For a couple of family cars that sell in comparatively modest volumes, Nissan’s Leaf and Chevrolet’s Volt have made an outsized splash into the automotive landscape.
Now four years since the first production Leaf was delivered Dec. 11, 2010 in the U.S., and the first Volt was sold days later on Dec. 15, the two pioneer plug-in cars have inspired a new global sub-industry.
Of course the Leaf developed in Japan is all-electric and the Volt from the U.S. is “extended-range electric” with gas generator backup, thus they’re dissimilar technological approaches. But despite an informal sales “race” begun 48 months ago between the East meets West matchup with trading places along the way, in a broader sense they’re on the same team.
While the more insular fans of these cars and the companies behind them may emphasize differences, each is a first-generation attempt toward weaning away from dependence upon petroleum and seriously curbing emissions.
Both the Leaf and Volt were launched in staged U.S. rollouts. Initial deliveries of pre-ordered Leafs went to Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington, while pre-ordered Volts were first sold in Washington D.C., the New York City region, California, and Austin, Texas.
Various markets followed and nationwide distribution was in place by November 2011 for Chevrolet and by March 2012 for Nissan.
Markets in other countries were also being carved out during this period and following. The Leaf has always enjoyed a strong footing in Japan, while the Volt does not get such honors. The Leaf now also is more firmly rooted in other markets around the world.
General Motors also built and exported from its Detroit-Hamtramck plant the right- and left-hand-drive Opel/Vauxhall Amperas and Holden Volts and Euro market Chevy Volts. Early reports were these were well received, but Chevrolet has since all but pulled out of Europe, and GM is discontinuing the Opel/Vauxhall variants after lackluster sales. Holden appears to be holding on.
Although the Volt accrued what may be the longest list of awards and accolades, the also-awarded Leaf escaped much of the rancor in the U.S. the Volt endured on account of General Motors which had just been bankrupted and federally rescued.
During the last presidential election campaign, not a week would go by without some op-ed piece attempting to throw mud on GM’s “Obamamobile” named after the incumbent president who purportedly “picks losers,” said his opponents.
Also, during 2011 the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration crash tested a Volt, then instead of “depowering” its high-voltage battery just as they would have drained a conventional car’s gas tank, they left it charged and parked it. The car which had been slammed into a pole sideways reminded them of their error when coolant from its broken coolant lines crystallized, bridged electrically live terminals, and started a small fire a couple weeks later.
But the error was blamed on the Volt, and in November 2011, NHTSA opened a probe. GM then proceeded to bend over backwards offering to buy the car back from “concerned” owners, and worked with the feds to create a steel piece to add security for such an impact.
Nissan was blissfully untouched by such PR nightmares that sympathetic observers said were overblown and unfair. The Leaf does not even have liquid cooling like the Volt does, but its battery has not proven as durable, and did suffer its own heat-related problems.
The Leaf’s issues happened in first-wave rollout states, especially Arizona, California, and Texas where Leaf owners in 2012 were reporting premature battery capacity degradation. These cases were a small percent of total sales, but affected Leaf owners saw range drop from 73 miles rated to 60, 50, and as low as the 40-some mile mark.
Not good, and Nissan did change its chemistry slightly for 2013, while not adding liquid cooling, and it added a pro-rated warranty provision. Since then, we’ve heard less on this, but that Nissan went without liquid cooling was criticized back in 2010 as a rush-to-market measure.
To be sure, there have been teething problems with the gen-one cars, more than these cited, but the Volt and Leaf were meanwhile garnering serious fans. Both are more than cars, they represent a cause.
And, despite issues real and perceived, the Leaf and Volt have proven effective at meeting their goals. The Leaf uses no gasoline, and since 2013 range went to 84 miles while intraday charging can extend this for those who need it. The Volt meanwhile has been used like an EV with gas generator, and early adopters have accrued 700 million electric miles since launch, and on average go over 900 miles between fill-ups having saved 36.5 million gallons of gas.
Environmentally minded supporters as well as energy hawks, and those from all political stripes have seen their potential. The cheerleader factor has thus been alive and well for web-based forums, owner clubs, and other organizations developed around these cars or otherwise supportive of alternative energy transportation.
