Back in 2010, Nissan placed a huge bet on electric vehicles when it introduced its battery powered LEAF. At the time, it thought it could leap over hybrid and pug-in hybrid technology, saving itself boatloads of money and giving it a substantial head start in the marketplace versus its competitors. General Motors took a different path by introducing the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid EV that operates in electric only mode most of the time but has an on board gasoline engine to charge the battery when its capacity is exhausted.
The LEAF has been one of the best selling electric cars of all time, but sales have fallen off lately. The original car had limited range — about 80 miles — which many people, especially in America, found too short for their needs. The latest version of the car has 107 miles of range, but that is still near the low end when compared to other battery electric cars on the market, particularly the new Chevy Bolt.
Nissan is committed to lowering the cost of alternative fuel vehicles. “We can’t avoid the fact that EVs remain expensive compared with conventional gasoline vehicles, while there’s also an ongoing assumption that EVs aren’t suited to travelling long ranges,” says Hideyuki Sakamoto, a Nissan executive vice president.
To bring down costs, Nissan has begun marketing a car that is half way between a Chevy Volt and a Toyota Prius. Called the Note e-Power, it has a smaller battery than the LEAF and a gasoline engine that kicks in to charge the battery when range is exhausted. The Note e-Power uses the same motor and many of the electronics from the LEAF in order to keep costs down. Unlike the Volt, the Note e-Power has no plug. Unlike the Prius, the Note e-Power’s engine only charges the battery. It does not send power to the wheels.
“Until now, components including the inverter and motor were different between our hybrids and EVs. But the new system is different in that it shares parts with the LEAF This creates manufacturing efficiencies,” Sakamoto says.
The Note e-Power starts at $15, 577 in Japan, the only market where it is currently available. That’s 40% less than the LEAF. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said recently he wants to have a “new energy vehicle” for the Chinese market that will sell for $8,000 or less after all available incentives. It may use a plug-in hybrid system developed by Mitsubishi for that model. Nissan purchased a controlling interest in Mitsubishi after a fuel economy cheating scandal surfaced last year and Mitsubishi’s stock price was decimated.
Nissan also has access to the Renault Zoe, the best selling electric car in Europe. Ghosn has indicated that the Zoe, which is slightly smaller that the LEAF, might become the basis for a second version of the LEAF in the future. Certainly if the Zoe, the LEAF, the Note -Power and any future car for China can share component parts, that would go a long way toward lowering the price of each.
Nissan should be applauded for working to bring down the retail price of EVs. If its “back to the drawing board” approach of embracing hybrid power works, and it hires one or two stylists away from Hyundai or Kia, it could become a world leader in EV sales far into the future.