Nissan made a daring move a decade ago when it decided to make the Leaf electric car a global mass-production effort rather than a small-scale one that would just satisfy regulators. While it had hoped to sell millions of Leafs by now and have 10 percent of its global sales be EVs by 2015—neither of which it came close to achieving—Nissan remains focused on going big and on increasing economies of scale for its electric-vehicle technology.
With a more appealing 2018 Leaf (above) reaching dealerships this month and an all-electric crossover based on Nissan’s IMx concept (below) from last year’s Tokyo auto show on the way in less than two years, the automaker is finding a second wind. According to Michael Bunce, vice president for product planning of Nissan North America, it’s also aiming to take an all-electric powertrain to the mass market in a whole new way by making at least one of its mainstream models electric only, within the 2023–2025 time frame—effectively one model cycle from now.
That would mean bringing an existing nameplate—like Maxima or Murano, for instance—into the all-electric fold and designing it without an engine, a fuel tank, and all the other associated components. It would be a daring move in a market in which internal-combustion engines are expected to be used in the majority of vehicles.
“At some point you have to say: Okay, my technology’s mature enough, I’ve learned enough, it’s ready enough, consumer acceptance is there, and we’re willing to take the risk on some major nameplates and transition them over,“ Bunce told Car and Driver when we caught up with him at the Detroit auto show this week.
Between Now and Then: e-Power
Before that happens, Nissan’s e-Power hybrid system, which uses the internal-combustion engine purely as a generator and has some engineering overlap with EVs, is poised to be a steppingstone leading to electric vehicles.
To that point, Nissan is planning to push e-Power out to more markets. The system is currently only offered for the Versa Note and the Serena small minivan in Japan, but Nissan is studying the technology for the U.S. market—albeit with a stronger motor and generator and new tuning. “The technology isn’t limited to smaller vehicles, but in the U.S. we have a lot of high-demand, high-speed situations that you don’t have in Japan,” he said.
Although it might not be garnering the hype that Tesla has earned, Nissan’s long-game approach is gathering momentum. The company claims to have sold 300,000 examples of its Leaf electric car globally since its 2011 introduction—by far the most of any single EV model—and across the Renault-Nissan Alliance, EV sales have now passed 500,000. If one of its mainstream models switches to an electric powertrain, those numbers are sure to trend higher.