ECONOMYNEXT – On Wednesday, Japanese giant Nissan unveiled a new electric car with an extended range and semi-autonomous driving functions that could help jump start the moribund electric car market in Sri Lanka, too.
Making their first model change in seven years, Nissan unveiled the all new LEAF at a major global car show in Chiba, Japan as it seeks to battle off competitors in a sector it once pioneered.
The second-generation Nissan Leaf has a potential range of 400 kilometres (250 miles) between charges, compared with a maximum of 250 kilometres for its previous version.
Leaf started entering the Sri Lankan market about three years ago with the second-hand 2012 model which had a theoretical range of 120 kilometres, but practically did just about 80 kilometres on a full charge.
The newer Leaf models are said to have a range of 180 kilometres on a single charge, but users say they get only about 100 kilometres and Sri Lankan Leaf drivers suffer from what is globally known as "range anxiety."
"With the first generation Leaf, the range was not enough and ‘range anxiety’ became a big issue for a lot of consumers," Christopher Richter, an auto analyst at brokerage CLSA in Tokyo, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.
"Now, lithium-ion batteries have become much cheaper, so that allows automakers to offer double the range for about the same price.
"So, I would expect the sales (of the new Leaf) to be larger for this new generation of Leaf. However, Nissan will face more competition as there are other quite similar new vehicles on the market," he added.
Sri Lankan dealers said they have seen a sharp decline in the demand for the Leaf in the past two years as word spread about "range anxiety."
Many Leaf drivers return home sweating, unable to use the air conditioner for fear of running out of battery power.
Monthly Leaf registration which hit a high of 528 in October 2015 had dropped to just 13 by July this year. The 13 Leaf cars registered in July 2017 compared with 3,223 other cars that entered Sri Lankan roads during that month. Out of that, 1,725 of them were hybrid models.
The declining demand for Leaf electric cars had a serious knock-on effect on the second hand electric car market. The 2012 model had dropped to about two million rupees while the 2013 and newer models were selling way below three million rupees.
"I sold my 2012 Leaf because my electricity bill shot up by about 35,000 rupees a month," said company executive Gehard Mendis. "I don’t recommend anyone to buy a Leaf unless they have a solar panel to charge the car."
A more satisfied Leaf owner said he installed a three kilowatt solar panel at a cost of 750,000 rupees and was not drawing power from the national grid to charge his car.
The new Nissan Leaf boasts semi-autonomous driving capabilities such as keeping the vehicle automatically in one lane on the motorway or parking without human intervention, features that could be popular with Sri Lankan women drivers.
Faced with tighter global environmental regulations, most carmakers are investing heavily in the electric-car sector, sparking a ferocious race to create the next green vehicle.
Nissan was an innovator in the sector seven years ago when it unveiled its first Leaf — which has sold 280,000 units — but has since had to contend with fierce competition from General Motors and Tesla among others.
"The second (Leaf) will be one of our core products — it is not a niche anymore," Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa told a news briefing for the new car on Wednesday.
Saikawa defended the vehicle’s potential range, which fell short of expectations and puts it behind Tesla’s Model 3.
"(The range) is more than enough for Japan and most European countries," he said.
The Japanese automaker is hoping to double or triple last year’s annual sales of about 48,000 units.
The new car will be available next month in Japan, followed by the United States and Canada in January 2018.
The price tag in Japan will be 3.15 million yen (around $29,000). (COLOMBO, September 6, 2017)