Nissan's Fourth Electric Vehicle to be PIVO-Inspired Urban Commuter

By · May 18, 2012

Nissan PIVO

The funky Nissan PIVO concept will be the inspiration for Nissan's fourth electric-only vehicle.

If Nissan’s EVs are going to become popular and profitable at a global scale, the company will need an entire line of attractive all-electric cars. When I spoke with Mark Perry, Nissan’s EV product planner, at the Tokyo Motor Show last year, he said the company was thinking about which vehicle to choose as its fourth Nissan-badged EV. Of course, the LEAF is Nissan's first mass-produced electric vehicle. The second and third will be the electric-only variant of the NV200 small commercial van, called e-NV200, and the Infiniti LE, a luxury electric sedan.

Earlier this month, Nissan's executive vice-president Andy Palmer hinted to UK's AutoExpress that Nissan will go with a PIVO-inspired city vehicle—internally referred to as "Symbol." In Tokyo, Mark said the company had also been considering a sexy sports car and a smallish utility vehicle. (I posted photos and descriptions of the three options.)

The Symbol/PIVO would presumably appeal to ultra-urban dwellers, primarily in Europe and Asia. “It’s aimed at the generation that’s coming up, that seems to have very little interest in conventional cars,” Palmer explained. “If you add in-wheel motors and batteries under the floor, everything from there up is up to you.” If Nissan's goal is to push EVs to the highest possible volume, it seems curious that it would use one of its four electric models to try to redefine the purpose of a car into a gizmo on wheels.

Infiniti LE

The electric Infiniti LE will soon become the luxury automakers first battery-powered vehicle.

A lot will depend on execution, moving from the concept to a production car. I suppose the PIVO-inspired electric city car could appeal to youthful buyers, especially if it comes with a price tag that undercuts the LEAF by thousands of dollars. Yet, that segment is not a big seller in the U.S. If the car is primarily targeted to Europe and Asia, that will only leave the LEAF, Infiniti and e-NV200 for the American market in the next four or five years. Is that enough of a foundation to build a major EV program here, and move Nissan’s EVs into anything resembling mainstream—especially as dozens of competing electric models start to hit showrooms? If not, then Nissan’s lead in the pure-EV market could dwindle over the next few years.

Nissan NV200 Electric

Nissan NV200

LEAF Becomes More Important

For the time being, the LEAF will have to pull Nissan's EV plans forward. Now that early adopters across the nation have had ample opportunity to buy the LEAF, Nissan will shift its marketing focus to "pragmatics," according to Palmer. As USA Today reports, Nissan will gear its upcoming advertising campaigns to delivering a sensible message focused on the "dollars-and-sense benefits" of owning an electric vehicle.

The shift in marketing will be important because Nissan will soon substantially ramp-up production of the LEAF. With two additional LEAF-producing factories—one here in the US and one in the UK—set to come online soon, LEAF output will dramatically increase. Those additional vehicles need to be sold and, according to USA Today, the pool of early adopters is drying up. This matches what I learned during a recent visit to my local Nissan dealership in Richmond, Calif. The EV salesman there told me that early adopters started fading away early this year. Indicative of the new wave of less-informed customers, one individual who visited the dealership to specifically inquire about the LEAF asked, “Where do you put the gasoline?”

Nissan will need to find a way to market the LEAF to mainstream buyers. As Palmer states, pragmatics are looking for a practical solution to basic transportation and the Nissan LEAF fits the bill. I have my doubts about this strategy, given the relatively high upfront cost of the LEAF. My suspicion is that pragmatic buyers will buy a cheaper car. I believe more LEAF customers would be earned by emphasizing that the car is fun, fast and high-tech. In other words, reaching mainstream buyers means using an electric version of the vroom-vroom marketing strategies utilized for mainstream vehicles.

Palmer added that once LEAF production increases, it should be profitable. "There's no reason, through the life cycle of LEAF, why we shouldn't have a profitable car,” said Palmer. “We needed economies of scale. I see no reason why it shouldn't be profitable."

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