Sunday, February 7, 2016

Facing Bolt and Tesla, Nissan running out of time to keep EV leadership

The Nissan Leaf is getting caught between the Volt and the Bolt. Having staked out an early leadership role for US plug-in vehicles following the Leaf's late-2010 US debut,Nissan now appears to be squandering it. Pinched by a combination of low gas prices and little in the way of performance or styling improvements, the Leaf saw its sales drop 43 percent last year to 17,269 units. This is after sales rose 34 percent in 2014 and more than doubled the previous year.

To date, Nissan has sold about 90,000 Leaf vehicles in the US.
And 2016 hasn't started well, with Leaf sales dropping 29 percent in January from their level a year before, down to just 755 vehicles. In fact, the Leaf, which had held a steady edge over the Chevrolet Voltextended-range plug-in in cumulative sales since their near-simultaneous debuts, risks having its sales being overtaken by the Volt within the next few months as customers pony up for the second-generation Volt. To date, Nissan has sold about 90,000 Leaf vehicles in the US.

Nissan was looking to get a boost via performance improvements to its model year 2016 Leaf, but it left the exterior virtually unchanged. There are boosts under the hood, though. Nissan started offering its Leaf SV variant with a 30-kWh battery pack that delivered a single-charge range of 107 miles, or 27 percent longer than the 2015 model's 84 miles. That improvement comes at a price. Nissan is charging $35,050 for the new SV option (and another $2,590 for the Leaf SV), compared to the $28,060 that Nissan is charging for the base-model Leaf S and its 24-kWh battery pack.

The bigger issue than the $6,000 price hike for the additional 23 miles of range, however, may be the impending arrival of at least two electric vehicles that may boast a 200-plus mile single charge range matched with a sub-$40,000 price tag. For starters, Tesla's Model 3, which will be unveiled next month, to some degree, could start sales as early as late 2017. The California-based EV maker doesn't exactly have a track record of meeting its production deadlines, though, so we won't be surprised if early 2018 is the actual release date.

The real challenge for the Leaf, however, is the Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle, says Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. Chevrolet parent General Motors said at last month's Consumer Electronics Show that the Bolt would debut by the end of the year with a 200-mile single-charge range. And while no price was announced, GM referred to the model as "affordable." The car has a $37,500 MSRP before federal and state incentives kick in.

"The Bolt is basically going make every other electric car obsolete." - Karl Brauer
"There's a car that's contending that's going to have over twice the range," Brauer said. "Who's going to buy the Leaf, the Ford Focus EV, the Chevy Spark EV or the Honda Fit EV? [The Bolt] is basically going make every other electric car obsolete except, sort of, the Tesla."

Nissan spokeswoman Paige Presley cited the combination of low gas prices and bad winter weather as some of the reasons behind last month's sales decline for the Leaf. And while she declined to say when the next-generation Leaf would be available in the US, she remained confident that Nissan would retain its leadership position in the US electric-vehicle market.

"While there will always be some EV buyers who are swayed by the changing price of oil, we believe that EV sales will continue to rise over time due to increasing emission regulations and other reasons for purchase of EVs such as lower operating costs, reducing dependence on foreign energy sources, environmental concerns, and a fun-to-drive experience," Presley told Autoblog.

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