HEAD-TO-HEAD | Nissan takes electric car battle to Tesla

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Nissan Motor Co's new Leaf, the latest version of the world's top selling electric vehicle (EV), is seen during its world premiere in Chiba, Japan, September 6, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

CHIBA, JAPAN — Nissan Motor Co Ltd launched a revamped Leaf electric vehicle (EV) on Wednesday, going head-to-head with Tesla Inc’s Model 3 and hoping to blunt criticism of limited driving ranges undermining EVs’ mass-market appeal.

The automaker said it aims to “double, even triple” annual sales of the previous incarnation, jump-starting demand in major markets such as the United States, and packing new technologies to make up for a shorter driving range than rival offerings.

“If it’s successful, the Leaf will be a major part of the portfolio of Nissan,” Chief Executive Hiroto Saikawa said at a launch for the new version of the world’s best-selling battery-powered car. “EVs will no longer be a niche product.”

The car, on sale in Japan from Oct. 2 and elsewhere in early 2018, can run for 150 miles (241 kilometers) on a single charge according to U.S. regulator estimates, up from its predecessor’s 107 miles due to a bigger, 40 kilowatt hour (kWh) battery.

Prices in Japan will start from 3.15 million yen ($28,992).

The launch comes after luxury electric car maker Tesla made its first foray into the Leaf’s more affordable price band in July with its $35,000, 220-mile Model 3. Tesla has said it has received half a million orders for the Model 3, indicating the challenge Nissan has in preserving the Leaf’s number-one rank.

Nissan, whose first Leaf was among the first mass-market EVs, has given its marquee model a sporty facelift drawing on its more mainstream designs including the Micra and Rogue, in an effort to dispel the image of EVs being only for the affluent and environment-conscious.

The mid-sized car comes equipped with Nissan’s latest automated functions including single-lane highway driving and self-parking, along with its combined accelerate and brake “e-pedal”.

“The pricing is flat, (yet) we have a full model change… You have autonomous drive technology, a new battery, new powertrain. How can this be unattractive to a young customer?” said Ivan Espinosa, vice president of global product planning.

But for all the improvements, analysts said current EV driving ranges are too short to lure a meaningful number of drivers away from conventional cars, particularly in the U.S. where gasoline prices are historically low.

“Until we see a significant improvement in range and/or economics that feed through to a rise in gasoline prices, EV buyers will be buying for environmental or altruistic reasons,” said Janet Lewis, head of Asia transportation research at Macquarie Securities. “It’s still a very, very niche market.”

Industry experts said a range over 250 miles and price around $30,000 would be needed to see a significant shift to mass-market EVs.

Worldwide EV registrations numbered just 2 million as of 2016, showed data from the International Energy Agency. That compared with the 80 million non-commercial vehicles sold last year alone. To date, Nissan has sold 280,000 Leafs.

Saikawa said a longer-range Leaf for launch next year would carry a bigger, 60 kWh battery, yielding a range of roughly “more than 300 miles”, without specifying which standards Nissan used for the estimate.

The Leaf will continue to use lithium-ion batteries from Automotive Energy Supply Corp, which Nissan began as a joint venture with NEC Corp and sold to Chinese investor GSR Capital last month.