The Leaf, a four-door hatchback, will have a base price of $32,780, but it's eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. That will make it cheaper to buy than electric vehicles coming from rivals and might force competitors to cut prices. But the Leaf's limited range of 100 miles per charge for its lithium-ion battery could be a deal-breaker for some motorists.
"We want to make sure the car is affordable, ready for the mass market and has mass appeal," Mark Perry, the director of product planning and advanced technology at Nissan North America Inc., said.
Customers can start reserving a Leaf in the U.S. on April 20, and Nissan is aiming for 25,000 orders by December. It hopes to build and sell 50,000 of the cars around the world during the first model year. Production is starting at an existing factory in Oppama, Japan, south of Tokyo, and will expand to Nissan's factory in Smyrna, Tenn., in 2012.
Christopher Richter, an auto analyst at CLSA Asia Pacific Markets in Tokyo, predicted the car will prove popular among "people who want to be green, people who love technology and people who are status-conscious."
Sales during the first year will be limited to about 20 large cities in the U.S., including New York, Seattle and Atlanta, Perry said. He said Nissan hopes to expand Leaf sales nationwide by the end of 2011.
The Leaf's relatively low starting price -- and an option to lease it for $349 a month -- could touch off a price war. A spokesman for General Motors Co., which will begin selling its Chevrolet Volt electric car later this year, said it will look at Nissan's pricing before announcing its own closer to its December sales date.
The Volt is widely expected to cost about $35,000 before the $7,500 tax credit. Unlike the Leaf, the Volt is not a pure electric car. Instead it's propelled by electricity stored in a battery for up to 40 miles, at which point a gasoline engine kicks in, giving it hundreds of miles more in range.
Perry said the Leaf's 100-mile range is more than adequate for the distance driven by most Americans in a day. Still, analysts say the psychological effect of so-called range anxiety might be an obstacle for the Leaf. The Volt's internal combustion engine eases that concern by allowing drivers to continue going after the electric charge is depleted.
"The Volt ... has a much larger appeal," said Aaron Bragman, an auto industry analyst with IHS Global Insight in Troy, Mich.
At average electricity rates, charging the Leaf would cost about $2.80 per charge.
The Volt has a smaller battery than the Leaf and can't go as far on full electric power.