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Minor differences aside, Leaf, Volt gird for grid battle

Automotive News reports on the upcoming competition between the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf.

Automotive News
Nissan Leaf
The Nissan Leaf offers less than a third of the range of the Chevy Volt, but is a pure electric car. James Martin/CNET

NASHVILLE--The Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf have less in common, aside from the hype behind them, than you might think. But marketers are preparing the two battery-powered cars for head-to-head battle for green-conscious American consumers, even though the two will compete head-on in just a handful of markets.

Last week, General Motors said it will price the Volt at $41,000, a stiff $8,220 above the Leaf's retail price, set in March, of $32,780. The Volt's price includes a shipping charge; Nissan hasn't set the Leaf's shipping charge. Also, a buyer of either car is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

But backed by anticipated strong residual value from an aggressive eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the Volt, GM said it also will offer a lease on the battery-driven Chevy of $350 a month for 36 months after a $2,500 down payment.

That plan clearly targets the Leaf's lease plan of $349 a month for 36 months after $1,999 down. And leasing likely will dominate electric-car transactions for the near future, said Mark Perry, Nissan North America's director of Leaf product planning.

"It doesn't matter," Perry said as he drove to an electric-vehicle conference in San Jose, Calif., last week. "We're still the most affordable electric vehicle."

Nissan immediately said it would offer an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the Leaf, citing "U.S. market competitive conditions."

GM and Nissan already have sparred over their competing electric-vehicle projects, both of which will come to market late this year.

Nissan balked publicly at GM's 230 mpg claim last year. Nissan officials have remarked that GM's Volt is not a true electric car since it runs on both a lithium ion battery and an internal combustion engine.

GM has countered that a true electric will leave many consumers stricken with range anxiety. The Leaf claims only 100 miles on an overnight charge. The Volt promises an even less impressive 40-mile battery range. But its design features a gasoline engine that kicks on when the battery runs low, running two electric motors that drive the car for another 300 miles.

The two cars also represent completely different corporate visions. Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn hopes to make Nissan the industry's global leader in zero-emission vehicles. He is spending billions erecting electric-car factories and lithium ion battery plants in Tennessee, Britain, and Japan. The $1.7 billion assembly operation now under construction in Smyrna, Tenn., will be able to turn out 150,000 Leafs a year.

By contrast, GM is tiptoeing into the unproven market. GM envisions selling only about 10,000 Volts a year at first. It is forecasting 30,000 annual sales by the end of 2012, says Dave Darovitz, spokesman for the Volt at Chevrolet.

But as the auto industry knows, Chevrolet rarely does anything small for long. GM intends to make the Volt a global car, selling versions in Europe and Asia.

Despite the battle preparations, GM and Nissan will not face each other directly on too many battlefields in the first few months of their new competition.

According to their roll-out plans, the 2010 launches will overlap only in California. Other than that, Nissan is pursuing mainly Western markets at first, whereas GM is pursuing mostly northern markets.

"That's what will sell the Volt," Darovitz proclaims. "It's a car for all climates. We're not afraid to go into places like Michigan."

Cold weather saps battery power and therefore reduces an electric car's range.

Next year the cars also will compete in Texas, but not directly at first. GM will have launched its car in Austin, and Nissan will launch its car in Houston.

In the spring, the two also will square off in Washington, D.C.

(Source: Automotive News)