Off to the Electric Car Races: Nissan Fires Up LEAF Production


Nissan has fired up production of its LEAF electric sedan, rolling job No. 1 off the assembly line on Friday at its plant in Oppama, Japan. The car, which could be one of the cheapest highway-capable electric vehicles on the road in coming years, is set to go on sale in the U.S. and Japan in December. It’s scheduled to enter production at one factory in Smyrna, Tenn. in 2012, and another in Sunderland, UK in 2013.

In Oppama, the LEAF is being produced alongside conventional gas models — including the Nissan Juke and Cube — at what Nissan is calling the “Mother Plant” for the LEAF. The portion of the assembly line that would normally install fuel tanks has been adapted to mount battery packs instead (currently assembled at the Zama, Japan plant of Nissan’s joint venture with NEC). Where engines would typically be installed, the LEAF assembly line handles motors and inverters.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn sees today’s kickoff in Oppama as “a significant milestone, not only for Nissan and the Renault-Nissan Alliance, but also for the entire automotive industry.” It’s true, considering the long haul to get to this point — a global automaker launching a run of electric vehicles that’s expected to reach the tens of thousands within a year — and the long list of companies racing to get their own EV manufacturing facilities up and running.

For companies like Coda Automotive, Think and others, ambitions to quickly ramp up EV manufacturing in the U.S. will hinge on government loans coming through. Tesla Motors (s TSLA) and Fisker Automotive have secured federal loans, but they now have the difficult task of scaling up their manufacturing and distribution at breakneck speed in efforts to ultimately cross the chasm from startup to viable competitor among big mainstream automakers.

Nissan, meanwhile, is one of those still-rare makers of electric cars that has scored government funds (including $1.6 billion to retool its Smyrna plant for production of electric cars and batteries) and already has experience with manufacturing for the mass market. General Motors, the company’s chief rival in these early days of plug-in cars, is scheduled to start production of its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt on Nov. 10. Let the games begin.

Images courtesy of Nissan

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