Nissan set to challenge GM in battery range

Paul A. Eisenstein
Special to The Detroit News

Nissan, the global leader in plug-based vehicle sales, says it won’t readily cede ground to rival General Motors, which plans to launch a long-range battery-electric vehicle of its own.

Despite plunging fuel prices that have caused a slump of many “green” vehicles, Nissan is expecting to see demand for its Leaf grow in the coming year, CEO Carlos Ghosn said Monday during an appearance at the North American International Auto Show. And demand could increase further when a redesigned model comes to market in about two years — with as much as twice its current range.

Getting up to somewhere around 200 miles per charge would put the next-gen Nissan Leaf directly up against the Chevrolet Bolt that GM announced on Monday during the show’s opening press day.

“We want to be competitive,” Ghosn told The Detroit News following a media briefing, quickly adding, “It may have even more range.”

While industry officials insist that today’s battery-electric vehicles, like the 100-mile Leaf, could serve most American motorists adequately, so-called “range anxiety” has led many hesitant potential buyers to steer clear.

But that is apparently set to change as lithium-ion battery manufacturers find ways to reduce weight and size, increase energy density and drive down costs.

When the Nissan Leaf program was conceived, nearly a decade ago, a lithium battery cost about $1,000 per kilowatt-hour, but that is reportedly dipping to $400 and below over the next several years.

Significantly, what Nissan design director Shiro Nakamura referred to as a “high output” version of the Leaf might get 200 miles “or maybe more,” the next-gen batteries won’t compromise cargo or passenger space, Nakamura stressed.

“You can expect (our) EVs will only get better,” Ghosn said separately.

“They are going to get more affordable and more competitive.”

Asked whether he was concerned about facing a growing list of competitors — whether the new Chevrolet Bolt or the Mercedes-Benz C-Class plug-in also debuting in Detroit — Ghosn said that he welcomed the competition.

“We shouldn’t worry about who we are competing with. We should worry about increasing the share of the market” overall that plug-based vehicles capture, said Ghosn.

That market share is now barely 1 percent.

Despite concerns about the impact of fuel prices on alternative vehicle technology, Ghosn said he was not worried about the long-term, especially as “no one can predict” gas prices in the future.

Mileage and emission mandates are growing stricter worldwide, he noted, and will only further increase pressure to come up with battery-based vehicles.

On a broader front, Ghosn said he expected to see the global auto industry achieve “another record” in sales in 2015.