This post is a Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, and Fiat 500e owner comparison. I’m a huge fan of electric-powered transportation. We have 3 cars (two in Atlanta, and one in San Francisco). All of them are electric. We purchased them in this order: a Nissan Leaf (2011), a Tesla Model S (2014), and the Fiat 500e (2017).
Since we now have driven over 50,000 miles powered solely by electricity, I thought I would write about driving electric, and compare the three cars.
My first general observation sounds trivial but really isn’t: I don’t miss stopping at gas stations. I can’t imagine that nuisance again. Plugging in when I arrive home became a quick and easy habit and is just significantly more convenient.
Gassing up the car is this extra, time-consuming process. You sometimes have to plan for it. You have to deal with pumps and payments. You really don’t realize how less than pleasant any of this is until you don’t have to plan/pump/pay anymore at all.
But my most significant general observation is the superior driving experience of an electric car regardless of car size. The electric motor has such powerful torque and responsiveness. The car is instantly responsive to the press of the accelerator. And the motor’s response is powerful and not hesitant in any way. Such is not the case with a gasoline or a diesel powered engine. I am spoiled by this responsiveness and just would prefer to never drive a fossil fuel powered vehicle ever again for this reason alone.
On a delightful note, but a little less important to me, is the sense of silence and calm when driving electric. You hear the sound of the tires on the road, but you hear no engine noise. I had never noticed before, but fossil fuel powered car engines are loud, very loud.
I’ve had a touch of range anxiety (worrying I might run out of battery before I arrive at my destination to recharge). At first, I worried about this and payed very careful attention to driving range. Now, after having driven on electric since 2011, I hardly ever consider it at all.
Most of the destinations to which I travel are well-known to me, having traveled them many times before. I now have a good sense of car range. The car can do it easily. I have a couple of apps I use to plan a trip to a new destination with which I am unfamiliar that seems farther away than usual. Range anxiety just isn’t the issue I worried it would be.
In the Bay Area, I can drive up to the top of Mount Tamalpais and explore. When I first started doing this, I paid careful attention to where chargers were and how I drove the car to conserve charge. It was more of a game than a worry. Now I drive up to the mountain all of the time.
So, as I’ve already said, I never want to go back to driving non-electric vehicles again. I’m sure I will, as I travel and have to rent cars on trips. But I vastly prefer driving electric even when not considering the horrendous impact fossil fuel emissions are having on our own health and the health of the planet.
To be honest, until recently I had no idea exactly how bad fossil fuel emissions are on living things. Even though we live in a very green Atlanta neighborhood with a beautiful park with numerous tall trees and dense foliage right across the street, noxious vehicle emissions are often so high in our area they literally pose a serious health threat to us. I was unaware and shocked to learn that these emissions cause tens of thousands of premature deaths in the US every year. We consider this normal, even acceptable? That’s insane. The truth is that the vast majority of us are just as we were: completely unaware.
Electric Vehicle Preferences
So, of the three cars themselves: which do I prefer and why? I’ll cover this focusing on specific areas of interest.
Getting in and Out of the Car
The Tesla Model S is a complete fail on this. This car was made for 20 – 30 somethings that are agile and in good shape. I have always found getting into (especially) and out of the car difficult. It’s very low to the ground. The door space itself is narrow and a bit oddly shaped. No inside handle is available over the door as is present on every other car I’ve ever had.
Getting into and out of the Nissan Leaf and the Fiat 500e is easy and comfortable. Even though the Fiat is a tiny car, it’s very easy to get in and out. Both cars have interior handles above the doors. The door opening is ample and doesn’t require leaning back at some odd angle for ingress to avoid hitting your head on the roof like the Model S. Steve, who is short, frequently hits his head getting into the Model S. (I’ve had to clean his blood off the car’s ceiling interior more than once!) I have to contort and put my hand on the shoulder area of the seat to lean backward to avoid hitting the ceiling.
And because the Nissan and the Fiat are not as low to the ground, I don’t feel as if I’m falling into the cars. I fall into the Tesla. I have to push out of the Tesla with my hand on the car seat leaning back to avoid hitting my head when getting out. Tesla can and should do better than this. I’m sure they will once their target market gets older.
Bottom line: I hate getting in and out of the Tesla. It’s needlessly difficult for older people. Getting in and out of the Nissan and Fiat gets substantially higher marks over the Tesla. The Nissan gets ever so slightly higher marks over the Fiat because the door opening seems just a tad larger to me.
