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Nissan Leaf Pulls Ahead of GM Volt in Rechargeable-Car Race

Nissan Leaf
A Nissan Leaf is shown at the Nissan Oppama technical center. Photographer: Kasahara Katsumi/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Nissan Motor Co.’s Leaf, the first mass-produced electric car sold in the U.S., took an early lead in the budding market for rechargeable autos by pulling ahead of General Motors Co.’s plug-in Volt in 2011’s first half.

Sales of lithium-ion powered Leafs totaled 3,875 this year through June, buoyed by a record 1,708 units delivered last month, Al Castignetti, Nissan’s vice president of U.S. sales, said in an interview today. Deliveries of the plug-in Chevrolet Volt, which led Leaf through May, were 561 in June and total 2,745 in the first half, GM said.

“We’ve been telling you we’d grow every month, and now you’re seeing more normalized production flow,” Castignetti said. “We’re starting to catch up with the reservations.”

Nissan aims to be the world’s largest seller of electric autos and is ramping up Leaf output after a slow start last year and early snags with U.S. deliveries. Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn has said the company and partner Renault SA, which he also leads, invested $6 billion for battery vehicles and predicts such cars may account for 10 percent of global industry sales by 2020.

Nissan said it expects to sell as many as 12,000 Leafs in the U.S. this year. The Yokohama-based company, Japan’s second-largest automaker, has said it may sell 200,000 Leafs annually in the U.S., while not disclosing a timetable.

The car’s base price is about $33,000, before a $7,500 federal tax credit. The plug-in Volt starts at about $41,000, prior to the government incentive.

Chevy Volt

“From a sales standpoint, Nissan and Chevrolet have been very cautious, wanting to make sure these vehicles are as bulletproof as possible, taking time to thoroughly inspect and check everything,” said George Peterson, president of industry consultant firm AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, California.

“We’re not going to see hundreds of thousands of these on the road soon,” Peterson said. Rechargeable vehicles may rise to about 3 percent of U.S. sales within a “few years,” based on AutoPacific’s consumer surveys, Peterson said.

GM plans to make 16,000 Volts this year, Rob Peterson, a spokesman, said in May. The largest U.S. automaker’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant that makes the car closed for four weeks starting in June for upgrades to boost production to 60,000 units in 2012.

Nissan is building a battery factory next to its Smyrna, Tennessee, auto-assembly plant, where it aims to make lithium-ion packs for Leafs that are to built in the current Smyrna factory.

Combined sales of Leaf, rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as traveling at least 60 miles per charge, and Volt, which goes about 40 miles on lithium-ion battery power before a gasoline engine propels it, totaled 6,620 through June.

California Requirements

By comparison, GM, Nissan, Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and other carmakers sold or leased 4,400 highway-legal battery-electric vehicles combined from 1996 to 2003 in California during its zero-emission vehicle program, said Krista Eley, an air-pollution specialist with the state’s Air Resources Board.

California, which requires major automakers to offer rechargeable autos, expects about 60,000 electric cars, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles to be sold there over a three-year period that begins with 2012 models.

Nissan and GM face new competition next year from Toyota, which will sell a plug-in Prius and electric versions of its RAV4 sport-utility vehicle and Scion iQ minicar.

Honda is to sell a battery-only Fit small car and midsize plug-in vehicle it hasn’t identified in 2012, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. will offer electric i minicars, and Ford, Daimler AG and other carmakers are also readying new rechargeable models.

Tesla Motors Inc. has delivered more than 1,650 all-electric Roadster sports cars worldwide since production of the $109,000 model began in 2008, said Khobi Brooklyn, a company spokeswoman. That’s about the same volume of Leafs sold in the U.S. in June.

Nissan’s North American unit is based in Franklin, Tennessee.

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