The battle for control of the small but increasingly competitive electric vehicle market got a little hotter Tuesday night, as Japanese car company Nissan unveiled a new Leaf with a stronger battery and longer range — at a price well below rival electric cars.
At a glitzy ceremony in Tokyo, broadcast live on the Internet, Nissan executives said the car has a range of 150 miles and will be sold for about $31,000.
That makes the new Leaf, set to go on sale in Japan next month and globally not long thereafter, a serious competitor to current EV leaders, namely the recently introduced Chevrolet Bolt EV and the just-arriving Tesla Model 3.
And Nissan executives said the company will produce a bigger and more powerful battery, which will power a longer driving range, next year.
Based on the numbers, Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer said: "The Leaf is again a viable EV consideration, especially at that price. You can get more range with a Model 3 or a Bolt EV, but you have to pay more money."
The Leaf, which Nissan introduced in 2010 and later proclaimed the world's bestselling battery electric vehicle, has lost luster as the new cars from Tesla and Chevy have come to market.
Long the third bestselling BEV, after Tesla's Model S sedan and Model X SUV, the Leaf recently ceded that position to the Bolt EV.
The new car features substantial upgrades from the 2017 Leaf, a four-door sedan that offered a maximum range of 107 miles, was powered by a 30 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery and retailed for just over $31,000.
The new car has a 40 kWh battery, and at 150 miles produces about 40% more range.
Those figures, however, fall short of the competition: Both the Bolt EV and the upcoming Model 3 boast bigger batteries, and consequently, longer ranges.
The Bolt EV has a 60 kWh battery, while the Model 3 is powered by either the standard 50 kWh battery or the more expensive 75 kWh option. The Bolt EV boasts a range of 238 miles between charges, the Model 3 220 miles with the smaller battery and 310 with the larger.
That said, the Bolt EV and Model 3 are more expensive. Before taxes and licenses, and before rebates and incentives, the Bolt EV average sales price is just under $38,000, according to Consumer Reports, while the Model 3 will typically sell for about $42,200 for the smaller battery version and $57,700 for the bigger one.
At the proposed manufacturer's suggested retail price, Brauer added, Nissan is bringing the Leaf to market below the average price of a new car sold in America — which for 2017 has been estimated at $34,500.
And Nissan has another advantage that Tesla, Chevy and other electric vehicle players like VW and Audi lack. Having already sold plug-in electric vehicles to more than 100,000 U.S. consumers, Brauer said, the company offers a vehicle with twice the range as its first models, but for about the same price.
"They have successfully managed to transfer the car into the new EV norm, which is a minimum of 150 to 200 miles in range," Brauer said. "They are on the lower end of that, but they are on the lower end in price, too."
The 2018 Leaf will offer a technological edge over some of its rivals, in that it can park itself and drive almost autonomously under most urban conditions.
It also features a revolutionary "one-pedal" drive system: Push the pedal down and the car accelerates; release the pedal and the car begins to apply regenerative brakes that return energy to the battery.
Electric vehicle sales have been growing, but still represent a fraction of total car transactions. In 2016, plug-in electric battery cars accounted for only 0.5% of all U.S. car sales, according to the automotive analysis firm Edmunds. That's up from only 0.1% in 2012; it could rise to 0.6% in 2017.
The numbers look a little better when plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt are included. But even then, all plug-in battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids, which are powered by a combination of electric motor and gasoline-powered engine, still account for only 3.3% of 2017 vehicle sales.
Analysts said customers for the new car may be new to the EV market, or may migrate from other brands.
Those considering the purchase of a Leaf traditionally also have mulled over a Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius or other plug-in BEV or hybrid.
New customers could be current Leaf owners eager for more range, at the same affordable price. But they could also be prospective buyers whose names are low on the Model 3 waiting list.
"Right now the people who are looking at the Model 3 are very Tesla-specific," said Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell.
But people who don't expect quick delivery of their Model 3s could easily request a refund of their deposit and use that money to buy a Leaf, Caldwell said.
The launch of Nissan's latest car could represent a tossed gauntlet to Tesla.
The California-based Elon Musk firm, having dominated the luxury EV market with its Models S and X — both with average prices of $100,000 — is poised to begin mass production of the mass-market Model 3.
That car carries a base price of $35,000, before tax rebates and incentives, and in its pre-production life has proved staggeringly popular. The company has said that 455,000 customers have paid $1,000 for spots on the Model 3 waiting list — roughly four times more than all the Nissan Leafs sold in its seven years of existence.
Few of those orders have been filled. Tesla began producing the Model 3 at its Fremont plant in July, and so far has delivered only 30 to paying customers — all of them Tesla employees.
But the company has declared it will be making the entry-level EVs at the rate of 20,000 a month by the end of this year, on its way to an annual production schedule of 500,000 Models S, X and 3 by the end of 2018.
Times staff writer Russ Mitchell contributed to this report.