RAV4: Flaws, more flaws, but CUTE!

On Thursday evening, I felt the need to celebrate some serious graft during the working week. So, I took the RAV4 greenlaning – the first time I’d done so for months. After all, what’s the point in having a 4×4 if you’re not prepared to use the extra ability such a transmission gives you?

All too soon, the limitations of the RAV were coming to the fore as the underside began scraping. I had entered only mild ruts, but the exhaust system hangs very low, right down the middle of the car. You’ve also go the spindly little lower control arms to each wheel. They seem horribly vulnerable. I tried to keep the speed down as much as possible, but that revealed another limitation – the lack of a low-ratio gearbox. First gear is lower than in a normal car, but I’d say it’s only as low as third or fourth in a proper 4×4’s low range gearbox. That’s fine for pootling along, but just does not allow enough control when you want to crawl, or descend steep hills.

It can go greenlaning, but it's not very good.

It can go greenlaning, but it’s not very good.

I wasn’t enjoying this as much as I’d hoped, but things were to get worse before they got better. As the ground became more uneven, I started to lose traction. This was no fault of the Michelin Latitude Cross tyres, as I discovered when I stopped. I got out of the car, and realised I could rock it and lift one of the rear wheels off the ground! The lack of suspension travel was the issue here. The RAV just isn’t flexible enough. I was forced to engage the diff lock to keep me moving. This locks the front and rear axles together, so even if one of the four wheels starts spinning, the two at the opposite end should be able to keep you moving. They did.

Oh dear. Exhaust is rather vulnerable. This isn't a deep rut.

Oh dear. Exhaust is rather vulnerable. This isn’t a deep rut.

I progressed steadily along the lane, getting better at spotting where traction and/or ground clearance might be an issue, and adjusting my speed to suit. I was a bit concerned about a tricky section of this lane known as The Steps. However, as I continued on, I began to realise that I must have already driven up it! The little RAV had clambered up it so easily that I had not even noticed. The Steps don’t have ruts, so ground clearance wasn’t an issue. Brilliant!

RAV4 greenlane

This shot neatly demonstrates the maximum suspension travel. Not much.

I made it to the end of the lane, disengaged the diff lock and hurtled home, enjoying the excellent handling that the RAV4 offers – certainly not something most ‘proper’ 4x4s can match.

The next day, I had to help a friend remove a dead Delica from a car trailer. This spares vehicle had no front axle, so the plan was to pull the front end off the trailer, put it on blocks and then pull the trailer out. Simple, though things were complicated when his own working Delica refused to play ball due to a charging issue – ie no alternator! It wasn’t happy to work.

So, the RAV was called into action. Again, I would have loved a low ratio gearbox, as I was having to work the clutch quite hard to control the pace. We didn’t want to do this quickly! Also, the driveway was very uneven, with the front offside wheel of the RAV heading up a steep bank due to the limited room we had to manoeuvre. This neatly took the weight off one of the other wheels, and so the difflock was called into action once more. It did the job, but there was quite a whiff of clutch!

RAV4 towing

Not ideal for towing projects, but it did do it!

This has highlighted some difficulties with this car. It isn’t very good as a 4×4. Now, I don’t need the ability of a 4×4 very often, so it does make it difficult to justify owning one. The RAV can just about cope with what a throw at it, so perhaps it justifies itself?

But, it’s not a great car to cover distance in. The seats are particularly poor, and the ride isn’t what you’d call comfortable. Despite that, I think I’ll be taking it on a mini-roadtrip next week, before probably taking it to France.

I must conclude though, despite its flaws, the thing that keeps saving this car from a fleet cull is the fact it’s so bloody cute! I absolutely adore the styling, front and rear. How dull and dreary the RAV4 would become in later forms. It would never have this much character again. It may not be very good at all the things I ask of it, but the fact is that it can and has done them. The lack of off-road ability makes it more challenging for the driver. Isn’t that a good thing? It may have struggled with the towing task, but it did manage it in a way a two-wheel drive car would not have. Doesn’t that make it good? After all, it tows the caravan rather more comfortably than the XM, which I truly did not expect (they have the same stated maximum towing weight of 1500kg).

Maybe I should give this little soft-roader a bit more credit. Sure, it’s a master of absolutely nothing at all, but it can turn its hand to many different activities. That sort of requirement is exactly why I love the Citroen 2CV. Maybe my little inferior 4×4 will be the steed for our upcoming trip to France after all.

Now with video!

Ford Puma: Dirty fun

I had a Jaguar XJS on the fleet recently. Not sure I remembered to mention it on the Blog, but it was borrowed from Kelsey Media to act as my muse for the next issue of Classic Jaguar magazine. You’ll be able to read loads about it when the next issue comes out (19th August 2016).

But, all good things come to an end, and Kelsey wanted it back. I had to drive it Birmingham, where it was picked up to return to Peterborough. I was planning to catch the train home, but then I got a better offer. Julian Bailey, who has been a long-time supporter of HubNut, decided to offer even better support. Would I like to drive home in his Ford Puma rather than catch a train?

Pooma

Ford Puma. Better than the train.

