Still awaiting US Spec LEAF announcement
Last week Nissan Global announced the updated 2013 Nissan LEAF for the Japanese home market. Think evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.
There is a launch video of the announcement – in Japanese. We tried to suffer through it to watch the slides at least, but couldn’t make it more than several minutes into the hour long video without having to just say no. So this is what we can determine from the English press release and an additional announcement regarding electric motor redesign.
Nissan is lightening up the car. The easiest path to greater range – gas or electric vehicle (EV) – is to put in taller gearing. Most manufacturers – including Nissan – have been doing that for some time now. This is the reason you find five, six, seven and eight speed automatic transmissions in vehicles today. But eventually you run out of gears. Nissan’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) improves efficiency by allowing infinite ratios within its range. But the LEAF has neither a conventional automatic transmission, nor a CVT. It has a one speed reduction gear. And if it were geared to improve range, it would sacrifice acceleration. It’s pretty good from zero to 30 now, but tapers off a bunch by the time you get to 60 mph. Having to sacrifice acceleration was not an acceptable solution. So they decided to remove weight – to the tune of about 175 pounds. This is a significant weight reduction that will contribute quite a bit to improved range.
Nissan also says that they have reduced power consumption and improved the regenerative brake design. We don’t know if we’ll see Mitsu i-MiEV style three mode drive selection (Drive, Eco, Brake), but it’s something that we’ve been hoping for since day one. Moderate regeneration when you need or want it, more aggressive brake regeneration to help with different driving situations, or when you want all the range help that you can get. It would be a welcome addition. Interestingly, Nissan did not say how they’ve reduced power consumption, but we’ll hazard a guess.
Last week Nissan also announced a redesign to the LEAF electric motor. The focus of the announcement is the use of lesser amounts of rare earth elements in the motor magnet. The magnet itself is neodymium based. Neodymium magnets are up to five times stronger than iron ferrite magnets. So using same size magnets, a much stronger magnetic field can be generated using the neodymium. Said another way, a much smaller magnet can produce the same magnetic field. This is how Nissan and others can use smaller magnets in a sound system speaker design and still produce a good sounding audio system. Smaller magnets save weight. Weight reduction improves vehicle range. Neodymium is used in current LEAFs, but the use of another rare earth element has been reduced to make the vehicle even more environmentally friendly. Our hunch is that what Nissan is not saying is that the efficiency of the electric motor has been improved, thus reducing power consumption. Much like improving the efficiency of a gasoline engine provides better power or better fuel economy – depending on where the efficiencies are focused. If you’re really good, the efficiencies improve both. This redesigned motor will be used in upcoming Nissan (and Infiniti) EVs and future hybrid electric vehicles (think Volt alternative).
Nissan has stated that they expect about a fourteen percent improvement in driving range for the Japanese LEAF. If we get the same improvements for 2013, this will move the needle from our EPA 73 mile range to about 83 miles. This could be just enough to make the LEAF viable for another few percent of the population.
Electric motor and battery production has started in Tennessee. Look for news soon regarding the production of the LEAF itself. We also expect to hear about a decontented LEAF (think no navigation system included) which should also give us a nice price drop on the least expensive LEAF, depending upon what else they decide to forgo. The electric car market isn’t as bad off as some might have you believe. We’ll be heading up to the Los Angeles Auto Show on Thursday looking to get behind the wheel of some of the newer offerings. Look for our write ups over the next several days.