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Kelley Blue Book: Four valuable lessons I learned taking a road trip in an electric car

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With gas prices climbing, we took one of the market’s least expensive electric cars on a 1,100-mile road trip to get our range anxiety in check.

We set out to understand how to make a lengthy trip, even if the EV doesn’t boast a long range, and write about the journey.

Many people contemplating electric cars for the first time wonder about EV range for out-of-town trips. We wanted to know first-hand how to reach enough chargers along a busy East Coast corridor and then climb winding mountain roads to see how it affects range. We also wanted to experience how hot weather affects battery range and what, if any, charger difficulties we may encounter, and report our findings to you.

These questions were put to the test in the 2022 Nissan Leaf. Our model, the SL Plus, with a starting price of $37,400, came with an EPA range of up to 215 miles.

Continue reading for observations from an EV road trip and tips that can help address some of the key questions and concerns drivers might have about taking an electric vehicle out of town.

Check out: 7 off-the-radar places worth stopping on a California road trip

1. Make a charging plan – and an alternate plan

My 6-year-old daughter agreed to ride along on the trip, even though I didn’t have a specific destination in mind. So, we looked at a map and decided on a general route. Then, we picked out sights to possibly see and I worked on a rough timeline. The purpose was to log miles and use various charging stations to experience what an EV owner might encounter during a weekend getaway or when driving to a long-distance destination.

Use a charging app like Plugshare to map out a route and charging sessions.

Plugshare

While I prefer lesser-traveled scenic byways, my inaugural EV road trip route stuck to interstate highways. In lightly populated areas, it’s more common to find Level 3 DC fast-charging stations near interstate exits.

A map from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center website pinpoints electric vehicle charging stations. It’s searchable by location, and you can filter results by charger types and connectors to help plan stops for charging. That site and essential EV charging apps such as PlugShare — a user-generated map of public chargers — helped me sketch a route and charging sessions based on the car’s charging connector and range.

The biggest tip for making a road trip in an electric car is this: Be sure to have a backup plan for EV charging, because opportunities aren’t as plentiful as with filling up with gas. Fast chargers can be dozens of miles apart, while the next highway exit may have a couple of convenience stores to choose from.

Our road trip started in metro Atlanta and crossed South Carolina. We backtracked a little, cut through North Carolina, and passed through the Great Smoky Mountains. From there, we headed south in Tennessee back to Georgia.

The Nissan Leaf

Nissan

2. Don’t rely on the EV’s range estimates

When we pulled out of the driveway to start our journey, the Nissan
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Leaf’s dashboard indicated 192 miles of range remaining on the battery charge.

I made a rookie mistake by assuming the accuracy of range estimates — and my mileage did vary. In my defense, the vehicle was new to me. I spent less than an hour behind the wheel of this loaner car before hitting the open road.

While heavy rain slowed our progress getting out of metro Atlanta, highway driving quickly drained juice from the battery, even while using the Leaf’s Eco Mode and one-pedal driving. My original plan was to make the first charging stop 154 miles into the trip on the outskirts of Augusta, Georgia. I soon realized that I needed to switch to Plan B. The battery range decreased faster than the odometer added miles.

Read: The lessons I learned the first time I charged an EV in public

My backup plan meant charging 18 miles earlier in the journey at just 136 miles from my home. The new target was a Level 3 DC Fast Charger in a hotel parking lot near a Thomson, Georgia, exit on I-20. I sweated the last 20 miles or so because of nerves (and due to turning off the car’s air conditioning to conserve battery power). The location was reachable, I kept telling myself. Still, I fretted over what to do if the charger wasn’t working. I did not have a Plan C.

Fortunately, Plan B worked. When I parked at the fast charger, the Leaf’s dashboard indicated the battery had only 27 miles of range remaining. Interestingly, having 30-miles-worth of gas in my family’s minivan creates far less anxiety than having about 60 miles of range in an EV. Regardless, I was happy to see the charging session start.

The hotel parking lot seemed safe, but it lacked amenities. However, plenty of fast-food options (with restrooms) lined the main road. My daughter and I walked by a gas station and a restaurant to reach one of her favorites to get chicken strips and waffle fries. She enjoyed some time on the indoor playground before we strolled back to the car in the drizzling rain.

See: While car prices keep going up, these two electric cars just got a big price cut

EV fast-charging cost

The Leaf’s range replenished 166 miles in just under an hour of charging time. However, we had just traveled 136 miles on the trip’s first leg and watched 165 miles of estimated range deplete. This charge session cost $13.75.

Meanwhile, a gas station at the exit advertised regular unleaded gas for $4.09 per gallon. I would use nearly 5 gallons of gas, costing about $20 to drive 136 miles in my gas-powered Chrysler Pacifica.

See: How much does it cost to charge an electric car? We do the math

3. Prepare to use different EV charging networks

Some hotels have Level 2 chargers available for EV drivers lodging with them. The place in Augusta where we stayed did not provide that perk. However, hotel destination charger access should be a consideration when making an EV road trip because you can charge your car overnight. Sometimes Level 2 chargers at hotels are offered at no cost.

