When Nissan announced that it would be the first major auto manufacturer to sell (not lease, EV1 fans) a mass-market electric vehicle (EV) in the U.S., executives there knew that potential rewards were high – and so was the pressure to get it right. Speculation has been running high for years about who would be first to market: Mitsubishi with the i-MiEV, General Motors with the Chevrolet Volt (Okay, it's a serial hybrid, but close enough), or perhaps a product from a dark horse like BYD or Coda.
As Leaf reservation holders began placing their final purchase orders with dealers last week, a number of big questions loom for Nissan and its chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, who has seemingly bet the farm on its success.
Let's begin with the premise that, as a mass-market car, the Leaf has to offend no one even as it proceeds down the road less traveled. It must embrace future technology but feel as familiar as an old pair of blue jeans. It must capture the hearts and minds of early adopters who are either fanatically pro-EV and/or have the financial means to buy cars several classes above the Leaf, while having the staying power to be a viable mainstream car for years to come at a modest price point.
If the ordering process has shades of Tesla and Smart associated with it, the car itself is in many ways the anti-Tesla or the anti-Smart. To succeed as a mass market car, it can't be all novelty and no follow through like Smart's diminutive Fortwo, and it can't comfortably languish in the rarified air of a halo car like Tesla's Roadster, a placeholder for some mainstream offering still years away. In short, it has to be all things, to all people, right from the get-go. But is that even possible? (this post continues after the jump)
On the plus side, in a refreshing turn of events, prospective Leaf buyers are finding dealers actually competing for their business by offering substantial discounts off MSRP (unlike early indications on what is to come with Volt pricing). On the not-so-positive side, there have also been some glaring glitches and foibles in the ordering process. For example, among its early adopters are hardcore EV fans, many of whom have existing charging stations or pre-wiring done in their homes in anticipation of the arrival of their new Leaf. Nissan was caught off guard by this, and in the 11th hour, is realizing that something other than a "standard" install rate – more of a streamlined install with a price to match – is more appropriate for the charging stations for these users. Equally important is the ability for Leaf buyers to either buy the charging station à la carte without installation or or buy from a vendor besides Nissan's designated partner, Aerovironment.
Then there are the colors. Eco-conscious extroverts that want the world to know that they were buying a "green" car can order any color but green – go figure. A handy matrix explaining which states offered which rebates and incentives (like HOV lane access and EV only free parking), like the one offered by Tesla, is conspicuously absent from Nissan's marketing and ordering process as well.
Nissan did a passable job understanding that their captive audience was Job 1, but missed some obvious (in hindsight, anyway) clues about their early adopters. Given the scope of the project before them and the relatively short amount of time they had allotted themselves to pull it off, this is largely a forgivable omission. Besides, a captive audience tends to be a forgiving bunch. If they can look past the Leaf's awkward looks, they can certainly look the other way on inflated charging station quotes, murky details about rebates and incentives, and a lackluster color palette.
Where the rubber really meets the road for Nissan is in knowing what to do with the hordes of hand raisers committing to buy one of their vehicles who have never owned a Nissan before, aren't comparison shopping – much less test driving – and likely have never stepped foot in a Nissan dealership. How do you sell them on the prospect of long-term Nissan ownership after the honeymoon with their newly acquired EVs has run its course? Nissan will soon see a multitude of "noobs" coming in with expectations acquired through ownership of BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, Toyota, Honda, Acura, etc. who are leaving their brand of choice – and in many cases, trading in late model cars that they were perfectly content with – for an everyday, workaday Nissan that just happens to get its motivation from electrons instead of dino juice. Perhaps the ownership experience, more than the car itself, will be the true test of whether the Leaf can be all things to all people.
So long as the Leaf has the sheen of newness about it, and is effectively the only game in town, this is largely a non-issue, but what happens as competitors arrive on the scene? As tempting as it is to continue to make analogies to Smart and Tesla, perhaps the more direct analogy is Apple's iPad. Like the iPad, for a while, the Leaf will reside in its own bubble, existing in a category onto itself. There will be murmurs of next-gen upgrades and competitive offerings, but the Leaf is Nissan's tablet - for better or for worse – for now.
There will be no clear "mods" that transfer over from conventional engine tuning tech to spice the car up for added performance, although one can imagine an emerging aftermarket still in its nascency feverishly taking apart early Leaf examples in a hurry to get up to speed. Also like the iPad, the Leaf's limitations – what it can't do – will come to define it more than the promise of new capabilities it delivers.
In Apple's case, the iPad has a certain familiarity to it that anyone that has owned an iPhone, iPod, or spent any time on a Mac can appreciate. Much of that is anchored in Apple's version of the car dealership, iTunes. But is the experience of servicing and accessorizing a Leaf, let alone browsing Nissan's other vehicle offerings, going to provide lasting satisfaction to former BMW, Lexus, and Acura owners? Alternately, will there be a mass exodus back to the simpler days of their former brands of choice, perhaps with a hybrid assist motor onboard their 2014 IS350 or A4 or etc. as a reminder of having dabbled in the low end of the EV pool?
Here's a safe bet: just as Tesla didn't make its fortunes on the Roadster by having razor-thin profits on its initial EV offering, Nissan likely won't be running to the bank flush with cash on Leaf sales alone. These new customers need to be sold on Cubes and Versas for their kids in college, GT-Rs as weekend play cars, and maybe an Armada for longer road trips to the slopes/and or cabin by the lake. In other words, unless the Leaf is able to capture the hearts and minds of everyday folks not just as an EV, but as a Nissan, the jury is out on whether Ghosn's investment in the future is likely to pay off.
At the end of the day, there are some things that Nissan got wrong or otherwise missed in its Leaf roll-out (charger installation, color choices, state-by-state incentive program directory), some things that it is certainly doing right (first four-seat EV to market and making dealers compete for customers) and some things they need to make sure they do not stumble on moving forward (handling trade-ins and making the ownership experience a hit for a broad cross section of consumers). One thing is for sure – there is a lot hanging on this Leaf for Nissan. Let's hope for the sake of EVs that they get it (mostly) right.
David Vespremi is an accomplished brand marketing strategist working across both automotive and cleantech industries. He served as Marketing Director for K&N Engineering, Driverside.com and Tendo Communcations, in support of client American Honda, and as the Director of Communications for Tesla Motors. David's work has garnered 2006 Addy and Webby awards for K&N Engineering and PR Week finalist nominations for both 2008 Brand Launch of the Year and 2008 Technology Launch of the Year for Tesla Motor. He now runs his own San Francisco Bay Area-based marketing agency, BoostedGroup LLC, providing marketing solutions and support for automotive and cleantech clients.