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EV acceptance: The tide’s slow turn

Sections: Powertrain

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2014 Nissan LEAF red exterior press photo

(Photo courtesy Nissan)

There’s no shortage of critics when it comes to EVs. I’ve said before that I think they’re probably going to be a stopgap solution until hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become more commercially viable. The Nissan LEAF’s continuing steady climb in sales in the United States shows just how the right mix of desirable product, electric drivetrain, and EV charging infrastructure can make EVs a viable choice to a growing segment of American buyers.

According to Nissan, the LEAF had its best sales month ever in the U.S. in May, selling 3,117 copies — an increase of 45.8% over last May. May also was  the month Nissan sold its 50,000th domestic LEAF, which went to a couple in Texas. Finally, it was the month in which Nissan pushed into Mexico with the LEAF, an announcement they formalized at the beginning of June.

Naysayers gonna say “nay,” and they’ll probably point at Mitsubishi’s iMiEV and its paltry sales while they do so. But that’s not got the same mass-market appeal as the LEAF and they know it. Where the iMiEV looks like a rolling statement — I’ll leave it to you, reader, to decide what that statement is — the LEAF looks largely like a Nissan Versa Note from a distance. If you want to shout from the solar rooftops that your LEAF is an EV, Nissan offers an extra-cost option of vinyl graphics that say “zero emission” with which you can emblazon the sides of the car. But if you want to remain inconspicuous, the LEAF offers that in a relatively attractive small hatchback package. There is nothing inconspicuous about the iMiEV.

Consider this, in talking about the Nissan LEAF’s sales: In May, it was just shy of eclipsing monthly sales numbers of Nissan’s Juke and Murano crossovers as well as the range-topping Maxima sedan. Meanwhile, it handily outsold the Frontier, Titan, Armada, Quest, NV work vans, and the NV200, the last of which includes NV200 Taxi sales, presumably.

Furthermore, fuel prices have been high and volatile enough that people seem to be slowly making the switch from those very same trucks and SUVs to more fuel-efficient choices, as Nissan’s sales numbers hinted: The 40-MPG Nissan Sentra had its best May since 1984, when it was the brand’s top-selling model. The similarly efficient Versa moved 30.5% more models (11,243) in May than it did in the same month a year ago. The 38-MPG Altima set a May record at 36,053 — an improvement of 12.9% over the same month a year ago — and Nissan said the midsize sedan is the fastest-growing sales of any midsize car in the industry. All this while the trucks and SUVs — with the exception of minor gains by the Frontier, which competes in a product-starved midsize truck segment right now — are losing percentages ranging from 1.5% year-to-date (Xterra) to 28% year-to-date (Titan) in Nissan’s sales tally. And yes, that includes the new, car-based, more-efficient Pathfinder, which is down 12% year-to-date.

I have to think that in a similar way, a sizable number of folks like myself who have continued to buy relatively efficient cars throughout the last 14 years of fuel price volatility might be making the decision that an EV is right for them — “stepping up” in efficiency in the same way all those truck and SUV buyers seem to be stepping up to more efficient cars.

The biggest hurdles EVs have to overcome are price, range, and charging infrastructure. The order of importance assigned to each of those criteria will vary depending on one’s situation. But for a not-insubstantial number of people, the Nissan LEAF seems to be hitting that sweet spot where it becomes a viable choice for a daily driver. If other mass-market automakers in the United States were taking EVs as seriously as Nissan, who knows what kind of progress could have been made by now on EV range and charging infrastructure? But instead, we’ve got people like Fiat-Chrysler’s CEO actually telling us not to buy their EVs, while the only other company who seems to be taking EV and charging infrastructure development seriously is also seriously premium-priced.

Perhaps if more automakers got serious about building — and selling — viable EVs and pursuing a solid EV charging infrastructure strategy, the slow turn of the tide of EV acceptance wouldn’t be so painstakingly slow.

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  • Gerry Shaw

    You might have mentioned the several other reasons why buying a Leaf makes a lot of sense. There is no exhaust pipe, valves, spark plugs, distributor, drive belt, radiator, carburetor, gear box, pistons, cam shafts, big ends, small ends etc. etc. All these things cannot go wrong in a Leaf as they are not there. Also no need to change engine oil or radiator coolant. This is one reason why the established car companies don’t like EVs as typical dealers make most of their money on maintenance, and with EVs there is not much to do. When enough people realize this EVs, like hybrids a few years ago, will become mainstream. Also Leafs are not spewing out toxic crap which contributes to global warming (o yes it does) and asthma, cancer and other lung problems. In a few years fossil burners will be looked on as uncool smelly old fashioned vehicles which will then rapidly loose market share. Finally there is the question of efficiency; EVs are around 90% efficient. In contrast a gas car wastes most of its energy (70%) in running the radiator to stop an engine meltdown, in driving valves, in pushing pistons around. Only 30% in the best case actually drives the vehicle forward. Really hopeless.

    • Lyndon Johnson

      Amen, Gerry. You’re preaching to the choir here.

      I know it makes a ton of sense for a ton of reasons, but there are those couple of shortfalls — range and charging infrastructure, or rather the lack of both — that would prevent me from seriously entertaining the thought of buying a LEAF. The fact that we’re SO CLOSE to overcoming either of those, and yet Nissan is pretty much the only automaker who appears to be serious about pushing EVs into the mainstream, is excruciating. It’s like dangling a carrot in front of a hungry horse. I believe our society wants EVs for all the reasons you mention, and possibly for the reasons you outline, the majority of automakers just aren’t interested in pursuing it yet.

      Let them ride the wave of so-called “cheap” fossil fuels as long as they can. Keep milking the cow, and one day she’ll run dry.