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Nissan Draws 13K Electric LEAF Reservations: Now What?

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Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn sees “a big future” for the company’s upcoming electric car, the LEAF sedan. So big, in fact, that he said “the production for 2010 is already sold out,” according to the Detroit Free Press report on his talk at a Detroit Economic Club event on Tuesday. But while the automaker has brought in refundable $99 reservations for the vehicle at breakneck pace over the last month, it’s too early to know at this point how many of those will make the leap to firm orders.

Since Nissan started accepting reservations on April 20, it has received 13,000 pre-orders for the LEAF in the U.S. — accounting for the total allotment for the U.S. market that Nissan has planned for the model in its first year of production. But as Mark Perry, who leads product planning for Nissan North America, acknowledged to us on the sidelines of our Green:Net event last month, it’s unlikely that every single hand-raiser (or “electronic tire-kicker,” as auto blogger Jim Motavalli has put it) who plunks down the $99 reservation fee to secure a place in line will end up buying the LEAF when it launches.

In some cases, these consumers may simply get cold feet about the purchase, or buy another vehicle before the LEAF becomes available in their area. Still other would-be early adopters may discover through Nissan’s home and customer assessment process that their residence and commute make them a poor fit for the model — for example, if they don’t have a garage (where Nissan plans to help the earliest LEAF buyers have charging equipment installed) and regularly drive farther than the 100 miles that Nissan says the LEAF will go on a single charge, Perry explained. (Check out our video interview with Perry here.) Part of the idea is to ensure that the earliest buyers will have a good experience with the vehicle and help spread positive buzz about the car as Nissan gears up for a larger rollout.

Still, it won’t necessarily be a total loss for Nissan if a consumer reserves a spot in line for the first LEAF models on the market and then doesn’t end up following through with the purchase, as it could open a door for sales of other Nissan models. That’s essentially the benefit of a “halo” car in an automaker’s lineup — casting a positive glow over a company or brand by showcasing technology, styling and smarts, helping to define what the brand stands for, and luring customers into showrooms.

Priced at $32,780 (before incentives), the LEAF will sell for slightly under the retail prices slated for Mitsuishi’s planned i-MiEV, Coda Automotive’s Coda Sedan and Tesla Motors’ Model S. But it’s a fair amount higher than the starting price for the conventional sedan models with which Nissan has previously said it aims to offer a competitive price. For those who opt to lease, the LEAF’s $349 monthly payment comes in at a fraction of the lease payment for a Tesla Roadster, but on the high end compared to leasing offers available for cars like the conventional Civic.

The automaker has said it will begin accepting “firm orders” in August and start deliveries in the earliest markets by December of this year. Nissan plans to start expanding availability of the model by spring of next year, “with full market rollout through 2012.”

The automaker will have some help when it comes to ramping up EV production stateside. Nissan closed a $1.4 billion loan with the Department of Energy earlier this year, with the funds set to go toward retooling of a Smyrna, Tenn. plant for Nissan’s electric LEAF sedan, as well as batteries for the vehicle. Nissan plans to break ground on the facility on Wednesday.

For the 2010 fiscal year ending next March, Nissan said earlier this month that it’s forecasting 3.8 million vehicle sales. In partnership with French automaker Renault, Nissan aims to eventually dominate a global market for electric vehicles. But plug-ins like the LEAF will represent just a drop in the bucket for the time being, according to Nissan’s estimates. The company is targeting sales of 6,000 units for the LEAF in Japan and aiming to bring in 25,000 reservations for the model in the U.S. before it launches in select markets, including Arizona, California, Washington and Tennessee.

Images courtesy of Nissan

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