“I thought electric vehicles would have caught on by now,” admitted a tall gentleman working Nissan’s 2013 Leaf media drive in Nashville. The promises offered by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn back in 2010 tell a similar tale, where Ghosn boldly predicted the Leaf would hit 500,000 units a year by the end of 2013. As of today, less than 60,000 Leafs total have been sold worldwide, with 23,000 in the United States, far shy of Nissan's once bullish prediction.
And it’s miles Nissan (and other EV makers) desperately need, with range anxiety remaining of upmost concern amongst drivers: “If I had the money for a second car, then an electric vehicle might make sense," explained James Oakley, a neighbor of mine. "But as of today, they’re too expensive, don’t travel far enough on a charge, and it takes too long to replenish the battery – not to mention the lack of infrastructure.”
It’s a familiar complaint. While improvements in battery technology are evident, many experts predict we remain around 10 years away from a practical solution. Until then, EVs hold different goals. For many automakers, like Honda’s lease-only Fit EV, building zero-emission vehicles in limited supply complies with California regulations. For them, compliance holds precedence over sales.
Nissan, however, has committed entirely to electric vehicles, and it's not letting the tardy acceptance time deter. “It’s all about word of mouth,” claimed one Nissan marketing rep. “As we sell more, the word gets out and more will follow.”
Slowly, more have been following. It’s a long road, but Nissan continues to invest by recently opening a 475,000 sq. ft. battery plant in Smyrna, Tenn. — the largest of its kind in North America — just down the road from its Smyrna vehicle assembly plant. The new structure holds the capacity to produce 200,000 batteries a year. Right now, batteries are constructed based upon request, making the facility appear quiet and hollow; a shell showcasing untapped potential, much like the concept of the EV.
In an effort to fulfill that potential, Nissan realized a key issue with today’s electric cars: the price doesn’t match the quality. If you’re spending around $30,000 on a car, you expect certain attributes: leather seats would be welcomed, as would a decent stereo, and perhaps a color infotainment system, too. What you generally get, however, is an interior from a machine costing $10,000 less. The premium you pay for electric technologies diminish creature comforts, but the EV’s performance does little to justify the additional cost.
For 2013, Nissan heeded customers' critiques, adding a leather-wrapped heated steering wheel and comfortable heated leather seats. A Bose stereo now comes as an option, along with a birds-eye view monitor to assist with tight maneuvers. Google Search and Pandora arrive on the navigation, and the cabin can now be delivered in sultry black attire.
With the interior deemed in-line with customers' expectations, Nissan decided to lower the vehicle’s price point. This wasn't by a few hundred dollars; rather it trimmed thousands off the bottom line, along with a new entry-level model starting at just $28,800 (not including a $7,500 tax credit). Depending on location, Nissan claims that, with credits, some buyers could own a Leaf for as little as $18,800. Even a fully loaded Leaf will come in well under $30,000 after credits. This was made possible by consolidating production stateside, as well as understanding the necessity to get more Leafs on the road.
Due to battery developments, the refreshed Leaf’s range extends by 15 percent (an official mileage update has not yet been released), and charge time, made possible by an available 6.6 kW onboard charger, shrinks from nearly eight hours to four when utilizing a 220V plug. Using a public quick charge port, the battery can be replenished to 80 percent capacity in just 30 minutes. The car sheds 150 lb. of excess weight, too, making the Leaf appear far more comparable with the driving demands of today.
While that assessment would be correct, a range of roughly 80 miles on average remains too low to be considered practical. Charging in four hours, albeit a dramatic improvement, still doesn’t eliminate the Leaf’s niche as a second vehicle. And, despite steady naturalization amongst its combustion-motored siblings, it’s still about as fast as an overfed snail, and maneuvers like a lethargic slug escaping a ravenous starling. The driver’s seat sits as tall as Robert Wadlow, and moving the wheel up to suit blocks the lower portion of the instrument cluster. Despite this, the Leaf doesn’t feel alien. It feels as we expect a car to feel, not like a spaceship from Jupiter naively anticipating Earth folk acceptance.
I maintain huge respect for Nissan committing to the cause with such vigor, especially after continuing to fall shy of its yearly expectations. For those after a decently-sized second vehicle for short commutes, there appears little reason to deny the Leaf. It looks unique, it gets from A-B capably, and it now costs about the same as a similarly equipped gas vehicle — all while serving as a hedge against gas prices.
While EVs may not have caught on as quickly as some predicted, gaining traction in the marketplace remains a job for the masses. "We need people to self-validate," said one Nissan rep. “I think we’re getting there,” said another. And while “there” still appears vastly remote, in the small town of Smyrna, progress continues, slowly.