Nissan Seeks Leaf Buyers from Among ‘Pragmatists'

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Nissan LeafNow that Nissan believes it has captured all the “early adopters” of its all-electric Leaf, its North American subsidiary plans to market the 73-mile-per-charge (they used to say it was 100 miles) vehicle to “pragmatists.”

These practical patrons, according to Executive Vice President Andy Palmer, will not be drawn from the limited ranks of environmental activism, but instead will consist of everyday Joes “who will see the dollars-and-sense benefits of driving one,” reports USA Today.

“There’s no reason, though the life cycle of Leaf, why we shouldn't have a profitable car,” Palmer told the newspaper at the Electric Car Symposium in Los Angeles. “We needed economies of scale. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be profitable.”

The reason “scale” is needed is Nissan will soon have to justify the mass production of the poor-selling Leaf in the U.S., after it received a $1.45 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy’s stimulus stash to manufacture it at a plant in Smyrna, Tenn. CEO Carlos Ghosn has said government subsidies will determine where he develops sales of EV technology, which are the only reason why “profitable” (more likely he means “economical”) can be even contemplated.

Finding enough Americans who see it that way will be difficult, as the $33,800 Leaf has proven extremely impractical. Average users rarely attain the 73 miles on a single charge, and after it’s been expended, the Leaf requires at least 7 hours to fully recharge on a 220-volt charger, which also must be purchased. The only way it can be confidently driven on a consistent basis is if the owner travels no more than 25-30 miles to destinations each way on a daily basis, and takes no detours.

Unfortunately the Leaf continues to be dogged with reports like one in the New York Daily News this week. The reviewer, Josh Max, reported a similar experience as others with range anxiety, an undependable charge/mileage gauge, and lack of charging options. He set out on a trip to his mother’s house 30 miles away with a reading of 88 available miles on his dashboard. On his way home he realized he would not have enough juice, so he had to make a late-night detour to Hertz corporate headquarters in search of a recharge. 

“I explained my predicament to a sympathetic security guard who eventually appeared, and he directed me to the charging station in the garage,” Max recalled. “Two hours later I had 20 miles showing on my dash, and made it home. A trip normally taking 30 minutes had taken almost 3 hours.”

That experience echoed a Los Angeles writer’s, Rob Eshman, who wrote in October that he was “ready to turn over a new Leaf – my own.” 

“My life now revolves around a near-constant calculation of how far I can drive before I’ll have to walk,” Eshman wrote. “The Nissan Leaf, I can report, is perfect if you don’t have enough anxiety in your life.”

And then there was the Consumer Reports tester who tried out the Leaf for a weekend, but who suffered so much range anxiety that she froze her feet rather than use the car’s heater, because it would drain the battery faster.

“It seems Leaf ownership is best if you are not in a hurry or live in a climate where the temperature remains moderate,” Liza Barth wrote, “so you can avoid using the climate control for heat or air conditioning.”

Thus the task for Nissan dealers to find pragmatists to buy Leafs will be like trying to sell ice to Eskimos. Seriously, how practical is a car for any American that: requires hours to refuel and a costly fast-charger installed in your garage; goes only a few dozen miles on a charge; diminishes that short range when adjusting climate controls; costs more than twice as much as similar gas-fueled vehicles; and adds anxiety to an already hectic lifestyle? Good luck overcoming those factors in search of the sensible customer.

Leaf deliveries have fallen below even those of the sickly sales of the Chevy Volt. Nissan reported that it sold 478 units in February, 579 in March, and 370 in April. Those embarrassing numbers remain at levels with last April’s sales figure, when only 573 Leafs went off the lots.

Yet Nissan has said it plans to produce up to 150,000 Leafs per year at the Tennessee plant which will soon be ready. Put that in the context with GM, which will have halted production of the slightly better selling Volt at least twice this year for extended periods because of weak demand. That $1.45 billion backed by our tax dollars is looking less pragmatic of an decision every day – like every other electric car investment by the Obama administration.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center.