Nissan is launching a less expensive Leaf electric vehicle in Japan that has a longer driving range than the current model. Analysts expect to see a similar move in the U.S. as the automaker tries to boost tepid sales of the car.
The new version in Japan will cost about 11% less and have a 15% increase in range.
Nissan noted that the new model is designed specifically for the Japanese market but has previously said it plans an upgrade of the U.S. version of the car as it gets ready to start building the Leaf and its battery pack at the Nissan factory complex in Smyrna, Tenn.
The company isn’t expected to release details about the U.S. version of the 2013 model year Leaf until early next year.
“You can’t make any assumptions based on that specific model in Japan,” said Travis Parman, a Nissan spokesman. “Ratings such as range differ based on the governmental testing procedures in individual markets.”
The current Leaf's expense and short range – the U.S. version of the Leaf can travel about 73 miles on one charge according to the Environmental Protection Agency – have been blamed for the vehicle's poor sales. The Leaf starts at $36,050, less a $7,500 federal tax credit. California buyers get an additional $2,500 state rebate.
Nissan also offers the Leaf a 36-month lease for $199 a month with a $1,999 down payment in some regions of the U.S.
The Leaf's range is one of the shortest among those of electric vehicles sold by major automakers.
The electric version of the Honda Fit can travel 82 miles on a single charge, according to the EPA. The Ford Focus electric has a range of 76 miles and the Mitsubishi i MiEV has a range of 62 miles.
Through the first 10 months of this year, Nissan has sold just 6,791 Leafs, 16% fewer than the same period a year earlier. Sales of electric vehicles of any brand so far make up an almost immeasurable fraction of U.S. auto sales.
“This is where everybody has to go with electric vehicles,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com. “To make them successful they have to increase the range and the prices have to come down.”
Until then, electric cars will remain a niche vehicle suited to those drivers who can live with a limited driving range and have easy access to home or public charging facilities, she said.
Krebs said automakers are struggling with challenges such as cutting the high cost of building batteries for the vehicles, increasing the amount of power the batteries can hold, and reducing the weight of the vehicles.
“They have been working on that, and this shows incremental improvement,” Krebs said.