Nissan aims to take on Tesla by giving its electric vehicle Leaf major range, performance boost

Key Points
  • The new Nissan Leaf Plus will go on sale in early spring and will deliver an estimated 226 miles per charge of its lithium-ion battery.
  • That's more than triple the range of the original Leaf.
  • Nissan promised the updated car will also deliver better acceleration.
2019 Nissan Leaf
Photo: Paul Eisenstein

With a growing number of long-range battery-cars coming to market, Nissan's own electric vehicle, the Leaf, has been in danger of coming unplugged.

But the Japanese automaker is hoping to attract potential buyers with the launch of a new model that gives a 50 percent boost to both range and performance.

The new Nissan Leaf Plus will go on sale in early spring and will deliver an estimated 226 miles per charge of its lithium-ion battery. That's more than triple the range of the original Leaf which, when launched in 2010, was the world's first mainstream battery-electric vehicle, or BEV. The second-generation Leaf, launched two years ago, yielded 150 miles per charge. The latest model, which will be known as the Leaf e+ outside the U.S. and Canada, will now fall in line with a surge of long-range competitors, such as the Tesla Model S, Chevrolet Bolt EV and Hyundai Kona EV.

"This deserves to be called a big bang," Denis LeVot, the CEO of Nissan North America, said during a conversation with CNBC following the debut of the 2020 Leaf Plus at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Tuesday night.

A long with the boost in range, the updated battery car will also deliver better acceleration, Nissan promised. While it didn't offer specific performance figures, Japan's second-largest automaker said the updated hatchback's single electric motor will now punch out 217 horsepower, up from 147 when the second-generation Leaf launched, with torque climbing from 174 to 250 pound-feet.

The Leaf Plus relies on a 62 kilowatt-hour battery pack, about 50 percent bigger than the 2017 model and the mere 24 kWh pack in the original, 2010 Leaf. Like the earlier versions, however, the latest battery-electric vehicle will remain air-cooled, rather than the more advanced liquid cooling found in its key competitors. Nissan claims the approach requires few compromises but means a less complex — and thus less expensive — product.

The automaker won't release final pricing until the Leaf Plus goes on sale in early spring. But at a starting price of $29,990, the current model is one of the least expensive all-electric models on the market.

Since the debut of the original Leaf, Nissan has sold about 365,000 to customers around the world, LeVot pointed out, making it the best-selling BEV on the market. But it has been losing momentum as new competitors have come to market. The Tesla Model 3 is now the best-seller on a monthly basis and likely to pass Leaf's overall record this year if current demand holds, according to industry analysts.

"Ideally, Nissan should have had this long-range model at (the) launch" of the second-generation Leaf in 2017, said Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst with Navigant Research. "They absolutely needed to bring this out to remain competitive."

For his part, LeVot said he is confident the long-range Leaf will help rebuild demand for Leaf in a market just beginning to embrace electrification in all its various forms. And, if anything, he added, "competition growing is not a bad thing. It is converting (more) people to electrification."

By various estimates there will be as many as 100 all-electric vehicles on the market by the end of 2020, along with scores of hybrids and plug-in hybrids, the latter extending range by blending gas and electric powertrains on the same platform.

Nissan was an early proponent of electrification, along with French alliance partner Renault, but it has been slow to expand its line-up – at least until now. The automaker is expected to signal an acceleration of its battery strategy at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week. It is expected to reveal a concept vehicle that will signal the future direction of the Nissan brand. While LeVot would not discuss what's coming in Detroit, Nissan has already confirmed it's upscale Infiniti brand will also signal its battery-car plans during the auto show with its QX Inspiration concept.

Nissan's global CEO Hiroto Saikawa last year announced that Infiniti will electrify virtually its entire line-up starting in 2021.

During his presentation at CES, North American chief executive LeVot did confirm that there will be "eight models electrified or fully electric" available through the two brands by 2020, with the parent company expecting to sell 1 million battery cars worldwide in 2022.

If anything, the increase in range with the Nissan Leaf Plus will be just the beginning, he told CNBC, suggesting that "in three to four years, we could have 300-mile" ranges on some models. That would be in line with the top products from Tesla, though some manufacturers are now looking at pushing up into 400-mile territory as lithium-ion technology improves.

A number of manufacturers are using this week's CES to discuss their electrification strategies, including some new brands such as Chinese-owned Byton. It showed off a long-range model dubbed the M-byte it expects to put into production by the end of this year at a new plant in China, with U.S. sales set to begin by the third quarter of 2020.

Mercedes-Benz also showed off its first long-range electric vehicle in Las Vegas, the EQC set to launch later this year.

Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations for this article were paid by an automaker.