The New Leaf: Longer range or lower cost?

Nissan Leaf sales languish far behind Chevrolet’s Volt and Toyota’s Plugin Prius. According to the New York Times, even though Volt drivers can travel only 25 to 50 miles between charges, they like the cost savings of EV mode so much that they take pains to recharge often enough to avoid using the gasoline engine. EV range varies according to speed and the age of the batteries, but Nissan claims that new Leaf drivers enjoy a range from 70 to well over 100 miles.

But while their range is longer, Leaf drivers have no gasoline engine to kick in and get them home if they miscalculate. Tony Williams and Phoenix owners believe that their Leaf’s range have declined too fast, and blame Arizona’s heat. Nissan bought back two such Leafs to garner goodwill, but Russ Finley and Mark Larson (who commented here as Yanquetino) counter that such range declines were predicted, though not exactly advertised. What is important, though, is what prospective buyers believe, and want. Fewer and fewer seem to want the Leaf, and Nissan wants to change that.

There has been talk of Nissan both cutting the cost and extending the range of the Leaf, but not in the same models. Motor Trend first heard that Nissan wanted to increase the range, or the quality:

We previously reported that the new model could have an upgraded lithium-ion battery, improving range to about 100 miles per charge. In addition, some reports suggested that a cheaper, entry-level model would be offered with a smaller battery — the idea being that cost-conscious shoppers might accept shorter driving range if they saved money upfront. Other information suggests the 2013 Leaf will become more luxurious thanks to options like leather seats, a more energy-efficiency heater that can improve driving range, and darker plastic interior trim.

… but now feels that Nissan plans to introduce a less expensive model with about the same range as the original Leaf.

The impetus for such a model is clear: sales of the Nissan Leaf remain so slow that executives are publicly admitting disappointment, and lowering the entry price could help. The 2012 Nissan Leaf SV starts at $36,050 (after destination) and the Leaf SL costs $38,100. Nissan reportedly believes a cheaper starting price will encourage more buyers to adopt the electric car.

TPM reported on spy shots of the cheaper Leaf:

Most visible are the revised headlights, which dispense with the current Leaf’s light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and use more conventional high-intensity discharge headlamp bulbs. … Inside, the Leaf’s current light-grey fabric upholstery—made of partially recycled fibers——has been replaced by less expensive black cloth.

Assembling the Leaf in Smyrna TN will help cut costs, as well. I wonder if cheapening the Leaf is the first indication that battery electric vehicles are headed for the low cost niche they occupy in Asia while long-range but expensive fuel cell vehicles are poised to dominate the luxury niche.

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