Monday, August 3, 2009

Revealed: 2011 Nissan Leaf Electric Car

YOKOHAMA, Japan — In what the automaker hopes is a prophetic pairing, Nissan Motor Co. unveiled its new electric car as part of the grand opening ceremonies for its new, high-tech headquarters building in Japan's semi-official zero-emissions city.

 2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

"Just as leaves purify the air in nature, so Nissan Leaf purifies mobility by taking emissions out of the driving experience," the company said.

The five-seat, electric-blue Leaf hatchback is to be launched in select U.S. and Japanese markets next year to begin what Nissan hopes will become an era of global leadership for the company in a growing EV market.

Leadership shouldn't be evasive if the Leaf lives up to its performance billing. A top speed of 90 mph, a range of 100 miles per charge with a 30-minute recharge where quick-charging stations are available (6 hours with a 220-volt current) and seat cushion-compressing acceleration that will launch it from zero to 30 mph faster than an Infiniti G37, thanks to 207 pound-feet of torque from its 80 kilowatt (107 horsepower) electric motor are all part of the package.

To the degree that price matters, Nissan's also got a big edge in the EV world. Pricing hasn't been announced, but the company insists the Leaf will be "affordable" with pricing equivalent to a well-equipped C-class (compact) car.

That's a European compact, though, and they're a lot better equipped, and more costly, than compacts in the U.S. so figure $28,000 to as much as $35,000 (the range for Nissan partner Renault's Megane hatchback) — not super cheap, but a bit less than the five-place Chevy Volt.

And that's before any government incentives — which could knock a substantial amount from the car's price in Japan and would be at least $7,500 in the U.S. as long as funding continues for the federal clean car credit program.

Nissan officials say pricing was held down in part by developing the entire powertrain, including the laminated lithium-manganese battery pack — arguably the most expensive single component on the car at around $10,000 — in-house with an eye toward affordability.

But the real trick is that the batteries won't be part of the selling price: Nissan's global approach will be to sell the car, but lease the battery pack.

The argument for leasing is that if you buy a gasoline car, the gasoline isn't part of the deal, and the battery pack in an EV (plus the electricity that it stores) can be likened to the gas needed to make a conventional car go.

The approach in the U.S, where consumers might be leery of buying a car, but having to lease an essential part of its powertrain, may be to simply lease the entire package, said Andy Palmer, Nissan's senior vice president and head of product planning.

Decisions on the sales or leasing method, as well as on U.S. pricing, will be made closer to the Leaf's late-2010 launch, Palmer said.

 2011 Nissan Leaf
2011 Nissan Leaf

The event will make Nissan the first major automaker in modern times to put a full-service battery-electric car into dealerships for retail sales.

To help do away with charging anxiety, Nissan has equipped the Leaf with a communications system that enables drivers to communicate in real time with a special information center to find out where the closest chargers are, which ones are open and operating, and whether they have fast or slow chargers.

The system also highlights in real time on the Leaf's standard navigation system screens the one-way and round-trip travel ranges the car can achieve before needing a battery charge, and sends signals to a driver's cell phone or PDA when a car plugged in at a home or public charger is topped up and ready to go.

The Leaf's target launch date will beat General Motors' Volt plug-in hybrid, and while Japan's Mitsubishi and Subaru both launched EVs for sale to fleets in Japan last month, the cars are smaller, lower-speed, "city cars" with far less range than the 100 miles-per-charge Nissan claims for the Leaf.

The concept unveiled today is pretty much what the production car will look like next year, sans the exotic paint and high-end interior appointments unique to concept and show cars.

Shiro Nakamura, Nissan's global design chief, told us in an interview after a private preview showing of the pre-production concept, that the Leaf, while all-Nissan in concept and technology, borrows a smidgen of design language from partner Renault's popular Megane compact, most notably in the notched hatch.

The elongated but curiously bulbous headlamp assembly (designed for looks and airflow, said Shiro-san) extremely short nose (no engine to hide) and sharply delineated flanks and wheel cutouts are all Nissan, showing a little bit of the styling that went into the Murano crossover utility vehicle — no shocker when you learn that the Leaf's chief designer also headed the Murano design team, according to Nakamura.

Inside Line says: Nissan trails the field in hybrids, but could shock the industry with its nifty new EV.

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