Nissan needs to turn over a better new Leaf


Photo courtesy of Nissan
Warren Brown
Columnist April 13, 2012

Dear Carlos Ghosn,

CEO Nissan/Renault

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

You are a patient man, putting up with all of those questions about why your Nissan Leaf car “isn’t selling.”

It seems everywhere you go, some blogger or content provider is pushing a variation of the theme: “Is the Nissan Leaf, a mass-market all-electric car launched a year ago, a flop?”

Some even try to stick it to you with numbers: “You have a U.S. sales target of 20,000 to 25,000 Leaf cars in 2012. Yet, it’s mid-April, dude, and you’ve only sold 1,733. What’s up with that?”

You’ve gamely defended the Nissan Leaf in particular and all-electric cars in general. You say they are the future of sustainable personal transportation. I’m with you on that.

But, hey, Carlos, we have a problem.

That much became clear to me during a week in the 2012 Leaf SL hatchback, which costs $3,530 more than last year’s model because it comes with more “standard” equipment.

Aside: If what was once offered as “optional” is now sold as more expensive “standard,” should I be happy?

But that’s beside the point. The problem for me and a lot of people is that your new Leaf SL starts at $37,250. If I add the still optional front and rear bumper protectors ($225), splash guards ($140), and cargo net ($20), and the obligatory $850 transportation charge, I’m looking at $38,485!

And that’s for a subcompact car that can travel 100 miles on a single charge on a good day! On a bad day, say when the weather is a little chilly and the car’s heater is needed, mileage available on the Leaf’s distance to discharge meter automatically drops by 12 to 14 miles.

You see the problem?

I’m with you on all of that stuff about “innovation for the planet, innovation for all.” But nearly $39,000 for a little car that can barely travel 100 miles on a single charge is a tough sell. You are asking me to pay too much for what I perceive to be too little.

And I live in one of those wonky Northern Virginia neighborhoods where people value greenery and clean air as long as it surrounds their mini-mansions, where folks like the idea of what essentially is a neighborhood electric car, but gag on the price.

There’s something else, Carlos. You all didn’t make a good impression on the neighbors when your agents delivered my Leaf SL by car carrier. The only other cars delivered to me that way are super-exotics whose manufacturers thought nothing about outfitting them with excessively high-horsepower gasoline engines, but who were worried about their expensive trailer queens getting scratched in regular commuter traffic.

The car-carrier drop-off of the Leaf SL engendered much head-scratching. Some wags asked: “Is it broken?” Others wanted to know if it had an electrical cord that extended to the nearby Harris Teeter grocery store, assuming that was as far as I could drive it. Still others succinctly surmised: “Looks like you won’t be taking that one on any long road trips.” But, again, they all gasped and turned away when I revealed the price.

That’s too bad, because the Leaf SL and its slightly less expensive sibling, the Leaf SV ($35,200), technically make perfectly good sense for clean, fun, fossil-fuel-free, everyday commuting. All-electric power means 100 percent torque turning the front-drive wheels at all times. Start-from-stop is an exhilarating hoot. But that is not what the car is about.

Ghosn and other electric-car advocates, me included, would have us all imagine a commuting region in which no one burns gasoline or diesel fuel and spreads mobile-source pollution in the process; in which we can go about our daily lives without having to thank the enemies of democracy for our daily barrel of oil. But we have a very long way to go before any of that can become a reality.

U.S. consumers are rational economists, which is another way of saying they are inherently selfish. If they can spend $25,570 on a fully loaded 2012 Nissan Altima SR midsize sedan with a splendiferous 270-horsepower V-6 engine that can carry them from Northern Virginia to New York City on one tank of gasoline, they’d choose to do that over spending $37,250 for a little electric car that, without quick-charge access, would have to wait about eight hours before it could go another 100 miles.

I like the Leaf, especially the fully loaded SL version. If I traveled only within my Northern Virginia neighborhood, I theoretically could do so without buying another ounce of gasoline.

The Leaf SL is a comfortable driver for motorists tall and short. It’s safe and has reasonable utility. Federal and local governments are offering tax breaks to help you pay for it. But it’s not ready for prime time in an American psyche in which big remains better, the illusion of the open road remains a reality, and pandering politicians think it is smart to blame one another for high gasoline prices over which they have no control or, worse, to promise super-cheap gasoline for American drivers in a developed world where their counterparts are paying twice as much.

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