The Tesla wins this category hands down. Driving the Tesla is a complete pleasure—a joy even. It will “get up and move” regardless of the steepness of the incline. The Tesla has a vast amount of power.
However, the Nissan and the Fiat are also fabulously responsive. These cars are just not as “amped up,” so to speak. I rarely ever use the full throttle of the motors in any of these cars, but it’s just hard to “top out” the Tesla’s acceleration. I can more easily “top out” acceleration potential in the smaller cars.
It’s very easy to lose your sense of speed on the open road in the Tesla. It’s silent, remember—no engine noise whatsoever. And the Tesla loves open road driving. It just feels like it wants to go. I’ve looked down at the speedometer and been shocked to see that I’m flying down the road at 85mph. You don’t feel speed in this car. You really don’t feel speed in the Nissan and the Fiat either, but they don’t seem to want to go at super high speed. Maybe this is some sort of tensioning designed into the feel of their accelerators? Maybe it’s because these are smaller and lighter vehicles? I just don’t know, but this is something I definitely perceive.
With the Tesla you are either accelerating our slowing down while you reclaim energy from the spinning tires. This energy reclamation feels like braking. So, you rarely use the brakes. You speed up and slow down by how you manage the accelerator. This driving technique becomes very comfortable very fast.
However, I don’t notice the car adding range back to the driving range indicator the way I see it in the Leaf and the Fiat. In the Fiat I drive up Mount Tamalpais and arrive at the top with around a 50 mile range. When I come back down, I get up to about 70 miles of range. I end my drive back at our apartment with about 60+ miles of range.
Perhaps the Tesla doesn’t do this type of “range swinging” because it starts with over 200 miles of range. Or maybe it does, and I just don’t notice it as much with the larger numbers. But I do prefer using the accelerator for both braking and speeding up. Neither the Nissan nor the Fiat do this. However, both cars do an excellent job reclaiming energy from the rotating tires when going down hill, for example.
The Model S is a huge car. It’s much too big for our needs. It has a lot of trunk space under the front hood (under the bonnet) which we have never used. It has a large hatchback area, and the seats fold down to create a cavernous space for hauling large things. Two people literally could sleep lying completely flat back there, and I’ve read of people using it for overnight camping under the stars with the huge glass roof.
The downside of the large physical space of the Tesla is parking it. The car fills a California-sized parking space fully from side to side and front to back making getting out of it even more problematic when parked next to something. The Model S is much too large for Steve and me.
The Fiat 500e is absolutely perfect for urban driving. You can zip around in it because it’s so tiny, and I mean tiny! You can park it virtually anywhere!1 I absolutely love the physical size of this car. And even though it has a tiny footprint, it’s more than large enough inside. It has a vast amount of head room and feels very open on the inside. The back seats however are useless. I would prefer they were not even there—just trunk space added to the hatchback. With the seats up, the trunk area is small—very small.
The Nissan Leaf wins the vehicle size category. It’s incredibly roomy on the inside. Like the Fiat, but unlike the Tesla, the Leaf feels open and spacious. The backseats are functional. Real humans could fit back there! It has a large cargo space in the hatchback area, especially with the back seats down. This is the ideal sized car for Steve and me.
Build Quality and Engineering
Of the three cars, the build quality of the Tesla is horrible. No, at this price point, it’s pure shit. The seams2 do not align properly and never will. The battery that controls the instrument cluster has been replaced at least three times already. The last time it failed Steve was stranded, and it was 17º outside!
The Tesla rattles. The driver’s side window sounds like it’s cracked when you close it. Again, at this price point the car should be flawless. Trust me. It is not! I could go into other issues but will spare you the tedium. (Automatic windshield wipers? Really?!!) Tesla absolutely needs to learn how to build cars. They have engineering them down to a fine point, but build quality is grotesquely bad. Completely unacceptable. Maybe if the car sold for $20k you could forgive this. But this car sold for around $120k. Compare this car to a Lexus at half the price, and the Lexus will have superb build quality in and out, not the Tesla.
The build quality for the Nissan body is excellent. The car has worn well and looks new inside and out. The seams all line up. The doors close solidly (not in the Tesla). But the electronics are very poor. Many of the basic functions (auto lights on/off, trip and energy monitoring) died a long time ago and, out of warranty, would cost thousands to repair. We just do without them now.
