At first, the Leaf saw strong interest from tech-savvy, enthusiastic early adopters, mainly on the West Coast. It garnered “thousands and thousands” of preorders, the executive recalled.
“There was nothing like it on the market at the time,” he said. “It had more torque than Maxima and a Zen-like driving experience because it was so quiet.”
But once Nissan met that early demand, sales hit a wall of ambivalence from the mainstream.
“The marketplace just didn’t care,” the executive said.
Nissan had projected U.S. sales of 20,000 Leafs in 2012 but delivered fewer than half that for the year, as electrified competitors arrived. Leaf sales peaked in 2014 at 30,200.
Inside the company, “there was this massive amount of pressure because Ghosn had just bullied through these billions and billions of dollars of investments,” the former exec recalled.
To move Leafs, Nissan leveraged state and federal EV tax credits to offer customers low-cost leases. In Atlanta, Nissan famously offered a $199-a-month lease on the car, which eventually led the Georgia Legislature to yank the state’s rich $5,000 EV tax credit.
But the aggressive leasing hammered Leaf residual values, requiring Nissan to prop up new sales with incentives.
The former executive said that at its peak, the Leaf represented about 3 percent of Nissan sales yet accounted for more than 10 percent of its incentive spending.
As an EV pioneer, Nissan faced challenges in commercializing the Leaf, which further ballooned outlays. Without an ecosystem of battery suppliers to tap, Nissan had to develop and build its own batteries.
“There was a ton of trial and error, with early batteries getting thrown in dumpsters,” the exec said. “We were going through a massive learning curve on battery technology.”
And all the while, the Leaf’s lopsided economics made the idea of new investments in the vehicle harder to justify, especially as Nissan’s bread-and-butter models, such as the Altima, also required redesigns.
“You couldn’t with a straight face say, ‘Hey, I need another billion dollars to update the Leaf,’ ” the source added.