In a retort to General Motors Co.’s highly publicized news this week its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle would get 230 mpg (1.0 L/100 km), Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. fires back that its upcoming Leaf pure electric vehicle will achieve 367 mpg (0.6 L/100 km).

Nissan Leaf = 367 mpg, no tailpipe and no gas required. Oh yeah, and it'll be affordable too!” Nissan posted on its Nissan EV Twitter page.

With both vehicles set to take their U.S. bows in fall 2010, a top Nissan official is speaking out about why the Leaf offers a better choice for consumers than the Volt.

“We honestly believe we’re leapfrogging the competition with this product,” Larry Dominique, Nissan North America Inc. vice president-product planning, says on the sidelines of an auto conference in Traverse City, MI.

The Volt is “a great execution of a range-extender hybrid, but it’s not (a) zero-emissions (vehicle),” Dominique says.

Plus, the added cost of the two powertrains in the Volt will inflate the price of the car and keep it out of reach of many consumers, he says.

The Volt is expected to be priced at about $40,000.

Nissan says it is focusing on “the total cost of ownership” of the Leaf, including its initial purchase price, which Dominique estimates will be in the $25,000-$33,000 range, affordable for “Joe Consumer.”

“If I’ve got to pay $45,000 for a Volt, and I own that vehicle for five years or 10 years, I will never get a payback on $1 of what I spent over a conventional internal-combustion engine,” he says. “You’d have to drive 50,000 or 60,000 miles (80,000-97,000 km) a year to justify it.”

Long term, the Leaf will “give you a better cost of ownership for life than an internal-combustion-engine (vehicle),” Dominique says.

He says the Leaf also could undercut the Toyota Prius, once maintenance and energy costs are factored in.

“If you start to compare apples-to-apples, over five years this vehicle will be the better solution for the majority of people,” he says.

Lack of infrastructure remains a barrier to proliferation of alternative-powered vehicles. But Nissan says it has promises and memorandums of understanding from a number of U.S. municipalities to install public charging stations to service the Leaf and other Nissan EVs and PHEVs.

Dominique says he isn’t worried cash-strapped local governments will fail to live up to the guarantees.

“We’ve now got our corporate planning group, a West Coast and East Coast person, going out and following up with these municipalities to help make sure (charging-station plans are) moving forward and to understand if there are any roadblocks in the way of the infrastructure being installed,” he says.

For at-home charging, expected to be the most common way drivers will reenergize their Leafs, Nissan is co-developing with partners a device, dubbed EVSE, for in-garage installation of a 220V charging unit.

Nissan wants to speed the process required for consumers to obtain permits for installation of the device and is embroiled in an internal debate about whether to take on the installation work itself or leave it to independent contractors, Dominique says.

He says there’s a “whole litany” of designs on the drawing board for the public charging systems, ranging from devices that offer both high- and low-volt power lines for fast- or slow-speed charging to units that include a credit-card slot and bill based on the amount of voltage being used.

Because electric rates vary widely across the U.S. and during different times of day, Dominique can only ballpark what it will cost to “refuel” the Leaf, saying it will run from less than $1 to about $3 for a full 100-mile (161-km) charge. Off peak, the cost could be as low as $0.80 or $0.90.

The Leaf’s 100-mile range is “fine for most people for daily commuting,” Dominique says. That makes it viable as a “primary car” for many, he claims, while acknowledging a secondary conventionally powered car would be needed for longer road trips.

The 100-mile range is based on an Environmental Protection Agency standard that includes driving on grades and non-grades, braking and some acceleration, with air conditioning turned off.

Nissan has not decided whether the battery will be included in the price of the Leaf or be covered by a separate lease. Either way, the auto maker would prefer to have customers see just one bill, Dominique says.

Although confident of its ability to hold a charge in sub-freezing temperatures, Nissan still is planning a “cold-weather countermeasure” to keep the Leaf’s battery warm while charging.

“If you’re using your EV every day in a cold climate, there’s enough density and residual heat in the battery pack that your battery can still take a good charge in a relatively short period of time,” he says.

Nissan expects Leaf batteries to retain 80% of their charge capacity after five years. “And if you look even five to 10 years out, it doesn’t degrade much more after that,” Dominique says.

Three different charging scenarios are possible using 110-120V, 220V and 480V outlets. Nissan estimates it will take less than eight hours to charge the batteries with 220V and less than 30 minutes with 480V.

However, the 480V quick-charging process will restore up to only 80% of the battery pack’s power in order to prevent damage as a result of the high amount of electrons used in the process.

Dominique foresees an industry emerging around the secondary life of EV batteries, with a Nissan corporate planning group already working with outside firms on such re-uses as energy storage for emergency lighting or to power homes.

“At the end of their life, they do have good storage capacity, they just don’t want to be cycled,” he says of lithium-ion batteries.

Initially, Nissan may include standard roadside assistance for Leaf owners to allay any concerns of being stranded due to a drained battery.

However, Dominique says the GPS technology built into every Leaf that shows the charging stations available within the battery’s remaining driving range should be sufficient to avoid such a calamity.

“Navi with (intelligent technology) is standard on (the) Leaf,” he says. “As part of that, with our global data center, we’re going to be downloading updates to the charging infrastructure.”

The main data center will be in Japan and either Nissan owned or operated. U.S. centers will be run by an unnamed information company that also will provide support for the navigation and information systems in all Infiniti and a few other Nissan models.

Nissan wants to retain tighter control of the first wave of Leafs that reach the market, and therefore “you’re going to find a lot of captive financing on these vehicles,” Dominique says. “We want to be able to control the residual value, we want to be able to control the end value, so at the end of a lease or loan we have the vehicles back and we can decide what to do with them.”

High-tech vehicles typically don’t have strong residual values in their first few years, he notes, pointing to early in-vehicle navigation systems that didn’t hold their value in the used-car market and the initial supply of Priuses that hit the market.

Prius residuals lagged other Toyota Motor Corp. models until rating agencies such as Automotive Lease Guide became convinced the car’s batteries were made to last, Dominique says.

However, he predicts it will take “a little bit of time to convince the banks and the ALGs of the world (EVs) are good technologies and have value at the end (of their life).”

Meanwhile, Nissan still is deciding on a start-up sequence for the Leaf, with Dominique noting it won’t make the “cha-cha-cha-chung” sound of a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle but still will need some combination of noise and light to let the driver know it is running.

“The way the meter wakes up, the way the navi wakes up, will be a sequence of events that will probably take five to eight seconds or so to get the car up and ready to go,” he says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com