Well, to be honest, that would still be a much better offer than the tired, noisy, slow contraptions that Arriva Trains Wales considers suitable or travel, even if the car in question was a Ford Fiesta Mk6. Diesel. Happily, it wasn’t the disgustingly grim Fiesta, but a Puma. Fiesta-based, but a GOOD Fiesta!

To be honest, Pumas have long been on my wish list. I almost bought one a couple of years ago, and found it utterly charming to drive – so easy! Just how a good Ford should be. I’d not really had a chance to try one for anything more than a quick trip around the block though. Today was my lucky day.

This one isn’t without issues. The clutch bite is rather high, the rear arches are rusty (no surprise there!) and it seems that snails have been crawling around on the windows. Inside. The fact that the rear seat has been replaced by a wooden load bed suggests it may have been on gardening duty quite recently. Which may explain the trails. And the mouldy sunvisors…

But, if you’ve seen my house, you’ll understand that this is hardly off-putting. I threaded my way around the West Midlands and began to assess the new, borrowed steed. First off, Ford column stalks are HORRIBLE. Not one action feels pleasant. Also, the self-cancelling doesn’t work on left turns. The brakes also feel as trustworthy as a government’s promise. They do stop the car, but they never feel like they’re really committed to the process. They’re still far better than the RAV4 though, so maybe I’ll let them have that one.

UGH! Horrible, horrible, cheap, nasty stalk.

UGH! Horrible, horrible, cheap, nasty stalk.

The engine is surprisingly tractable. Surprising because I found myself accelerating from 30mph in fifth gear. Now, sure, the gearing is fairly low, and the ratios are neatly stacked together. The engine really is very happy to pull throughout the rev-range though. Let it rev, and it gets you moving very nicely indeed – this is the 1.7-litre version. Those close ratios then help you keep it ‘on the boil.’ Acceleration almost doesn’t feel like a decision you make. The car decides. And it want to do it very quickly.

There’s no neck-snapping VTEC effect, it just pulls very cleanly, from whatever engine speed. Yes, there’s more punch higher up, but the torque delivery is delightfully progressive, in a way modern petrol engines often just are not.

Eventually, I leave modern conveniences like motorways and dual carriageways behind me and get a good old hurtle on. On the sweeping A roads of Wales, this car is astonishing. Often, I found myself glancing at the speedometer on the exit of a bend to find I was practically at the legal limit already. Alrighty then! It corners well. The steering doesn’t offer tons of feel, but it is very nicely weighted and geared. The brakes are no concern at all, because you don’t really need to slow down.

Definitely the best angle. Love those rear lights.

Definitely the best angle. Love those rear lights. Note wheelarch bubbles…

The gearchange is an absolute delight, even with 122,000 miles of wear. It’s so pleasant to snick your way around the gearbox.

The ride is a bit crap though to be honest, though hard clonks from the back end suggest all is not entirely well in the suspension department. It thumps over potholes and dips in the road, and seems to bounce an awful lot. It’s not a very comfortable car to travel in, and the firm, unsupportive driver’s seat helps not at all. Most annoying of all, the modern hi-fi thing did not have Long Wave, so I couldn’t listen to the cricket. This failure to equip cars with Long Wave needs to stop NOW! I was suffering serious TMS withdrawal symptoms.

This is all going on a bit more than I expected, but I’ve got Jack Johnson on the stereo now, so I’m chilled out and the words are flowing. So, I’ll relate today’s adventure.

I had to get to Oldbury in the West Midlands. I decided to take the Puma, seeing as it was here and that I’d actually put petrol on it. I eyed up the route. No, I didn’t fancy driving the Puma through the horror of Newtown and then on to the horror of the M6/M5 interchange. So, I set the sat nav to avoid motorways, pumped up the rear tyres (they have slow punctures) and set off.

Within a few miles, I’d already overtaken two cars. I swear I’ve never overtaken cars as often as I have in this thing! It zips past slower moving traffic so sweetly. With the 2CV, overtaking needs serious amounts of precision, luck and, often, gravity. The XM was good, as long as you caught it on boost. The RAV doesn’t really have confidence-inspiring power. I’d chosen the right car though. This was huge fun! Yes, it was 8am in the morning, and I was having huge fun on British roads. See? It is possible!

One hour later, the fun had been ramped up to at least eleven. The sat nav, which has a habit of choosing entertaining routes, took me to Pen-y-Bont, then that twisting road to Knighton – the A488. Then it was the B4113 to Leintwardine and Ludlow. By heck, this was ASTONISHING!

Sat nav wasn’t finished though. It then selected the B4364 from Ludlow to Bridgnorth. WOOT! Yes, I had to concede, this was a LOT better than Newtown and the motorway. I was completely ignorant of how much my back was hurting, because I was having a simply magical day. The Puma has the perfect amount of power for Welsh border roads. Not so much that bends approach you with terrifying speed, but enough to accelerate strongly out of bends, even up hill.

Alas, such good times could not last forever, and things got rather more dull after Bridgnorth and into Stourbridge. You know, all urban and boring. Even worse, the sat nav then decided it wanted to ignore the ‘no motorway’ rule. I do hate rebellious technology. By now, I was on roads I knew, so I told it to sod off and found my own way.

Job done, I could then head home. After taking just over 2.5 hours to get there, I was buzzing to drive another 2.5 hours back home! In fact, at one point on the B4113, I did actually yell out loud. It was that much fun.

