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Nissan Eco Vehicles

Nissan is updating its fully electric Leaf for 2013, hoping to jump-start its disappointing sales performance. North American models now are assembled at the company's Smyrna, Tennessee, production site, which has been expanded to accommodate annual production of up 150,000 Leafs. Nissan itself knows it won’t be building that many for a while—but it may take an even longer time than the company thinks. This past November saw CEO Carlos Ghosn admitting that the car would miss its U.S. targets, with just 9819 units unloaded here last year—fewer than half of the expected total. Nissan's competitors aren't exactly smiling about the predicament, either, as many of them have sunk considerable funds into the development of their own EV programs. It appears so far that Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn's big gamble on fully electric transportation hasn't paid off at all.

Primary among the changes for 2013 is the addition of a new entry-level S trim, which joins the mid-level SV and upmarket SL models and addresses criticism Nissan received for not offering a base car. The Leaf S eliminates the navigation system, cruise control, and the Carwings telematics system, which allows for charging and climate control functions to be accessed remotely using a smartphone. The cheap(er) Leaf also comes with steel wheels with plastic covers, while the SV retains 16-inch aluminum wheels and 205/55 rubber and the SL gets 17-inch aluminum wheels with 215/50 tires.

Inside, the Leaf S offers a 4.3-inch LCD screen in place of its spendier siblings’ seven-inch display and the cloth upholstery is offered in only one color: black. The SV receives a more textured, grippy fabric, available in gray or black, and the SL gains black leather seats—a material somewhat inconsistent with the car's greenie aspirations. All trim levels include heated seats. That luxury might seem surprising, but because it takes less electricity to warm the seats than the whole interior, it reduces the demand placed on the standard HVAC system, thus improving the Leaf's range. Two new colors—Metallic Slate and Glacier White—and an optional high-performance audio system come onboard, as well.

The Leaf S is fitted with a 3.6-kW onboard charger, while the SV and the SL now get a 6.6-kW charger. With this upgraded charger, those Leafs can be fully charged in about four hours on a 220-volt outlet. The quick-charge port—optional on the SV and standard on the SL—allows owners to make use of 480-volt public charging stations. The solar cells on the Leaf SL add visual eco cred, sure, but they also feed energy to the 12-volt battery, which juices the accessories. The Leaf’s solar cells are not connected to the powertrain.

While the 107-hp electric motor and the batteries remain unchanged, the Leaf's range is said to improve somewhat thanks in part to a new heater system that is said to use less energy. There is a newly available “B mode” that increases regenerative braking. Aerodynamics have been slightly improved as well by modifying the underbody and the rear diffuser. The navigation system can now come up with an "eco route," providing drivers a more energy-efficient course to their destination. No EPA numbers have been released yet, but we’re not holding our breath for any drastic improvements in range; we averaged 58 miles per charge in our (short-term) 2011-model-year long-termer.

The Leaf keeps the 8-year/100,000-mile warranty for its battery system, and Nissan has added protection against capacity loss as measured by the vehicle's capacity gauge. If indicated capacity falls below nine bars on the 12-bar display within five years or 60,000 miles, Nissan will replace the battery pack. Nine bars indicate that the battery's original capacity has deteriorated to 70 percent. Nissan's policy is applied retroactively to all Leafs sold here previously.

Pricing will be announced shortly, but the Leaf S will be significantly cheaper than the current SV, which retails for $36,050 before any tax credits. Whether it will be enough to turn Nissan's fortunes in this great gamble remains to be seen.


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