Nissan Leaf: Cute ad, but will it backfire?

Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are neck-and-neck in sales. A new Nissan Leaf ad portrays Volt as an ordinary gas-powered hybrid, but the all-electric car has its own vulnerability.

By , Business editor

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    This photo taken May 26, 2011, shows a Nissan Leaf charging in Portland, Ore. In a new ad, Nissan takes a jab at the rival Chevy Volt, which pokes back via Twitter, as both carmakers try to position themselves as leading-edge cars of the future.
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In terms of sales, the emerging war of words between the manufacturers of the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf is a battle of midgets. The two cars have sold – combined – slightly more than 5,000 vehicles this year.

But in terms of shaping America’s view of the future of cars, the Volt-Leaf battle is epic.

Nissan fired the first shot in late May with an ad depicting a man getting going in the morning with a variety of gasoline-powered appliances: an alarm clock, a coffeemaker, a cellphone, even his desktop PC. (There are even more outrageous items, but I won't ruin it. See below.)

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He’s filling up his Chevy Volt at the gas station when the narrator asks: “What if everything ran on gas? Then again, what if everything didn’t?” And the scene shifts to a Nissan Leaf owner unplugging his all-electric Leaf and driving away.

It’s a cute ad and effectively portrays the Volt, a cutting-edge hybrid, as just another gas-powered vehicle. Competition between the Leaf and the Volt may be heating up because, as USA Today points out Friday, the two are neck-and-neck in terms of sales: 2,184 for the Leaf vs. 2,167 for the Volt from January through the end of May.

There’s just one downside for Nissan: Maybe you shouldn’t throw a monkey wrench at the other guy’s leading-edge technology if you have vulnerabilities of your own.

In the case of the Leaf, the vulnerability is a new phrase entering America’s highway lexicon: “range anxiety.”

It turns out that while Nissan claims its electric car gets an average 100 miles per charge, Leaf owners sometimes find to their chagrin that they get decidedly less than that. And they end up having to be towed.

For example: Warren Clarke, a reviewer for auto-information website Edmunds.com, ran out of juice at 63 miles, just a mile or two from his office and had to be towed by AAA.

To combat range anxiety in Japan, Nissan is experimenting with a rescue vehicle south of Tokyo to recharge battery-dead Leafs. But the rescue vehicle is a diesel-powered truck that uses a diesel-powered generator to recharge the electric cars, reports Automotive News.

That is essentially what Chevy Volt owners do now, except they use gasoline instead of diesel, they do it without anybody’s help, and they certainly don’t get stranded.

After Nissan released its ad, according to Autoevolution.com, GM responded with an unofficial tweet from its product and brand communications chief: “A carmaker poking gentle fun at our product ignores towtrucks they need and rental cars they recommend as backup to their product.”

Ouch!

It’s true that range anxiety may fade as nations build up a network of electrical charging stations. But if that will take years, then consumers have to decide for themselves if either of these cars represents their immediate future.

With just 17 cars separating the two in sales volume through May, any guesses as to whether the Leaf or the Volt will win out?

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