Nissan sells 10,000th Leaf in States, ready for next phase of EVs

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At some point during the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, Nissan sold its 10,000th Leaf in America. Not bad for an all-electric car that has been on sale for just over a year and is not yet available in all 50 states (this landmark will be achieved by March, though). Brendan Jones, the Leaf's marketing and sales strategist for Nissan North America, was understandably enthusiastic: "From a Leaf perspective, 2011 was a great year and very positive for the company. [10,000 sales] is more EVs than have been sold in the United States – and 20,000 globally – than all the other OEMs combined throughout the world. So that's an outstanding achievement."

This enthusiasm embodies Nissan's public face about the Leaf and electric vehicles in general, a tone set by Nissan-Renault Alliance chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn. To follow up the Leaf, Nissan and Infiniti will introduce three more EVs in the coming years: the eNV200 van that was on display at the Detroit Auto Show, the Infiniti EV that will be shown in New York later this year and another vehicle. We've speculated about this fourth vehicle before, but thought it would make sense to ask Castelli and Nissan spokesman Mark Perry to give us more hints about what we'll be seeing next. Click past the jump to read more.

According to Perry:

We're in the mass-market division with the Leaf, a vehicle purpose-built to hit the middle of the mass market. Infiniti is the luxury division and now, a hint toward commercial [indicating the eNV2000, pictured above]. So, what's left? Well we want to go back into the mass market and figure out what's the next symbol of our innovation. So we want to maintain our leadership position with zero-emission vehicles, so what do we do next? What we showed in Tokyo were four pretty different concepts. One of those, or a blend, will be the next vehicle. People always say, "Do a sports car." That's fun, you can do a sports car, but what does that do for the brand? Some... but is it enough? Do you do an urban commuter car? Yeah, you can do that, but other people are doing that, too. So, it's finding the next thing. With in-wheel motors, all of a sudden completely different architectures are possible.

This, of course, brought up Nissan's three Pivo concepts. Perry said that Pivo 3 (pictured below), the most recent one, "was closest to production-capable we've done so far." But, he said, Nissan doesn't want to signal to the marketplace that EVs have to look that outlandish. "With in-wheel architecture and not having to design around some of the design constraints we have with ICE [Internal Combustion Engine], all of a sudden you can start changing that. But how far do you want to do that the first time?" Not too far, is the answer, argues Perry, so the company's designers are walking the fine line between what is possible and what can be sold to make sure Nissan's next EV signals enough change to maintain leadership but doesn't get too carried away. Perry added, "We're beyond niche and test markets and playing around. We've got billions invested."

EVs also offer unique possibilities for customization. Perry cited Siri, the new iPhone voice recognition assistant, as hinting at what's possible with a plug-in car. How can you talk to your car? How should you talk to your EV? "Do you start customizing your vehicle to say, 'it's Saturday. I'm an electric vehicle and I can set a different drive experience, I can set a different acceleration.' It's all software and so the ability to customize exponentially grows," he said.

We're beyond niche and test markets and playing around. We've got billions invested.

How long has it taken the Leaf to become available nationwide? If the March, 2012 deadline is met (and there's every reason to think that it will), then the entire process will have taken 16 months. There is no way that Nissan's next batch of plug-in vehicles will need to be rolled out in the same way. When the eNV200 is released – its global launch is scheduled for 2014 – it will be marketed mostly as a commercial vehicle instead of just as an EV, says Joe Castelli, VP of commercial vehicles and fleet for Nissan North America. It will thus first be targeted at the places where Nissan's commercial vehicles do well, places like the northeast, California, Atlanta, Chicago and south Florida. The shift from these initial regions to national availability will be much quicker than it was with the Leaf. Castelli mentioned two main reasons for this: plug-in vehicle infrastructure should be much further evolved and gas prices will likely be higher, boosting demand.

How will Nissan attract buyers beyond those who are already interested in EVs? High gas prices will encourage the general market to plug in just as it does the commercial buyers, but Nissan has quite obviously already started using a two-pronged approach to letting customers know about its plug-in vehicles. Just look at the cute little Plug videos (pictured above) and the singing sockets. These appear to target new buyers, people who are not familiar with EVs. But Nissan is also putting out detailed information that appeals more readily to educated early adopters (think here of the information about the Leaf's relationship with Japan's post-earthquake recovery process). These two approaches work in concert. Once Nissan has gotten a potential buyer's attention, a most likely destination for them will be the Nissan Leaf website. This site will be updated in the next 90 days to include better and more detailed information, including improved range simulators that people can play with to see if a Leaf is right for them (hint: from a range perspective, it most likely is. According to Nissan's data, the average driver of an ICE car goes 37 to 39 miles a day, while EV drivers go 33. The Leaf's official EPA range is 73 miles. Most people think they drive a lot more than they do). An updated infrastructure map along with more information about DC fast charging will also be added to the website.

More owner testimonials will be part of the messaging in the near future, too. There will be two consistent themes we can look forward to: that EV drivers don't know – and don't even care – what the price of gas is and that the EV often starts as a household's "second" car but quickly becomes the "first" car. As Castelli put it: "[The Leaf] is legitimate. We've moved past the old jokes about golf carts, now we have to take that dialogue and move it much more into a volume equation on how we can push this out to the masses." Perry added, "The people who are trying to write the Leaf off already are just negative, period."

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