The only slight issue was the placement of the 12v power outlet. It seems you can either charge something up, or change gear. Attempting both is foolhardy. The sat nav cable got yanked out one last time (it doesn’t help that my sat nav reboots everytime power is restored) and technology got told firmly to do one. I cheered myself up with a drive through the Elan Valley. Bloody lovely!

So, there you go then. If it’s fun you want, a Puma is very capable of delivering it. It’s practical too. A friend of mine, who I suspect of using magic, can transport her three children and the dog in her Puma, and often does. It’s probably economical. I’ve no idea, but it definitely uses less fuel than a Jaguar XJS.

But would I buy one? No. I wouldn’t. I just like my comfort too much, and this car has not enough of it. The French seem able to combine ride and handling in one glorious package – or they did. Why is this so hard to replicate?

Puma roads

A fantastic car, that I do not want to own.

Sorry for coming to the conclusion you probably weren’t expecting, but it just goes to show that I’m a real awkward sod to please. Which is probably why I’ve owned over 60 cars and only one has truly managed to get the claws in. I definitely appreciate a car that’s fun to drive, but I want comfort too. Finding that in a small package certainly is not easy. But, if you’re less fussy than me, and the appalling ride of most modern cars suggests people are, the Puma truly is a bargain fun pot. Buy one, before there aren’t any left.

Renault 5: 782cc, dash-change

It’s pretty typical of me to turn up at a 2CV meet and get all excited about a Renault. It should be noted that my love of French cars certainly isn’t restricted to those with a Citroen badge. There are lots of amazing French cars.

The Renault 5 is one such machine. This is the car that, along with the Fiat 127, really created the supermini class. Small cars, with tons of charm, and a practical hatchback. The 5 was launched in 1972, which seems pretty remarkable when you look at it. Remember, 1972 was one year after Morris stopped building the Minor. The BMC 1100 was still in production. The baby Vauxhall and Ford were still three-box saloons.

For me, what really sets the Renault apart is that styling though, especially the rear end view. It’s somehow so French, so stylish, so individual and so practical. It’s a view I remember well, because I owned an exceedingly rare right-hand drive, dash-change 5 myself some years ago. I was a fool to sell it, especially as it has not survived. Regrets? Yes, actually!

Renault 5

Cor! What an arse.

But that was then, and this is now. My friend Julian Kettleborough owns this car, and I got very excited when I first saw pictures. It’s a 782cc, dash-change 5 that was saved from a French scrapyard. For some reason, this little beauty had an appointment with the crusher. Happily, that appointment was missed and the car now has a UK MOT and a happy future ahead of it.

We didn’t get the 782cc model here, as it was deemed too feeble. I must admit, the 845cc version I’d owned didn’t exactly feel like a ball of fire. What would this one be like?

Firstly, let’s talk interior. It’s fantastic! Switches are arranged around the wheel in a way which is convenient, but far less wacky than say a Citroen Visa. Sure, you do actually have to talk your hand off the wheel to operate some switches, but not the major ones. There is some intrusion from the engine, which sits behind the gearbox. There’s enough room for pedals though. The gearchange works quite well, but not as sweetly as that in a 2CV – perhaps because the rod has to go over the engine to the front-mounted gearbox.

Renault 5

Full of cheeky charm. Oooh la la!

Out on the road, the pace is familiar to anyone who’s driven a 2CV. It certainly isn’t what you’d call brisk, but it’ll haul itself up to 50mph with far less high-revving fuss than its Citroen rival. It’ll even do 60, though the gearing is asking a lot of the engine by this point. This isn’t an engine that’s particularly refined or happy to run at higher speeds.

The brakes are not that good, though I suspect they may benefit from adjustment. Contrary to the modern looks, the stoppers are good old drums, with manual adjustment. The ride is superb though, even over a grassy field. There’s bodyroll ahoy when cornering too. It’s so French!

I thoroughly enjoyed my little drive in this car though. It marks a real turning point in the history of the motor car. Style needn’t just be reserved for the wealthy. With the 5, Renault provided it for everyone.

Citroën Visa: Twin-pot Twin Test

I’m just back from a thoroughly lovely weekend at the 2CVGB event known as Registers’ Weekend. In short, lots of 2CVs, lots of sunshine, lots of friends, no politics, no sodding Pokemon. LOVELY!

I met quite a few people who commented on how much they enjoy the blog, which has given me a major attack of guilt. I have been neglecting it an awful lot recently, though it’s not entirely my fault. Quite a lot of actual paid work has certainly been getting in the way, but I’ve also been on the road a lot, which included two days in my caravan with barely any signal. Besides, writing blog posts on a stupid ‘smart’ phone requires far more patience than I have. Oh, and then our landline at home failed, so woe is me, no blogs, etc, etc.

But I’m here now, and even though I’d really like to go to bed, I’m putting finger to keyboard to share some twin-pot Visa excitement.

Greeeeen

A pair of aircooled Visas. Are they any good?