This all happened while the actual sales of these cars was barely a blip on a chart next to many internal combustion passenger vehicles that sell many times the numbers.
Initial 2011 sales under 10,000 for either car saw the Leaf win that first full year, while its sales growth stagnated for the next year as the Volt handily more-than doubled its sales in spite of all the politicized and irrational rancor over barely understood “technology.”
Nor is this “barely understood” descriptor an example of editorializing. Rather, it’s been documented consumers have largely not noticed or failed to wrap their minds around how these cars work – thus how they may benefit from them, so sales have not been helped.
After a two-year initial gauntlet in the U.S., both automakers cut prices enough to make them look less like expensive science projects, especially since they are eligible for $7,500 federal tax credits, state and local subsidies in cases, and solo HOV lane access in California.
Both cars had suffered under initially higher starting prices, and for 2013 a new S trim level of the Leaf was $6,000 cheaper than the former SV, and GM upgraded and Volt’s battery from 16.0-kwh to 16.5, increasing efficiency and all-electric range by 3 miles as well. GM cut the Volt’s price by $5,000 last August, eight months after Nissan.
But not helping things has been a marketing deficit, especially for the Volt, which was declared a “niche” product this year by GM, and marketed mainly at tech fairs and in California, the largest plug-in market by far.
After initially higher sales goals had been cut back in 2011, and following negative PR in year two, one might surmise chastened GM had internally conceded the Volt was not a home run, and put its tail between its legs – much to the chagrin of supporters. Others have speculated an internal change of heart as the early “Volt Team” which developed the car dissipated, jumped ship, or moved to other positions.
Of the two companies, Nissan – led by bullish CEO Carlos Ghosn, has been the more assertive in continuing to market the Leaf. Nissan was also helped in 2013 when it began battery and car production in Smyrna Tenn., – along with Sunderland UK, and Oppama Japan – in an effort to get localize assembly closer to distribution points.
Year by year. U.S. sales tally as follows: 2010 – Leaf: 19, Volt: 326; 2011 – Leaf: 9,674; Volt: 7,671; 2012 – Leaf: 9,819; Volt: 23,461; 2013 – Leaf: 22,610; Volt 23,094; 2014 through November: Leaf: 27,098; Volt: 17,315.
All this year Nissan has been closing a U.S. sales gap, though with the Volt’s 71,867 U.S. sales since launch, the Volt still holds a diminishing lead over the Leaf’s 69,220 through November. The Volt has however long-since lost the global race with 87,085 total Volt and Volt/Ampera sales compared to the Leaf’s 150,000-plus.
But in just one month from now, GM will reveal its 2016 generation two Volt that fans are hoping will breath new life into the program. That car may have seating for five, better efficiency and e-range, and enthusiasts also hope for all the trouble, GM will market the car nationwide like it means it, and not price it above the $35,000 mark of gen one.
The Leaf meanwhile has largely gotten a pass on being viewed as aging goods, or so it might appear. Also true is Nissan keeps advertising in more markets and its lower net price with incentives and cheap $200-300 leases have given it the sales edge against the lame duck Volt.
Actually, the Leaf may soon look lamer as Nissan has not announced a replacement, although Ghosn says a double-range battery is in the offing.
Even so, the two cars have inspired a market of followers. To date, they still stand heads above as relative grandfathers. No other mainstream priced EV comes close to the Leaf’s U.S. sales, and no other plug-in hybrid offers near the unique Volt’s electric range.
But competition is pending in a yet-small but growing market. There are now eight more plug-in hybrids sold in the U.S. and 12 more battery electric vehicles besides the Volt and Leaf. Of the two segments, BEVs had a take rate of 0.48 percent of the 15.5-million annual U.S. passenger vehicle market last month, while PHEVs comprised 0.28 percent.
There is much room to grow, and cheap gas at the moment isn’t helping. But the underlying need to curb emissions and cut petroleum dependence remains, so more plug-in cars will be following thanks in no small part to the Volt and the Leaf.