Nissan Hopes a Bit More Range Will Boost LEAF Sales
Earlier this month, SankeiBiz, a Japanese business website, reported that the 2013 Nissan LEAF, will increase its maximum driving range from 200 kilometer to 250 kilometers. The accuracy of SankeiBiz’s reporting should be questioned from the beginning, because 200 km converts to 124 miles—a range that is well beyond the capability of the LEAF’s 24 kilowatt-hour pack. Most drivers, including me, more commonly get about 80 miles of range in everyday driving. Nonetheless, the repeated rumors and leaks that Nissan will try to boost the LEAF’s range indicate that drivers see 80 miles as lacking.
The key line in the SankeiBiz article loosely translates to, “Many drivers say this level is not enough.”
For the past six months, there have been hints that the 2013 LEAF will address what has become shortcomings in its technology: a relatively slower 3.3-kW charger; a relatively mild temperature-control system for its batteries; and a relatively inefficient cabin heater. I repeat the word “relative,” because when the LEAF was first introduced, it had no real competition among pure EVs. But Nissan’s aggressive move to be on the leading edge, two years later, looks like a bleeding edge. All the major players have faster chargers and active battery temperature control systems—relatively better technology—so Nissan needs to act fast to maintain a reputation as EV leader.
Left In the Cold
I was speaking with folks at the Department of Energy last week, who have been testing the LEAF for cold weather conditions. They “soak” the EV in 20-degree climate, and then set the heater to bring the cabin to 72 degrees. Their tests indicate the heater pulls somewhere between 4 to 6 kW, which if left on for the duration of a city driving cycle cuts range in half, according to the tests. Based on these numbers—and the fact that this coming winter will be the first year that we see decent numbers of LEAFs on the road in the coldest parts of the country—there's a risk that LEAF owners in Northern climates will be unhappy.
I asked Nissan about the heating system in the 2013 model. I got the standard “we don’t talk about future products” line that many automakers rely on when the questions are uncomfortable, but cast aside when they want to trumpet a new feature.
None of this diminishes my enjoyment of my LEAF in the idyllic weather of the San Francisco Bay area. (I'm about half-way through my three-year lease.) My devotion to the LEAF as a great ride has only been underscored over the past few days, as I’ve been driving a loaner Ford C-Max hybrid. Ford has produced a really good hybrid. But frankly, I’ve been spoiled by the LEAF’s quietness and quick acceleration. All hybrids—without a plug—now seem clunky. Maybe the C-Max Energi, the plug-in hybrid version of the car, will be more in line with my new expectations.
Does 20 More Miles Equal 2,000 Sales
On the other hand, my recent multiple day drive of the new RAV4 EV—stay tuned for my review in next Sunday’s New York Times—makes me see the shortcomings of an EV that offers 80 miles. The RAV4 EV—admittedly at a much higher price tag of $40,000 after incentives—consistently delivered between 120 and 130 miles of range (even with aggressive driving). That’s a big jump from the LEAF’s 80 miles. Tesla’s J.B. Straubel recently told me that he sees 125 miles as a “functional minimum.” He said the LEAF indeed works for most driving, but that its 80 miles of range dramatically increases how often a driver needs to think about charging for an “intermediate” trip or destination. “That’s really tough,” he said, “for the super mass-market consumer who doesn’t want to deal with any of this stuff.” I agree.
If the latest rumors that the LEAF can increase its range by 25 percent prove true, then the small EV’s range would bump up to 100 miles. That would be fantastic for future LEAF owners, but could leave us early adopters a bit disappointed. And I’m not sure if it will help first-time EV shoppers, because Nissan’s rhetoric all along has been that the car delivers 100 miles of range. (What will the ads say? “This time, we mean it.”)
When we first posted about the upgrade to the LEAF’s winter range, Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning, said that the heater will be “much, much more efficient,” in an interview with The Detroit News. Then again, in the same interview, he also said that he expects LEAF volume to hit 2,000 units per month in the US by late summer. That's right now. In a few days, we’ll see if August numbers increase from July’s 395 sales and June’s 535 units. Unfortunately, all the chatter about more range coming out for 2013 will only make it harder for Nissan to sell the remaining 2012 models.
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