gave her what's now been coined "range anxiety". 

Zoe says it's a horrible feeling, a constant nagging that your car might run out of power before you make your destination. Her biggest worry was that it would "get to the stage where I'll only be able to go down to the shops and back before having to recharge it, it's ridiculous".

Zoe loved her car, though. Everything seemed in perfect working order apart from the failing battery. So she wanted to replace it for a better one. 

She contacted her local Nissan dealer. But instead of getting a solution, she was in for a shock. 

"They quoted me $121,000 for a replacement battery from Japan!" she told TVNZ1's Fair Go.

Reeling from this ridiculous amount, Zoe got in touch with Nissan New Zealand's head office; they said they'd look into it, but months passed and she'd had no response.

Zoe also looked at second-hand replacement batteries. These were considerably more reasonable, but at $14,000 or so, they were still more expensive than her actual car without a huge increase in expected range. It was at this point Zoe came to Fair Go to see what we made of the situation.

Fair Go rang Nissan NZ and we did get a response, but it wasn't very satisfactory. The company said the quote of $121,000 for a new battery was "an error" but it wouldn't say how the error occurred, or what a correct price would be. 

It was happy to go into detail about the extended battery warranty it now offers with brand new Nissan Leafs sold here in New Zealand, but would take no responsibility for the several thousand second-hand cars imported from Japan. 

It added that any battery problems relating to these cars were the "sole responsibility of the vehicle importer".

We weren't the only ones unimpressed with this response. It got a shake of the head from Bill Alexander, who works at Blue Cars in Auckland, a company that specialises in electric vehicles. 

"It isn't an acceptable answer. I think Nissan Japan is dodging a bit of a biggie with that," he says.

In his opinion, Nissan Japan and Nissan New Zealand should be co-operating to develop a way of providing cost-effective replacement batteries. Without this, thousands of cars could end up on New Zealand's scrap heap when the only thing wrong with them is the battery.

It's a problem that Blue Cars is working on itself. They've developed a prototype replacement using old car batteries and replacing cells to extend battery life. 

They're close to launching one that could give second-hand electric cars another 10 to 15 years of life, with each charge enabling driving distances of between 100-200km. 

But it won't be in time for Zoe's car.

However, Zoe's anxiety raised another key point when it comes to electric cars, and that's the huge dearth of information out there among consumers and dealers.

When Zoe bought her car, she was given the standard information you'd get for a petrol car, and nothing more. 

But while everyone likes a car with low mileage, this isn't the most important thing when going electric. 

Bill Alexander says it's imperative that buyers are provided with information on the battery's state of health. This is a measure of how much power is left in the battery compared with its original capacity.

Zoe wasn't given this information. Her anxiety was based on the range she could see. 

Bill Alexander says an electric car's range is known in the trade as a 'guessometer'. He explains it's affected by "quite a number of different things, such as how the car's been driven the day before, and even cold weather". 

Add to that whether the air conditioner is being used, and if you drive on hilly roads, you can see why it's not that reliable as an indicator for battery life.

So Blue Cars says the way electric cars are sold in New Zealand needs to change. Every dealer should provide the battery state of health. 

Blue Cars goes one step further. They give a warranty for the main battery stating that if it loses more than five per cent capacity within the first 12 months or 10,000km (which it shouldn't) then this will trigger a refund to the customer at $200 per additional percentage point loss. Blue Cars would like to see this introduced across the country.

We contacted Zoe's car dealer. They had the data on state of health from when the car was imported, they just hadn't passed it on. It was 69.42 per cent.

To know if Zoe's anxiety about a decrease in battery performance was founded, we had to find the current state of health. 

This should be a simple procedure, but there is still an abundance of ignorance among the motor vehicle trade and consumers. 

We first took Zoe's car to Benson's garage in Gisborne. The owners were extremely helpful, but could only provide an estimate. 

Zoe then took her car to the local Nissan dealer, who couldn't help either. 

The AA said they could, but not in Gisborne. 

Finally, a company called Transport Solutions was able to give Zoe the correct reading.

It turns out all that's needed is an app called Leaf Spy along with what's known as an OBD2 device that you can buy online. Simple once you know. With this tool to hand, Transport Solutions could tell Zoe her current battery state of health was 63.36 per cent.

We took those figures back to Bill Alexander.

"It's right where I'd expect it for the age of Zoe's car, she should be quite comfortable with that," he says.

And she was. Once she understood that range was just an estimate that could change, she felt more comfortable. 

She'd also gained tips for increasing the distance she could travel after each charge. 

She's also holding out hope that Blue Cars might have launched their replacement battery by the time the one in her car gives up the ghost.