New Nissan Leaf: Behind the 150 mile strategy – Roadshow

The new Nissan Leaf is here and a single number stands out: 150.

That’s the number of miles it can travel on a charge, much less than the 220 miles of Tesla’s Model 3 or the Chevy Bolt EV’s stout 238 miles. At first blush, it would appear Nissan’s misread the market. Or there’s another explanation: The EV market is maturing into one of greater nuance and not just an arms race measured in miles per charge.

Nissan started not with range but with a price: Just under $30,000 ($29,990) but the whisper number was certainly $20,000 because that’s where you end up after a bankable $7,500 federal incentive and $2,500 state incentive in California, where half of all EVs and a third of all Leafs are sold in the U.S. Then, they built a story around that budget combining styling, autonomy, safety, technology and greater perceived normalcy than the outgoing car.

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The new 2018 Nissan Leaf cuts a sharp figure.

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The 2018 Nissan Leaf in a nutshell:

  • 150 miles range, up 43 from 2017
  • Attractive styling & appointments
  • Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
  • Automatic Emergency Braking
  • Available semi-autonomous driving
  • $700 lower price than last year.

Is that enough, or a recipe to write another chapter in the history of highly depreciating cars? Consumer interest in EVs is a tricky thing to extrapolate. It’s been distorted by a mix of incentives, fleet sales, zero emission state mandates and stubbornly low fuel prices (If North Korea, OPEC and Harvey can’t spike gas prices, what will?) But I’m starting to think it may be a fool’s errand to pick winners by range. Different carmakers will target different trip habits and, to be blunt, different neuroses. 

Urban buyers will warm toward EVs as part of a broad upending of transit behavior, automotive identity and environmental statement. Suburban and rural buyers may barely embrace plug-in hybrids: They aren’t backward, they just don’t like walking. Not stranding you is a car’s first mission, being convenient to use is its second, and solving for that is very different depending on how and where you live. But whether range anxiety is an accurate concern or just an anxious desire for excess is not an argument to be won, as opposed to market segmentation to be harvested. Nissan seems to have the guts to act on that.

I’m intrigued by two other parts of the 2018 Leaf story. First, Nissan has realized that the outgoing car was trying too hard to impress EV geeks: It had a shape only a hypermiler could love and a dashboard presentation that gave you more electric vital signs than if the car was in the ICU. “One of the things we learned is that too much of an ‘engineering view’ of the car’s workings actually creates anxiety,” says Chris Reed, Nissan’s chief U.S. engineer for the Leaf. “They see projected range move up and down with every button they push and think “Oh my God, I shouldn’t even turn the radio on!'” The new Leaf turns the EV TMI way down.

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2018 Leaf energy display shows more restraint than the anxiety-inducing messages of the previous model.

Nissan

Second, a longer range version of the new Leaf is due in early to mid 2019, delivering around 225 miles of range via a 60 Kwh battery, 50 percent larger than the one in the 150 mile car. If it can be here in early 2019, it could probably be here sooner but the cost of that model will likely be thousands higher and Nissan says that misses the segment it wants to attack now. That’s not an idle bet: Nissan is the largest seller of EVs in history and would hate to lose that title.

The new 150 mile range Leaf is due in showrooms early 2018, normally a routine lead time except that the EV market is going to get much hotter between now and then, with distracting EV pronouncements and announcements from carmakers like Hyundai, VW, Ford and Tesla. Cars are products that are still launched, not constantly iterated, so Nissan’s bold choice to deliver “only” 150 miles in an electric car that banks on more than range creates a key moment to watch in the maturation of EVs.

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