The Nissan Leaf has been a considerable success story, it was the top selling electric vehicle in Europe 2018. It was introduced in Japan and the US in December 2010, and is now in its second generation.
Leaf is not just a green and friendly name, it stands for ‘Leading Environmentally friendly Affordable Family vehicle’ - which is why it is usually written in capitals by Nissan, as LEAF.
Given Nissan's reputation as a mainstream vehicle maker, it follows that any Leaf must be more practical, convenient, good-value and easy-to-operate than any other electric rival. And yet it must also be market-leading: popular in
one sense, innovative and pioneering in another.
Thus far, it’s been fairly straightforward for Nissan to define the Leaf as the ‘leading’ EV - Nissan has sold more than 250,000 Leafs but with Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai and many other carmakers developing and marketing EVs,
maintaining the Leaf's ‘market-leading’ status will be a tough task.
The second-generation Leaf has more power, more battery range, better onboard technology and with a price reduction, continues to be worthy of those capital letters. The OEM has increased this car’s battery range by 50%, motor power
by 40% and torque by 25%.
Compared to some other EVs on the market the Leaf has a more EV-bespoke platform although it is mainly adapted from an i.c.-engined baseplate. Ana Paola Reginatto says that in comparison to other OEMs' offerings, the platform has worked
exceptionally well for the car. "We have been very happy with the model's acceptance and its sales results. Leaf will evolve to give buyers even more choice to customers who are in the Leaf 'family' already, and to new buyers."
At CES in 2019, Nissan unveiled the Leaf e+ (Leaf Plus in the US), which has a larger 62 kWh battery providing 40% better range (up to 458 kms on the WLTC Japan cycle versus the regular Leaf’s 322 kms), and a new 160 kW motor which
provides 33% more power. The Leaf e+ can use CHAdeMO chargers up to 100 kW, giving it ultra-rapid charging and a real ability to be much more than an urban-only vehicle. Reginatto says that Leaf e+ will be joined by an entry level
model. "This model will support customers who drive in the city and need a right-size value car and this, with the Leaf e-+ is the way I see Leaf developing as a model range. When it comes to the eighth full electric vehicle that
we have announced globally, which will be on the market by 2022, we will synergise Alliance platform usage to the max. The platform, that we cannot talk about yet, will be highly flexible and will deliver greater EV accessibility
and intelligent mobility."
Of course, the beauty of an EV is that its simpler (than an i.c.-engined vehicle) packaging requirements could mean that stretching a model to move into different segments is much easier. Reginatto says that it has always been Nissan's
aim to make EVs scalable. "Since we first launched Leaf we have been trying to match the best of what can deliver to remain accessible and innovative for the customer base. There is no one answer to the flexibility question, it
depends on the segment, the needs of the customer who might be shopping for a vehicle in that segment, and what we have available in our Alliance 'toolbox'. The Leaf platform that was introduced in 2010 has delivered so much in
terms of shifting the market's thinking towards EVs and bringing many competitors in behind us, is an achievement that we are very proud of."
Speaking of competitors, I ask Reginatto if she feels that there is a 'sweet spot', of around $35,000, a price point (including any government incentives) where buyers are more prepared to switch to an EV? She says that so far this
pricing policy is working well. "If I look at 2018, when we didn't even achieve 12 months of delivering the new Leaf, we achieved more than 40,000 unit sales in Europe, making us number one in Europe, in the UK and 17 other markets.
This tells me that the price proposition is correct, given the technology value of the car but also the freedom to drive in ultra-low emissions zones in cities, seems to have registered strongly with buyers."
As buyers adjust to EV usage, relying on an EV for urban work but still having doubts about the EV's suitability for long distance motoring, I ask Reginatto if Nissan would consider a flexible multi-vehicle solution - perhaps exchanging
the customer's EV for another vehicle if they are undertaking a very long journey? "We do carry out exercises like this to better understand how to integrate our products to the way people live so using public transportation and
alternative vehicles being available through the Nissan network for certain journeys, car sharing and ride-hailing are all solutions that we are constantly examining. Right now we are investing in delivering connected services
that enable them to integrate the car with their mobile phone. This is intended to be the foundation for introducing further mobility solutions."
The main concern of most EV users is range anxiety and this is exacerbated by the lack of widespread high-speed chargers on the road network in Europe. Most observers feel that we have not reached the 'tipping point' when it will be
almost as easy to recharge an EV en route as it is to replenish an i.c.-engined vehicle with fuel. Reginatto says that Nissan's customers are organising their charging strategy according to their lifestyle and needs. "They are
charging their car at home and also at the workplace more than they do at the rapid public charger because they do what we call opportunistic charging - topping-up the batteries whenever the car is idle and there is a charge point
at hand. Fast charging has an important place as people will run their EVs more and more to near their capacity, as they become more confident of the vehicle's range and the availability of fast chargers. We are constantly working
with our dealer network, with government and with private players in the charging space to make sure that we grow the infrastructure. We would rather examine the customer usage profiles, which vary from country to country and region
to region, and then we can see how we can help that region build the right-sized infrastructure."
Nissan has been promoting the integration of EV batteries into a second life solution for helping to power homes in a clean manner but these houses are not available yet in most countries in Europe and beyond, Reginatto admits that
we are at the start of this development. "Yes, the availability of the integrated home and EV is not there yet but we looked at this in this way: we needed to put a technology proposition forward to stimulate debate, to influence
government to consider legislating to accommodate this solution and to help persuade the private sector that building houses with second life systems incorporated was the way forward. It would not happen if left to the other way
around - house builders would not approach us to make batteries to integrate into their houses. As with the Leaf, where we put something onto the market where there was no real precedent for an attractively-priced lower segment
EV, we invested in the car and now we are seeing a healthy return. It is going to be the same for the overall potential of battery technology; if you think of bi-directional charging and second life, Leaf can support the better
balancing of power grids, helping smooth out demand, which will ultimately mean not only cleaner vehicle power but also greener electricity generation at the power stations."
Recently in the UK and in some other markets, Nissan offered used Leafs on an extremely attractive lease plan, with a small deposit and monthly payments of $125 for a Leaf with fairly fresh batteries and a guarantee that it would retain
a range of around 80% of a new car. Reginatto says that this was a very popular scheme as it fitted with the lifestyle of many customers, who did not require a long distance range vehicle. "With this scheme, we recognised that
many people want an EV but do not necessarily need a 385 kilometre-range EV, sometimes they only need a 200-kilometre EV and we are very happy to support this need, with a PCP, leasing or full purchase model for a used vehicle."
EVs would seem to lend themselves very well to a leasing ownership model as Reginatto says. "The balance between outright purchase and leasing varies a lot from market to market but I think EV ownership will move towards a more lease-led
model. Interestingly, the waiting time for a used Leaf is longer than that for a new Leaf, the used ones sell as soon as they appear on the computer system, they don't even make it into a dealer showroom.
"The demand for Leafs, and other EVs, always seems to exceed supply; the cars don't wear out in the same way as an i.c.-engined car and this is very good for our customers but this means we have to wait a bit longer than we might like
to implement initiatives such as second life for batteries and so on.
"The integrity, longevity and quality of the Leaf is very pleasing for our customers and for us but of course it makes our life for our second life initiative champion, Francisco Carranza, very challenging because our vehicles are
lasting longer and delivering a better value proposition than even we expected."