Kate Mackenzie Nissan’s Leaf and the cash-for-clunkers effect

Are Nissan’s new electric car and Ford’s figures on how the “cash-for-clunkers” scheme has affected its US sales signs of the changing car market?

Nissan showed off its new mass-market electric car, the Leaf, in Yokohama with much fanfare (that picture on the left has Carlos Ghosn, the head of the Renault-Nissan alliance, in the drivers’ seat and former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi beside him).

But capturing the audience it seeks is mainly about price, which the company has firmly in its sights:

Nissan has not set a price for the Leaf but said on Sunday its cost would be “competitive” with “well-equipped” petrol-powered cars in the same class. The price will not include the battery, however, which drivers will lease separately from the carmaker.

For pure electric cars, batteries are a major cost – Ghosn stressed that the Leaf will cost the same to buy and run as an equivalent petrol-fuelled car, but the company is planning to achieve this in part by leasing out the $10,000 batteries.

But he insists electric cars will be a mass-market proposition: “We don’t see the electric car as a niche car. We see it as a mass-market car.”

Meanwhile an announcement from Ford on Sunday about how drivers had responded to the US “cash-for-clunker” incentives shows the preference for smaller cars is continuing to grow:

Ford Motor, which has emerged as one of the scheme’s chief beneficiaries, said on Sunday that its small Focus saloon was the top car purchased, based on claims submitted so far to the US transportation department.

By contrast, Ford’s Explorer, for many years North America’s top-selling SUV, was the most traded-in vehicle. Ford officials also said that, based on government data, eight of the top 10 vehicles bought under the scheme are in two of the smallest categories.

This is despite fears from some lawmakers that the scheme was not structured as to encourage drivers to shift towards more fuel-efficient cars and could result in more sales of gas-guzzlers. Even earlier this year, there were complaints that US drivers don’t want small cars even with the recent memory of gasoline prices as high as $4/gallon. So does Ford’s suggestion that smaller cars are becoming more popular, after all? A similar phenomenon has been recently observed with scrappage schemes in Europe – to the chagrin of luxury carmakers there.

Still, car-buying habits are difficult to predict. Ghosn has long been sceptical on hybrid-electric vehicles but Reuters notes the group signalled a possible turnround on this issue:

For years, Ghosn has downplayed the importance of hybrid cars — both for consumers hoping to save money at the pump and for manufacturers looking to make profit. As recently as a month ago, he sought to knock down the hybrid hype, saying electric cars were a far better alternative despite their limited cruising range.

But in what could signal a major shift in strategy, Ghosn said Nissan would leave the option open to offering hybrid vehicles if the market demands it. So far, Nissan has only announced plans to launch an internally developed hybrid vehicle on high-end models.

“It’s going to take some time before we have a complete, full (electric vehicle) product line-up from entry level to the top,” he said.

“In the meantime, you just cannot abandon the market — you’re going to have to continue to develop your product line-up with combustion engine, clean diesel, hybrids, etc.”

Related links:

US car buyers prefer smaller vehicles (FT, 03/08/09)
Nissan to mass-market electric cars (FT, 02/08/09)
Nissan’s battery plant a sign of real ‘green jobs’ being created (FT Energy Source, 20/07/09)