We went to a grocery store parking lot in the morning to top off the battery before getting on the interstate. The location’s fast charger operated at full power, and the Leaf’s battery reached 80% state of charge in a half-hour. Why not fully charge to 100%? DC Fast Chargers stress EV batteries. To help keep your battery healthy and promote a long battery life, it’s best practice to stop fast charging at 80% capacity.

Our travel goals for the day were ambitious. We intended to cross South Carolina. Then we’d make a U-turn at the I-95 oasis and roadside attraction South of the Border. From there, we’d return west toward a friend’s home near Columbia.

South of the Border roadside attraction on Interstate 95 near Dillon, South Carolina.

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Reaching South of the Border required an intermediate stop at a Walmart
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parking lot in Florence for a quick charge. So far, the chargers we used were part of the ChargePoint
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network. At this location, Electrify America operated the stations. I previously installed that network’s app and set up my account to make it easier to start and pay for charging sessions.

This location had four chargers, each with two plugs. Three of the machines had two CSS Combo connectors; one had a CSS Combo and a CHAdeMO connection. The Leaf uses the less-common CHAdeMO type of charger connector. When we arrived, a Volvo XC40 Recharge was using the only machine compatible with the Leaf.

If EV charging etiquette was on the Volvo driver’s mind, they might have used any of the other three chargers with CSS connectors. Instead, I parked nearby unable to use the available stations. We walked to a sandwich shop where I could watch and wait. The Volvo left after 45 minutes.

Once we could charge, the session added 60 miles of range in about 25 minutes. I wanted to continue the session, but we were also eager to head up I-95 toward South of the Border after the unexpected delay.

Chargers at this historic roadside attraction just south of the North Carolina border are part of the Shell
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Recharge network. While I already had its app installed, any time savings was erased by the frustration caused by the charger operating at about half-power. We got back on the highway after an hour.

A little while later, we took a bathroom break at a travel center with 16 Tesla Superchargers. The location had no chargers for non-Tesla
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EVs to use.

Also see: Don’t give up on a road trip yet—consider renting an electric car

4. Make the most of charging delays

That day of frustrating charging ended with another delay after pushing the car’s remaining low range. We headed to Sesquicentennial State Park in Columbia, South Carolina, where there is a fast charger that’s free to use after the $6 park admission.

The leg started at South of the Border with a 168-mile range estimate. We drove 109 miles on a flat interstate without any benefit from regenerative braking. The Leaf had just 30 miles of range left when we reached the park. Apparently, I was growing more comfortable (or careless) with the range estimate ticking away faster than the actual distance traveled. When we turned into the parking area, I saw another car using the charger.

The Ford
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Mustang Mach-E began charging just 12 minutes before we arrived, according to the charger’s display screen. This timing was disappointing because we were already behind schedule to meet a friend. However, I didn’t want to risk grinding to a halt while trying to reach the next closest DC fast charger 18 miles away.

The upshot was that we were in a state park. It was an open space where we could throw a Frisbee. We walked on a trail while keeping an eye on the charging car. After an hour, the apologetic owner of the Mach-E returned from a hike.

Setbacks can be pleasant

I tried to make the most of other charging setbacks later in our journey.

We enjoyed visiting a fruit stand across the street from one temperamental charging station in South Carolina. The beautiful strawberries and dripping-down-your-elbows juicy peaches I bought made a delicious snack while the Leaf slowly charged.

We relaxed in the Adirondack chairs at a new charging station in a pastoral setting in western North Carolina. The covered area was a comfortable place. Other friendly EV drivers told us about their travels and charging experiences. Three vehicles — a Volkswagen ID.4, Audi e-tron Sportback, and Kia EV6 — arrived and left during our slower-than-normal charging session. However, it didn’t matter much because we weren’t on a schedule and had lush green rolling hills for a backdrop.

Plans to charge at a municipal parking lot in Sevierville, Tennessee, hit a roadblock. The location was the starting point for hundreds, if not thousands, of motorcyclists in a parade on Memorial Day weekend. We shifted our itinerary and headed to an outlet shopping center with free Level 2 charging. Two of the four connectors weren’t functioning. So, we moved to a working charger. It added a few miles of range for free while shopping for clothes for a growing girl. Afterward, we returned to the fast charger near the courthouse. While the car charged, we admired Dolly Parton’s statue and ate a snack under a gazebo.

From the rearview mirror

My key takeaway after driving an EV over longer distances for four days is this: Battery charging time on the road is just as important as electric car range.

Our road trip was 1,082 miles long. The Leaf’s trip computer showed 26 hours of driving. By comparison, I spent about 13 hours connected to chargers or waiting to connect (11 hours of charging; two hours of waiting). We encountered one fast charger that was offline and had to drive 8 miles to another one.

Read next: 12 best American road trips

Would I do it again? Yes, if I could follow a leisurely pace. I remain apprehensive about time-sensitive journeys — driving overnight to reach a cruise terminal for a vacation, rolling into a faraway destination for a wedding, or rushing out of state for a family emergency. But the good news is that the EV charging infrastructure improves and expands each week. Until fast chargers reliably live up to their name, I’ll stick with a hybrid or internal combustion engine with more plentiful refueling options for long-distance road trips.

This story originally ran on KBB.com.

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