By Michael Kanellos
It's called the Leaf, and, as expected, it looks like an economy car.
Nissan (OTCPK:NSANY) unveiled the commercial version of its all-electric car on Sunday. The Leaf will go about 100 miles on a charge, hold five adults, be legal to drive on the freeway, and will launch in Europe, Japan and the U.S. in late 2010.
Although few will confuse it with a Tesla Roadster, few will confuse the price either. Execs in Nissan's U.S. operations have said it will cost around $30,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit and any state and local incentives. For an electric car, that's quite cheap. The Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid coming around the same time, will cost closer to $40,000. The low price is in part due to the fact that Nissan developed the battery in conjunction with NEC. (In Denmark and a few other countries, Teslas are cheap too because of high registration taxes on gas burning cars.)
The price, of course, could always go up. Nissan did not give specifics of the price at the gala in Yokohama.
The year 2010 will be the year of electrics. Some companies – Subaru, Mitsubishi and Tesla – will all have put electric cars on the road in 2009. Next year, though, the volumes will grow. Besides the Volt and the Leaf, Ford will release an all-electric vehicles for fleet owners and Fisker Automotive will come out with its upscale hybrid, the Karma. Coda Automotive will try to put an all-electric car on the road that year too that relies heavily on Chinese components and manufacturing.
The Leaf is crucial for Nissan in the same way the Volt is for General Motors. Nissan has lost money in recent quarters and hasn't had a breakout hit like Toyota has had with the Prius for a while. The company has shown off a few prototypes of the leaf and has also been cutting deals with companies to erect charging stations. You'll even be able to rent them in Europe.
Nissan's labs have also been experimenting with devices that will let the cars get charged while driving, something that Minoru Shinohara, who heads up Nissan's R&D, told us last October.
We drove an early prototype last year. (See the video and test drive story here.) It was quite nice. It doesn't rip out of the blocks like a Tesla Roadster, but it doesn't feel like a golf cart either. But for the complete lack of engine noise, you'd think you were in a standard economy car.
But the big question: Will consumers go for cars that are largely meant for day trips, commuting and in-town driving? Advocates say yes, but car execs admit they have an "educational" challenge ahead of them.
As part of the Leaf launch, Nissan also showed off its new heaquarters in Yokohama. The 22 story building, which received an "S" or the highest rating in Japan's green building standards, will emit 27 percent less carbon dioxide than the old headquarters in the Ginza in Tokyo. One of the more novel technologies is a series of lenses that will bring sunlight from a skylight to many parts of the building.