First, a very brief Visa history. Citroën developed a cracking little supermini idea, but when Peugeot completed its takeover in the mid-1970s, it told Citroën to stop being so oddball. Instead, it could keep some of the styling cues, but had to fit them over nice, sensible 104 running gear. To stem the tears of the Citroën engineers, they were allowed to develop an enlarged version of the 2CV’s aircooled, flat-twin engine to act as entry level models – the Spécial and mildly posher Club (it had a cigarette lighter). Citroën engineers are a rebellious lot, so they flogged their original idea to the Romanians, who built it as the Oltcit or Axel.

The Visa was launched in 1978, with the 652cc aircooled flat-twin, or 1124cc Super E with a radiator and other posh things. The engineers focussed their efforts on the interior, with satellite pods to control pretty much everything you need to control, and a single-spoke steering wheel. Awesome. There were later other engines, a facelift in 1982 to make it (slightly) less odd, and, horror of horrors, a sensible interior facelift that involved actual column stalks. Boring.

Happily, I managed to get my hands on TWO of these twin-cylinder Visas, one pre-facelift and one post. Even more happily, the wacky interior lasted for a good three years post-facelift.

I began with the earlier Club. This is a left-hand drive car, that was once white, but is now the most magnificent shade of green. It feels slightly tinny as you get in, though not as much as a 2CV does. The driving position is nice and comfortable, and the switchgear falls neatly to hand – albeit neatly in a way your brain may not actually understand. Let it learn and all will be fine.

I didn't break it, honest

I didn’t break it, honest

Starting the engine is a strange experience. It’s like starting a 2CV engine, only like doing so from inside your house while the car is out on the street. It sounds like a 2CV, but one that is far away. Then there’s the conventional gearlever, that sprouts from the floor in a thoroughly ordinary way. It’s quite clunky to use, with a bit too much travel; just like a GS, or a Nissan Cherry Europe. The clutch in this example seems far too light, but it’s still easy enough to pull away. I did have some issue finding the gears I needed, and can confirm that it doesn’t like going from first to fourth. On grass.

Across our test field, it really was pretty comfortable. It couldn’t match a 2CV or BX, but it could beat nearly every car currently in production. It’s certainly far better than a Cactus. Generally, the feeling is of refinement, though it’ll roll just like a 2CV if you decide to corner a bit briskly. I was quite enjoying it, I must admit. Thanks George. It was ace.

The next day, I got to drive a later, right-hand drive Visa, only I took this one out on the actual road. I even got slightly lost in it, though don’t tell Mark who was sitting in the back. No, it wasn’t his car. He just came along for the ride, so he could pretend to be a really poor person who couldn’t afford a limousine – only a Visa driven by a hippy.

This car belongs to my mate Chris, who recently let me live in his field. I like people like that.  The clutch certainly feels more normal in this one, and my left-hand proved far more adept at finding the gears.

Blueeee

Minimalist, very-different dashboard. You didn’t even get a clock on the Spécial

So, 0-60mph. Well, the claimed time is 26 seconds, which is a few quicker than a 2CV. This is a big-bore engine after all. It certainly isn’t brisk, but nor does it feel as hard work as a 2CV – thank sound deadening for that I reckon. The gearbox is also much, much quieter, as is the exhaust. Once up to 60, it feels very comfortable there. Even 70 doesn’t feel out of bounds, or just for special occasions. It feels eminently possible, and is nice and peaceful.

The switchgear works really well once you’re trained your fingers, and this is a very relaxing way to travel given the lack of power. Of course, grippy handling helps, so you don’t have to lose too much momentum. This is a fun car to corner quickly. It turns in very nicely, then the body also turns in. It’s like a 2CV, though a little less frantic. It doesn’t feel quite so hilarious.

Overall then, a staggeringly competent little car that does pretty much everything you could reasonably expect a car to do. It’s delightfully simple, but has enough of what’s truly necessary. Drat. Another car to add to the wish list.

EV: Getting it wrong

This is a little additional post, following my experiences where I got a range calculation very wrong. It isn’t part of the main roadtrip, but a separate trip I undertook after a day of rest.

Firstly, I had to get to Cannock, which is 102 miles away. I’d been out the night before and as I don’t have a home charger, I’d plugged the car in when I got home at 10:45pm. When I went to leave at 9am the next morning, the car was still charging. This is the downside of a bigger battery – it takes longer to charge up! Most LEAF owners will have a fast charger at home, which should charge a LEAF up in just a few hours, depending on which charger is fitted to the car.

However, I had over 100 miles of range, so off I set. As the journey went on, I began to realise that while I could make it to my destination, I probably wouldn’t have much left ‘in the tank’ when I got there. I suspected my chums would want to have a quick ride in the car, so stopped at Telford for a quick ten-minute charge. That took the battery back up to 51%, putting in 7.2kwh of juice.

A joyful morning was spent watching awful cars fetching baffling amounts of money at a car auction before I headed off for the next leg. A friend had offered me a set of wheels and tyres for my 2CV Project, so I now headed south to Stow-On-The-Wold in the Cotswolds. Hilton Park services on the M6 was handily placed, so I headed there for a charge-up. Sadly, I utterly failed to remember how much juice I put in, but I felt it was comfortably enough to get to Stow, then to proceed to Strensham Services on the M5.

