Nissan sets December 20 launch date for electric Leaf

Nissan on Friday said it will launch the Leaf in Japan on December 20 and days later in the United States as it bets on drivers' readiness to embrace the first globally mass-produced electric car.

"We believe this is a true breakthrough and it will serve as a key for mobility of the future," Nissan chief operating officer Toshiyuki Shiga told reporters in Tokyo. "We believe this is the dawn of a new era."

The Leaf - short for Leading Environmentally-friendly Affordable Family car - has enjoyed a crescendo of industry buzz and last month became the first electric vehicle to win European Car of the Year.

The fulcrum of Nissan's green ambitions, the mid-sized five-seat hatchback is already a sell-out in the United States on pre-orders. It will be launched in select European markets in early 2011.

Nissan said prices would start at 3.76 million yen (45,000 dollars), but the actual price customers would pay would start at 2.98 million yen as the environmentally friendly car will be eligible for subsidies.

The automaker has gambled that its electric car will take off globally and overcome consumer concerns such as "range-anxiety", or the fear that their cars will run out of juice between charging points.

It said that on a full charge the car can reach a maximum speed of 145 kilometres (90 miles) per hour and its top driving range is 200 kilometres on a single eight-hour charge from a household charger, more than enough for everyday use of most motorists.

For those in a hurry, it can be rapid-charged to 80 percent of capacity in 30 minutes at special charging stations.

Nissan's 2,200 dealerships in Japan will have normal chargers, while 200 selected dealerships will have rapid-chargers, putting at least one fast charger in a 40-kilometre radius across Japan.

The first US shipment has sold out, Nissan said, with the company having received 20,000 orders and separately at least 6,000 more in Japan.

Nissan said it expects to make 10,000 units by March 2011 as it works to catch up with demand.

Emitting none of the exhaust pollutants that have covered skies over cities from Los Angeles to Mumbai in smog, the all-electric Leaf is touted as an evolutionary step from petrol-electric hybrids made by the likes of Toyota.

Nissan, controlled by French partner Renault, started mass production of the Leaf in October in Japan and plans to expand production in North America in 2012 and in Europe in 2013.

"It is Nissan's commitment to become the leader in zero-emission vehicles," Shiga said. "We will conduct various programmes and make investments to achieve that goal with our partner Renault."

The Leaf is not the first electric vehicle to hit Japanese streets, and will face challenges from rivals including Mitsubishi Motors' "i-MiEV" minicar.

Toyota, which has for more than a decade sold petrol-electric hybrids such as the Prius, aims to launch its own electric car by 2012 but has put its immediate focus on new hybrid models.

Honda's hybrid Fit went on sale in Japan in October as the cheapest petrol-electric car available in the nation at 1.59 million yen.

Against cheaper competition, Nissan's Leaf project faces various challenges, with the vehicle's production cost meaning that it is unlikely to boost the automaker's earnings say analysts, with most demand coming from early adopters.

Ordinary motorists will hesitate to purchase the expensive vehicle and wait for further improvement in battery technology that has so far not been standardised across the global industry, analysts say.

Shiga said however that he believed the new vehicle will eventually "fully function as a profitable business".

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