The launch of a model in a U.S. plant formerly produced overseas usually generates some excitement, especially around the town lucky enough to get the work. So congrats to Smyrna, Tenn., which will have 300 more factory jobs with the U.S. production start of the 2013 Nissan Leaf electric car. For the rest of the auto industry, it's an odd moment watching Nissan turn on a factory that can build 150,000 Leafs after selling fewer than 10,000 last year.
To bolster Leaf sales and help fill the battery plant and assembly line built in part with a $1.4 billion U.S. government loan, Nissan used the production launch to reveal several updates to the Leaf. While most are minor tweaks, Nissan says the changes will increase the 75-mile range of the five-door hatchback, and an optional charger will cut repowering time down to four and a half hours from seven when given the appropriate outlet.
Other alterations aim to expand the Leaf's range among customers. The new low-end S model does without some of the telematics and a 7-inch LED screen that had been standard until now. The high-end versions get optional leather seats and other comfort touches; all versions get aerodynamic and efficiency changes such as a new cabin heater designed to use less energy.
With no price tag yet, it's hard to say how the alterations might move the needle on Leaf sales. With 9,819 sold in 2012, the Leaf was far and away the most popular pure electric vehicle for sale, but still fell well short of the 20,000-unit target Nissan had set at the start of 2012. Automakers have begun to grouse that buyers won't go for the kinds of electric vehicles that pollution rules in California and other states will require them to sell in the coming years, and two years after launching the Leaf, no other automaker aside from Tesla has been bold enough to target high-volume EV sales. If Nissan can find a larger audience for the Leaf, a lot of automakers would follow. For now, Smyrna's Leaf assembly may be the only auto factory in the world that has its competitors rooting for its success.