Cruising around The Cotswolds was truly joyous. I risked ruining the aerodynamics by opening the windows as I whispered along the lanes. With the tyres and wheels collected, all of which fitted in the generous boot, I headed for the M5, where I arrived with 13% battery remaining. I suspect the enormous 50mph section through the M5’s roadworks helped the range a great deal!

I’d checked the status of the chargers before I set off, but forgot that one of the Strensham chargers is offline. I spent several frustrating minutes trying to get it to work before giving up. Sadly, there was a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV at the other charger, and the display indicated it hadn’t been there long. Some EV owners get angry about these hybrids, as they don’t HAVE to charge up – the joy of still having an actual engine. I’m not like that. Electricity helps improve the economy, so it could be argued they’re just as welcome at the chargers as EVs.

After about ten minutes, the owners came back. I suspect they would have liked to keep charging, but they were kind and let me take over. I had to fend off another PHEV that had just arrived, but they were kind and understanding too.

I now had a long wait, so spent some time reading the owners’ manuals and cursing the fact that motorway tea costs £2.50. Disgraceful. I refused to partake and stuck with water. After exactly 39 minutes, I was a bit fed up. The battery was at 85% and the range was showing as 111 miles. The distance to home? 99 miles. I’ll concede that after our first long trip of 98 miles, I may have got a bit over confident. After all, that trip was with a battery at 100%…

Things get scary

It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was in a spot of bother. I think it was after about 20 miles that I realised this was going to be a struggle. You see, the route from Worcester to Wales feels like it’s almost entirely uphill! I felt ok with 15 miles between range and distance to cover, but that gap soon began to close up. I started to deploy the first stage of panic stations. No air con and letting the speed drop by 10-15mph going up hills. I limited to the top speed to 53mph (a realistic 50). For some time, range and distance remained near-identical. I’d drop into negative figures when climbing, but would get miles back coming down the other side. Not enough though.

My back muscles began to tense, and an uncomfortable feeling developed in my stomach. Ah yes. My old friend range anxiety! I desperately tried to conserve momentum, using racing lines to try and keep my speed up through bends. My economy went up, so it was having some effect. Would it be enough though? Approaching Leominster, things were getting so worrying that I refused to overtake a tractor.

The anxiety was extra bad because I’d stupidly left the 13amp charge cable at home. That meant that it was impossible for me to just find a kindly person to pinch some electricity from. My only option was to push on for home. After Kington, there’s an awfully steep climb before reaching Pen-y-Bont. I allowed the speed to drop to 30mph, despite the 60mph limit. As we came down the other side, I allowed my speed to build, pressing the throttle enough to cancel the regen, but not so much that power was used to build speed up. Regen was employed for sharp turns, but my speed was still very low. I couldn’t build up enough momentum and was soon on the power again.

The range continued to sit at a lower figure than the miles remaining as I headed toward Rhayader. I’d turned the speed limiter off at this point. I’d control the pace and keep it slow as I climbed, but if I could get up to 60mph going downhill without using power, I would, employing the subsequent regen before the inevitable bends, but only slowing down just enough to get around the bend. The aim was to avoid heavy acceleration on the exit.

As we snaked along the A470, I was starting to think this was hopeless. I had 18 miles still to go, but only 14 miles of range. My speed dropped to 40mph and I nervously kept watch on the rear-view mirror. People who overtook must have ended up thinking that these electric cars are hopelessly slow!

At Llangurig, I had 13 miles to go, but now just ten miles of range. I also had to climb over the Cambrian Mountains again. I called home and requested emergency help! Rachel dashed to the garage, grabbed the 13amp charging cable and hopped in her Perodua Nippa to come to the rescue. I pushed on. Would I actually get to find out what it feels like to run out of juice?

Even the LEAF was worried. Not that it could find any charging stations in mid-Wales!

Even the LEAF was worried. Not that it could find any charging stations in mid-Wales!

By now, I was doing 30mph as an absolute maximum, and even less when climbing. Thankfully, it was after 8pm at night, and traffic levels were very low. The range kept dropping. With 11 miles to go, the range dropped first to 8 miles, then went blank. It was refusing to tell me how far I could now go. I checked the battery level. That also was refusing to tell me how much was left. My back was no longer touching the seat because I was so tense!

However, owning a 2CV means I know a few tricks about conserving momentum. It’s about being as smooth as possible. I continued to use racing lines, and allowed speed to build when gravity could assist. I eased the car over the crest at Eisteddfa Gurig and allowed myself a smile. Now, I had a fighting chance. The road immediately began to drop steeply. Balancing the throttle, I allowed the car to get up to 60mph, before employing medium regen. I’ve no idea how much power I generated on this section of slopes, but we were still moving. Excellent.

Fuel light roulette, EV style.

Fuel light roulette, EV style.

I then reached the ‘splash road,’ or the B4343 as it is known on maps. This was another steep climb, but no traffic was approaching, and I could crawl up at 20mph. A flying Perodua came towards me – the rescue team! However, there were now just four miles to go, and once I crested the hill at Parcgwyn, I knew it was mostly downhill.

Arriving at Devil’s Bridge, I felt much calmer. If the battery level was dangerously low, the LEAF would have gone into ‘turtle’ mode, where it really cuts back on the power. I still had a small hill to climb, and the car did it easily.

