Can Nissan Revive Its Electric Car Program in 2017?

By · December 27, 2016

2017 Nissan LEAF

When sales of the all-electric Nissan LEAF peaked above 30,000 units in 2014, it appeared the Japanese automaker made a smart early bet on EVs. No other model has sold more than 30,000 units in a single year. At that time, the LEAF was on its way toward dominating the future electric car market the same way Prius has been the perennial leader for hybrids.

Unfortunately, the number of new takers of the LEAF has steadily declined since then. The final tally for US sales of the LEAF in 2016 was 14,000—less than half of where it was two years ago.

With the emergence of 200-mile affordable EVs—like the Chevy Bolt and upcoming Tesla Model 3—fans of plug-in cars have been wondering if and when Nissan will seriously get back into the electric car game with a long-range LEAF. There have been multiple media reports (and a lot of rumors) about a second-generation LEAF for 2018. But details have been scarce.

The first bit of substantial news came earlier this month when Japan’s Nikkei reported that Nissan-Renault will be collaborating with Mitsubishi on a common EV platform. (In late October, Nissan took a controlling stake in Mitsubishi, which was racked by a scandal related to misreporting its fuel economy numbers.) According to Nikkei, as well as Automotive News, Nissan said the goal of the common framework was to reduce the price of an EV by about 20 percent. Company executives believe it will bring the price of its electric cars in line with gas-powered vehicles. Key components, such as the motor, inverter and battery, will be shared.

A drop in price by 20 percent is obviously welcome. But the news reports did not mention anything about driving range. Curiosity was piqued in September, when Renault showed a concept version of its Zoe compact EV that increased its range to about 160 miles on a full charge from a 41 kilowatt-hour battery pack. The Zoe, LEAF and a future Mitsubishi electric car will all share a new common EV platform. (Production and sales of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV subcompact electric car were diminished to a trickle in 2016, and its fate is uncertain. Mitsubishi continues to display exciting new EV concepts.)

Make-or-Break Year for Nissan LEAF

For all intents and purposes, it appears that Nissan and Mitsubishi—once considered the most forward-thinking on vehicle electrification—have become the most hesitant. Another sign of Nissan’s complacency came in June, when Carlos Ghosn, the executive at the helm of the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi alliance, started pushing a new Volt-like plug-in hybrid system that would better “meet consumer demand for greater autonomy and fuel efficiency.” In other words, any notion of a bold move for a breakthrough EV car will likely take a backseat to incremental reductions in cost and using some amount of internal combustion to offer more range.

To be fair, these steps seem quite pragmatic. But meanwhile, Tesla isn’t slowing down. Chevy just sold its first 200-mile Bolts. Volkswagen is aiming to introduce more than 30 electric models by 2025. And Toyota, which has long been on the sidelines when it comes to EVs, is now planning to produce an electric car with about 185 miles of range by 2020. The logical takeaway is that Nissan tried to be the visionary leader of the EV revolution when it introduced the LEAF in late 2010—but is now content to watch from the back of the pack.

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