Nissan Leaf fails to meet sales goals

2012 Nissan Leaf reviewSales of the Nissan Leaf electric hatchback have been on the decline, and its maker is disappointed. Nissan executive vice president of product planning Andy Palmer told the Detroit News that the Leaf will not meet the company’s sales goal of 20,000 units by the end of 2012.

Nissan sold just 984 Leafs in September, the car’s best month this year. That brings total sales to 5,212 so far this year. Nissan obviously won’t be able to move almost 15,000 cars in three months at that rate, and it may not even equal last year’s total of 9,674 Leafs sold.

Palmer said the low sales were partially due to a sluggish car market, and partially due to the way Nissan interacts with customers.

When Arizona Leaf owners complained that heat was sapping their cars’ performance, Nissan responded slowly, although no defects were found.

“To be straightforward, we don’t know how to deal with it, we’ve been slow,” Palmer said. He said electric car buyers tend to think of their purchases like Apple computers, and that Nissan is still adjusting to their expectations.

Not all the blame was internal, though: Palmer also cited the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the high value of the yen, and the lack of electric car infrastructure as other reasons for the sales stall.

Regardless, Nissan is not backing down from its 20,000 unit goal, it’s just giving itself more time. That number was first made public in January, when Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said he wanted to sell 20,000 Leafs in the 2012 calendar year. Later, another executive said that number applies to Nissan’s budget year, which runs from March 2012 to March 2013.

That second executive’s statement was later recalled, but Palmer is sticking with the budget year timeline. This will allow Nissan to take advantage of a new assembly plant in Smyrna, Tennessee that will begin delivering Leafs to dealerships in February 2013.

Nissan will also move ahead with plans to expand its EV range. The e-NV200 electric van (based on New York’s “Taxi of Tomorrow”) and Infiniti LE luxury car are in the pipeline, as is a plug-in hybrid that will debut in 2015.

Nissan could also tweak the Leaf for 2013. A range boost from 73 miles to 103 miles and cheaper ($31,000) base model with a smaller battery pack are reportedly in the works.

The current Leaf starts at $36,500, before any government rebates. That money buys (according to the EPA) a midsize vehicle with 107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, enough to keep up with traffic and cruise for the aforementioned 73 miles.

Nissan was the first mainstream carmaker to sell a practical EV, but now the competition is tooling up. Cars like the Ford Focus Electric and Mitsubishi i-MiEV mean the Leaf doesn’t have the market to itself anymore, so Nissan may need to refine its sales pitch.