But I’d done it! I managed to coax the car home. The relief was palpable. I’d managed to cover 11 miles with dire warnings of extremely low battery level, in hilly terrain.

Made it! Phew. Back home.

Made it! Phew. Back home.

In conclusion, this highlights the problem with living in rural Wales. There just aren’t any charging options. At all. Stay close to the motorway network and range anxiety just isn’t really an issue. Departing from it is still a bit of a leap of faith though, and it must be said, driving with range anxiety is no fun at all. This is exactly the opposite of joyful motoring, though it does also remind me how much fuel is used to keep speed up on hills, and to accelerate away from bends.

Just one rapid charger along the length of the A44 would have taken the stress away. A ten-minute charge would have been plenty. Then I could actually have enjoyed this great driving road, because the LEAF handles well, rides well and is actually very pleasant to drive. The infrastructure has improved hugely in the 2.5 years since I last tested a LEAF, and none of the long trips I have made this time were even remotely possible back then. This was my second 300-mile day in the LEAF, taking me to 720 miles covered in just three days of driving. It proves that electric vehicles are viable, but I have also proved that when it comes to Wales, issues do remain.

EV: Roadtrip 30kwh LEAF Pt 3

Now was the time to truly test the LEAF’s potential. We awoke in Liverpool, and now needed to get to Bradford in West Yorkshire for an appointment with what remains of my 2CV. The first plan was to escape Liverpool, which proved more difficult than expected as I was still having trouble trying to work out where the sat nav wanted us to go. We made it to Warrington and the M62 in the end though, and pulled up at Burtonwood Services for a charge.

There were two issues here. First, I was having to stop before I really wanted to. Having not found an overnight charge point, I was now stopping after less than an hour’s drive. Secondly, the charger wouldn’t work. It refused to initialise, so that was that. Fortunately, there was another charger, and that worked just fine. Twenty minutes took us back to 100 miles of range. We were only going 52 miles, but we had to climb Windy Hill on the M62. That was going to chomp through range.

Error! Gah! No electricity allowed to pass.

A successful charge. The other charger refused to play ball. I love this colour.

I wasn’t wrong either. Over four miles of climbing, we lost 20 miles of range. Granted, I was keeping my foot in. If you want to save energy and boost economy, in any vehicle, then let it lose 10mph on hills. You’ll save a ton of energy.

The torque of the electric motor certainly has advantages once you’re out on the moors though. Hillclimbing is easy! No downshifting or kickdown, just power when you need it. Best of all, you get power back going down hills too! Rather than just creating lots of waste heat, like normal brakes, the LEAF turns the motor into a generator to give a strong engine braking effect. Actually, you only get that in B mode – using the gear controller, you can select D or B. D gives far less regen when you lift off the throttle, only giving it when you press gently on the brake pedal. Press hard and the service brakes actually kick in. I prefer B mode, as you can effectively one-pedal drive.

After vising the 2CV and having a bit of a mooch on the moors, we headed for the rapid charger at Bradford. One long descent here was enough to put 2% back into the battery. I was amazed. We arrived at Welcome Break services near Bradford with only 11% battery remaining. Knowing we’d easily get to the charger, I must concede that I’d been enjoying the acceleration potential a little more! We charged for a full half an hour, which took the range back up to 111 miles.

An electric cruise around the Yorkshire moors.

An electric cruise around the Yorkshire moors.

The break gave me chance to do two things. Firstly, I called up The Electric Highway on my phone. I was planning to stop at Knutsford for juice, but that was only about 40 miles away. Could we make it further? Keele Services was shortly before we came off the M6, in Staffordshire, so I decided to head there. It was an 81 mile jaunt. Should be easy.

The second thing I did was check social media. Now, here’s a really interesting thing about electric cars. If you post stuff about them on the internet, people will take great pleasure in pointing out how rubbish they are, and how an electric car would never work for them. Well, obviously! If you’re clocking up hundreds of miles a day, then an EV is not a particularly quick way to do it. Similarly, if you’re looking for an off-roader, I wouldn’t suggest you buy a Jaguar XJ6. People get very, very insistent though, and I wondered why that is.

Bit dark inside. Beige was an option earlier in the LEAF's history!

Bit dark inside. Beige was an option earlier in the LEAF’s history!

I think it must just be because some people are very defensive of the internal combustion engine. I get that. A LEAF is fun, but it doesn’t thrill in the way something with a V8 can. There’s no soundtrack. However, I personally really like EVs and the way they drive. I love the feel of electric traction, whether that’s in a modern electric car or on a train or trolleybus. Electricity feels efficient, in a way combustion engines just don’t. Over half of the potential energy you hurl into a car is turned into heat, and nothing more. The vast majority of the energy you put into an EV propels you down the road. Sure, there are transmission losses in getting the power to the car, and questions about how environmentally friendly that electricity is in the first place, but I don’t care. I’m not here to present the LEAF as some miracle, environmental solution. I just enjoy driving them.

Anyway, after amusing myself with social media, we set off again. The weather and traffic both turned against us at this point, and having got my economy back up to 4.4 miles per kwh (it dropped to 4.3mpkwh in the hills), I soon saw it drop away again. The reason? Stop-start traffic. By switching to a live economy readout, I could see the horrible effect that repeated accelerations have on power use. Even just gently moving away up to 10 or 20mph uses a good chunk of fuel. You’re having to overcome inertia every time.

