Nov 30, 2022 - Economy & Business

Nissan wants to be the king of electric cars again

Image of a copper-colored Nissan Ariya electric crossover, going on sale in December 2022

The 2023 Nissan Ariya arrives in dealer showrooms in December. Photo courtesy of Nissan

Nissan, whose entry-level Leaf dominated the U.S. electric vehicle (EV) landscape in the early 2010s before Tesla took a commanding lead, is aiming to claw back market share with a bevy of new, relatively affordable models.

  • Its planned renaissance starts with the Ariya crossover utility, on sale in December at a starting price of $43,190.
  • Later this decade, Nissan plans to introduce a proprietary low-cost, solid-state battery that it says will help make EVs affordable for everyone.

Why it matters: CEO Makoto Uchida is desperate to revive the Japanese carmaker after four years of turmoil triggered by the 2018 arrest of former CEO Carlos Ghosn in Japan, for alleged financial crimes, and his subsequent escape to Lebanon.

  • Uchida's mission is enormous: He's attempting to repair the carmaker's finances, revive Nissan's brand and rebuild a demoralized corporate culture.
  • His hopes hinge on "Nissan Ambition 2030," a long-term strategy built around electrification and technological innovation.
Data: S&P Global Mobility; Note: GEM models not included; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios
Data: S&P Global Mobility; Note: GEM models not included; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

Details: Over the next decade, Nissan's goal is to introduce 23 electrified models for its namesake and Infiniti brands globally, including 15 all-electric vehicles.

  • Nissan expects 40% of its U.S. sales to be fully electric by 2030.
  • "Two years ago, I was not sure the U.S. would go to the EV era," Uchida told Axios. "Now it's more obvious."
  • The carmaker is investing more than $14 billion in the effort over the next four years, including an expansion of battery production in Tennessee.

The intrigue: Nissan is also developing a new solid-state battery that would be a breakthrough for the EV movement.

  • Solid-state batteries can store twice as much energy as conventional EV batteries — potentially doubling a car's driving range — and can charge in one-third the time.
  • They're also safer and cheaper, which would help bring down EV costs.

Where it stands: Researchers have been working on solid-state batteries for years, but have struggled to commercialize the technology.

  • Nissan aims to start pilot production in Japan in 2024 and to sell EVs equipped with its in-house battery in 2028.
  • "We have been chasing after this battery technology for more than 30 years," Uchida said. "We want to be doing this because we are the pioneer of EVs."

Yes, but: Tesla long ago lapped Nissan with EVs that offer triple the driving range of the original Leaf — plus high-tech, consumer-friendly features that improve over time via software updates.

  • A 2021 Cox Automotive study found 83% of potential EV buyers were aware that Tesla sells EVs, but only 37% knew of Nissan's offering — even though the Leaf had been sold in the U.S. for more than a decade.
  • Today the Leaf accounts for less than 2% of the EV market, down from 70% in 2012.

What they're saying: Nissan's experience demonstrates that being first isn't always what matters, says Brian Moody, senior editor at Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader (which, like Axios, are owned by Cox Enterprises).

  • "Tesla wasn't the first to build a modern EV, but they had the right mix of design and performance, and now everyone else is playing catch-up," Moody says.
  • "Still, the Nissan Leaf is important in the market today because it is one of the few EVs even close to affordable."
  • Both the Leaf, which starts at $27,800, and the Chevrolet Bolt, which starts at $25,600, generally sell for under $40,000 (before tax incentives) — well below the EV average of close to $65,000, Moody notes.

What to watch: New models from multiple carmakers are starting to chip away at Tesla's dominant share of the U.S. EV market, which stands at 65%.

What's next: It's not easy to rebuild a brand, especially if you're taking on one as strong as Tesla — but dramatically higher-range EVs at a price people can afford could eventually give Nissan a boost, if its solid-state battery efforts bear fruit.

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