Nissan turns over new Leaf in EV wars

Full design of hatchback finally unveiled


YOKOHAMA — Nissan Motor Co. on Sunday unveiled its new electric vehicle, the Leaf, which the automaker wants to start selling next year in Japan, the United States and Europe in its quest to become the leader in zero-emission cars.

To mass produce the medium-size Leaf by 2012, Nissan has said it will carry a reasonable sticker price in comparison with gasoline-powered cars.

The Leaf will go up against Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s i-MiEV electric minivehicle, which heated up the country’s market for environmentally friendly cars when it debuted in June. But the i-MiEV at ¥4.6 million costs much more than gasoline-electric hybrid cars.

The Leaf, whose full design was revealed Sunday for the first time, is a five-seat hatchback, 444.5 cm long and 177 cm wide, boasting Nissan-developed high-powered batteries and an 80-kw motor. The cruising range is rated at better than 160 km, according to Nissan.

“For the first time in our industry’s history, a car manufacturer will mass market a zero-emission car — the ultimate solution for sustainable mobility,” Nissan President and CEO Carlos Ghosn said during an unveiling ceremony at the company’s new headquarters in Yokohama.

Ghosn drove a Leaf onto the stage, with former Primer Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose home district is in Kanagawa Prefecture, sitting in the front passenger seat. In the back seat were Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa and Yokohama Mayor Hiroshi Nakada.

“It was more smooth and quiet than I had expected,” Koizumi said after emerging from the car.

The Leaf’s name symbolizes the car’s ability to take emissions out of driving, just as leaves purify the air in nature, according to Nissan.

The car has drawn attention because Nissan, Japan’s third-largest automaker, has said that to reduce the price it is considering selling only the framework and leasing the expensive battery pack. Nissan said it will announce the Leaf’s price just before the launch in 2010.

Nissan also said it is considering various other ways to limit the price, including a payment method in which the buyer would pay only the difference between the sticker price and a secondhand price set by the automaker.

Ghosn has said Nissan will reduce the monthly running cost for the new vehicle to less than the comparable monthly cost of gasoline to achieve widespread acceptance.

He predicted Sunday that electric vehicles will account for about 10 percent of global car sales by 2020.

But in any business model, one hurdle will be setting up sufficient infrastructure, especially chargers, to help bring about wide usage of electric cars.

Currently, there are only about 50 high-speed battery chargers across Japan, and only 37 of them are in Tokyo and Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures.

Moreover, most of those 50 chargers belong to Tokyo Electric Power Co. and are not open to the public.

With high-speed chargers, it takes 30 minutes to charge electric batteries to the 80 percent level, while it takes normal chargers about eight hours to fully charge the Leaf’s battery pack.

Nissan, Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., which started to deliver the Subaru Plug-in Stella electric car in July, are planning to set up a committee this week to discuss promoting chargers.

Setting up and running chargers currently does not offer much in the way of profits, because electricity is much cheaper than gasoline, experts say.

“Whether electric vehicles will succeed depends on their business models,” said Kazuhiro Muto, a senior business producer who specializes in infrastructure for electric cars at Japan Research Institute Ltd.

He said one business model could be that a car rental company rents electric cars to central and local governments or companies on weekdays and the public on weekends to increase operating ratios and increase profitability.