This all meant that the 111 miles of range had taken quite a battering by the time we arrived at Keele. The battery had dropped to 10% and we had 12 miles of range left – we should have had 30 left if the car’s initial prediction had come true. Some of that may have been because I used the cruise control. Turning it on immediately drops the range by a good few miles – presumably because the car will accelerate back up to speed with rather more aggression than I would myself – albeit ECO mode tones down that rate a bit. We had also run the whole way with the air con on, because the weather was appalling.

There was a slight issue though. The battery temperature was starting to rise, and another rapid charge didn’t seem very welcome. From what I’ve seen online, this seems a quirk of the 30kwh LEAF, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of it happening. Now, don’t get too alarmed, because the level on the gauge apparently meant a temperature of 52-59 degrees C. It’s hardly about to combust. I am awaiting feedback from Nissan on this issue though, and will report back once I have it.

The LEAF has no active battery cooling/heating, so it isn’t using any of the energy to regulate the temperature as some EVs do. My main concern was that it would either start reducing power output, or perhaps charge speed. It didn’t seem to do this.

Actually, there was another issue. There were two chargers, and one was in use by another LEAF. The owner was nowhere around, so I went to the other charger. Which was showing a fault. At this point, I did something desperate. I phoned up Ecotricity via the number displayed in large numerals on the charger. The chap calmly talked me through the reset procedure. It seemed someone had pressed the emergency stop button – I have no idea why. This needs resetting manually at the machine – they cannot do it over the internet. For future reference, this does not need any intervention by Ecotricity. If it can’t reset after an emergency button press, press the button again, then twist it to the right, at which point it should pop back out. Clear the error and the charger should reset. Phew.

Someone had pressed this. Needed a manual reset.

Someone had pressed this. Needed a manual reset.

22 minutes got us back up to 78% and we could head off to visit ECAS 2CV Parts for more 2CV goodies. It must be said, we were not running to a tight schedule. If we were, then I accept this charger nonsense would not be welcome. We’d already stopped three times on this day, and as we approached Shrewsbury, we needed to stop again – fortunately arriving at the charger just as a BMW i3 was leaving. This charger was right outside a Starbucks, which we obviously ignored. We found a brew elsewhere and with that consumed, had enough juice to continue home.

We arrived home having covered 414 miles, over 300 of them in this one day. It must be said, that this really felt like progress. It was no particular hardship and I very much enjoyed the driving experience – even if the automatic wipers seemed to become rather lazy. Sure, long journeys are still not as relaxing as in a normal car – the XM had a range of over 800 miles – but, such journeys are now possible in a way they just were not only a few years ago.

It is actually more relaxing than a normal car in some ways too. Sure, you have to stop a fair bit, but driving the LEAF is so peaceful and easy, that covering distance doesn’t feel a hardship. I got told off at one point, when I really started to enjoy myself. The LEAF is actually good fun to drive quickly, and is surprisingly grippy, even in the wet. Do warn your passenger before indulging in too much lairy behaviour though. Apparently it’s even better if you do it while they are not in the car…

The elephant-in-the-room is perhaps still price. This was not a top-spec LEAF and it still has a near-£30,000 on the road price (not including £4500 government grant). That said, there are some very tempting lease deals out there for the LEAF, and those deals also have the advantage of no battery worries. I know that battery life is an issue for some people, even though real-world circumstances seem to suggest that the LEAF battery is very hardy – 150,000 miles should be easy.

The range will still cause some people anxiety too. The thing is though, the 30kwh LEAF simply removes that awful ‘am I going to make it’ knot in the stomach that some EVs deliver all too easily – with a caveat that I’ll get to next time! Yes, you still need to plan long journeys with care, but the distances between chargers mean that actual range anxiety isn’t really an issue anymore.

And here’s the thing. A Volkswagen Golf 2.0TDI Match is apparently £25,000, so that’s really not an awful lot less than a LEAF. In quality terms, the LEAF is right up there, with the added advantages that there has been no dodging around emission tests. Personally, there’s no way at all that I’d consider buying a modern diesel engine – they’re too complicated, have too much that can go wrong, expensively, and create some truly grim particulates, despite manufacturers best efforts. No, if I were in the market for a brand new car, it’s electric that I’d be considering. Any disappointment with range is made up by the fact that the LEAF is actually a really good car, and an exciting one too. I can cope with the regular recharging, because my job doesn’t often come with tight time constraints. Besides, even if I did go electric, I’m not someone who tends to have just one car!

EV Roadtrip: 30kwh LEAF Pt2

As mentioned in the previous post, we found ourselves with 98 miles to travel to the rapid charger at Chester in the 30kwh LEAF due to the intermediate one having broken. I was very concerned, after a near-failure involving a Volkswagen e-UP! last year. In that, I only just managed to make it home from the rapid charger at Oswestry.

As it happens, I needn’t have worried. There was no drama. In the LEAF, we sailed past said rapid charger with 77 miles of range still showing! I had enough juice to turnaround and drive back home if I’d fancied it. We were off to Liverpool though, so I didn’t do that.

First rapid charge, after 98 miles of driving.

First rapid charge, after 98 miles of driving.