We have had the Fiat too short a time and drive it very little to know yet how well it will stand up to day to day use. It feels good. The build quality seems solid. No rattles, but it’s basically a new car still.
However, the Fiat has a fatal flaw for our use scenario. Since we live on both the east and west coast, mostly on the east coast at the moment, the Fiat 500e sits unused for 3 – 6 weeks at a time. And while it is plugged in to keep the drive train battery fully charged, the battery that controls the instrument cluster will run dead in about 2 – 3 weeks. We had to purchase a device to jump start the vehicle when we return having been away a while.
Now, most people drive their cars virtually if not every day and would probably never have this issue. Again, our use scenario is atypical. But why can’t this issue have been addressed in the engineering design? So, when the lease is up, we will sadly replace our adorable little Fiat 500e.
Features and Functions
Yes, the Tesla has them all. But I personally don’t like the door handles that pop out when you approach the car. This works great when the key batteries are completely new. In a few months, you notice that you have to get closer and closer to the car before it notices you. Approaching the car from the back, it completely stopped seeing us, and we have to physically use the key to open the hatchback.
The automatic windshield wipers work very poorly. They are bizarrely erratic. They should sense when water is on the windshield. Sometimes they just come on for no reason. Sometimes you can barely see through the windshield for the rain, and the wipers remain sleepy and aloof.
The Leaf is missing some nice features, but it was a first generation electric car and a risky venture for Nissan, being the first general use electric car to the US market. I’ll let this slide for that reason. I’m not sure what bells and whistles they offer now. But it has the backup camera—a must for us.
The Fiat is rather barebones. You have to use a physical key. I haven’t done that for years and years, and I always forget and have to go foraging for the key once I’m seated and buckled in. Really, Fiat?!
The Fiat has no backup camera, though I hear backup cameras are required on all new cars sold in the US next year. Good! Even though the car is tiny, I can never tell where the backend ends. In San Francisco, that matters!
Range, Battery and Charging
The Tesla wins this category hands down. We bought the first generation vehicle and have free charging at the super chargers for the life of our vehicle ownership. That charging network is well built out now and is fast and easy to use. We can take the car on road trips almost anywhere in the US. The car has a real range of over 240 miles. We use it to take trips with no issues at all. The car does an excellent job of trip planning and telling you when and where to charge.
The Nissan and the Fiat have a significantly limited battery range but are absolutely perfect for all of our around town driving. You simply can not use them for trips. Neither charges as quickly as the Tesla.
The cold climate of Atlanta adversely impacts battery use. We didn’t have this issue with the Nissan or the Tesla when they were in California. We haven’t noticed this issue with the Fiat. It just doesn’t get that cold.
The Nissan is now seven years old. The fully charged battery gets a maximum of 72 real miles at this point, down from 100 when it was new. In the winter, when it’s cold, it will sometimes only fully charge to 60 miles. Again, this is more than adequate for all of our day to day driving needs.
All in all, the Nissan wins for me. It finds a good middle ground of build quality, size, value and performance. However, the range is too limited to make it an only car. We will replace it when Nissan comes out with a 200+ real miles range edition.
We will probably keep the Tesla until it dies or we are simply too feeble to get in and out of it. I doubt we would replace it with a the new Model 3 as they have reported significant build quality issues. And those cars appear to be just smaller versions of the Model S. I probably can’t even physically get into one. I’ve really grown to dislike our Tesla for this reason. I don’t want to ride in it or even drive it because getting in and out is so blasted awkward. Add build quality issues and price point, and I just flat out dislike this car at this point.
As I’ve mentioned, we will explore a different electric car replacement for the Fiat 500e when the lease is up. I despise having to jump start the car every time I return to San Francisco after an absence of more than 2 weeks. (By the way, it then runs fine until it sits unused for another 2+ weeks. Again, if we used the car routinely, I doubt we would have this issue.)
I highly recommend driving on electricity over fossil fuel. As I’ve said more than once, we never want to go back. Add to this mix our having solar panels on the roof, and you have another significant advantage for driving on sunshine. Add a Tesla PowerWall to the solar panels on the house roof, and you have a total winning combination. You could conceivably go completely off the power grid and drive for free.
Driving on sunshine doesn’t pollute the air we breathe, is silent, is more convenient, is responsive and simply a lot of fun. Tim loves it! Both thumbs up!!
[Now… (insert rolling his eyes here)… Having just arrived back in San Francisco for a few days, I need to go jump start the Fiat 500e. I’m actually totally serious.]