Now, I wasn’t doing anything special to boost economy in the LEAF, though perhaps I was deploying a few small tricks. For a start, I was in ECO mode. This makes the air conditioning less power draining, decreases the throttle response and reduces the total amount of power you can access. We needed the air conditioning throughout the journey, as the conditions were horrific! Lots of rain, so lots of headlamp and wiper use too. That was fine really, as I wanted to test the car in everyday conditions.

The other trick was gentle acceleration. I’d estimate that I was getting up to 60mph about as quickly as my 2CV manages it – a 0-60mph time of 30 seconds. Acceleration batters your range, whether in an EV or a combustion-engined car. It’s why you always get better economy on a long run – it generally involves more travelling at a consistent speed.

You know when you’re driving well, as you start acquiring ‘trees’ on the dashboard. I’m not sure how they actually work, but found it quite easy to amass a veritable forest.

A veritable forest. But what does it mean?

A veritable forest. But what does it mean?

I refused to actually lower my speed so, where traffic allowed, I would do 60mph if that was the legal limit, and I increased that to 70mph on the motorway once we reached it. This was the most enjoyable aspect of this. The e-NV200 roadtrip had seen us cruising along at a miserable 50-60mph on the motorway, often freezing cold as we desperately tried to eke out every bit of range. I was being spoilt in the LEAF. Range anxiety just wasn’t an issue.

Well, that’s not entirely true. At the start of our journey, which saw us climb over the Cambrian Mountains, the range did drop down to 88 miles, when we had 88 miles left to cover. Experience has taught me not to stress in such circumstances though. By the time we reached Newtown, 30 miles away, the range was back up to the 105 miles it had been predicting before we set off. This highlights that the range is only a guide really. It can’t hope to predict how you’ll drive, nor how hilly the terrain is.

I’ll do a proper review of the LEAF later, but I was certainly enjoying driving it. When I first drove one in November 2013, it was a frustrating experience. It felt like a great car for covering distance, but I wasn’t within range of any rapid chargers at all at that time. I was stranded in mid-Wales. As cars go, it couldn’t be more simple really. There’s a go pedal, and a stop pedal and a steering wheel.

The biggest downside to the Oswestry charger being down is that we now had to go out of our way to find power. A quick trek along the M56 was necessary to access the pair of chargers at Roadchef Chester. As we arrived, one charger seemed to be getting glued back together by a chap in a French-registered van, but a second charger was free and ready to use.

Rapid charger being 'glued' back together.

Rapid charger being ‘glued’ back together.

The charging process is as follows. Press the fuel flap release, which unlocks the small panel in the nose. Flick open the cover on the main charging point (there are two, the smaller one is used for smaller chargers ie home use). Grab the DC rapid charging ‘gun’ (the charger has three cables) otherwise known as ChaDeMo (Volkswagen and some other manufacturers use CCS, for which there is a different cable). Now, press DC charging on the machine present your Ecotricy charge card (the Nissan press car came with one, but you can order one yourself. There is currently (June 2016) no charge). Wait for it to initialise, then the charging will begin.

We’d been driving for over two hours by this point, at an average of over 40mph, so we were due a break ourselves. We brought along tea and cold toast, because motorway services are generally horrible and expensive (Gloucester and Tebay excepted). That is one downside of EVs. Most of the rapid chargers are at motorway services, which are almost universally grim places in which to spend time.

After 20 minutes, the battery was up to 72%. As well as having greater range, it seems the 30kwh LEAF also charges more quickly. Sadly, I didn’t note down what the battery percentage was when we arrived, but I’d estimate it to be below 20%. We still had 24 miles of range left, having driven 98 miles (the car was wrong, Google maps called it correctly!) to get to the charger. Given the claimed 124 miles of range, that was pretty good going!

You’ll note we didn’t charge up to 100%. There are several reasons for that. Firstly, we couldn’t be bothered to wait. We had enough to get to our next destination, why waste time? Secondly, the last 20% of the battery cannot be charged as quickly as the previous 80%. As the battery fills, it’s harder to squeeze the last bit in, so it could have taken a very long time to charge. Thirdly, it’s better for the battery not to repeatedly charge it beyond 80%. On the e-NV200 roadtrip, we had no choice. We often needed 100% (or close to it) to get from one charger to the next. Now, we had the luxury of not bothering.

I disconnected, with the car now predicting 88 miles of range. We headed to Liverpool and only got slightly annoyed at the sat nav. It isn’t actually very clear to read in city conditions, and was sometimes too slow to react to our actual road position. An one point, I had to drive through a seriously flooded section. It was nice not to have an engine air intake to worry about…

We overnighted in Liverpool, leaving the car in a general car park. We could have perhaps found somewhere with a charge point, but we’d be passing a rapid charger in the morning. That would do.

Overall though, is it impressive that I managed to cover 98 miles with out recharging? Well, against a combustion-engined car, no it isn’t. However, it does make the LEAF feel a lot more valid. 98 miles was enough for a couple of hours of driving, after which we were very keen to stop anyway. Does that mean everyone should get an EV? No. It just means the limitations are perhaps less limiting now. A bigger test would be driving back home via Bradford, and covering over 300 miles in a day. That’ll be the next installment. Stay tuned!