Nissan's steep learning curve
Nissan broke new ground last year when it brought its first electric vehicle, the LEAF, to the UK. Though rivals were already offering electric cars, the LEAF’s blend of practicality and unchallenging ownership experience has made it a figurehead of electromobility since.
The last 12 months have been a steep learning curve for Nissan GB, and the LEAF’s ability to defy its predicted sales figures have been marked, as the company’s head of corporate sales, James Douglas, admits. Fleets approached with more caution than expected, which drove an unusual introductory market.
‘At launch a lot of the early adopters were private individuals, so the launch order bank was quite heavily skewed towards retail, almost 80%, but we’ve seen over the year of the car’s life that revert back to a more traditional 50:50 split,’ he says.
‘Whenever you launch a new vehicle, my experience of fleet sales is that it is a ramp up. Qashqai has been phenomenally successful for us, but we didn’t start with the level of sales we have now. We saw a significant ramp up through the first year and then a continual rise thereafter. I think in fleet certainly that’s what we’re experiencing with LEAF.’
Early fleet adopters weren’t quite as expected either. Douglas says Nissan GB focussed its attention on those based in large urban areas, but the reality has been first year sales spread across the entire country. Although cost benefits are greatest in areas such as London, fleets which have taken it on to date have done so to fulfil corporate needs and desires for which geographic location hasn’t been a deciding factor.
Early adopters cover almost the full spectrum of businesses, apart from one: ‘I guess the one exception is central Government. It’s probably the only area of the market where we haven’t managed to sell any,’ says Douglas.
‘I’m not sure why. We’ve sought opportunities and local government have been very engaged, but central Government have yet to step forward. I don’t think there’s any structural reason why not, I think we haven’t got around to finding the right person yet.’
But despite positive first steps, challenges remain. Awareness, largely through huge media exposure, is high, but the number of customers who have tried the technology first hand isn’t. And it’s here where fleets have a large role to play.
A small number – limited by resale capacity at dealers – have gone into daily rentals. And though the majority of LEAF fleet sales are to company car drivers, a disproportionately high number have gone into pool car fleets. This has the dual benefit of giving companies the chance to invest in a single car and get multiple opinions, but also gets more drivers behind the wheel.
‘There’s no doubt that there are compromises for some people in terms of owning and operating a LEAF in their life, and I think people understand that. What they don’t understand is what the scale of those compromises might be. And I think for some people there perhaps isn’t a compromise. I think unless we’re able to give people the opportunity to see the car then it’ll be difficult for them to understand that,’ explains Douglas.
A lot of the problem comes from a shortage of cars. All LEAFs are built in Japan, which limits supply, and volumes were limited by the earthquake and tsunami last year. In early 2013, Nissan will localise production around the world, including building European models in Sunderland, increasing the availability of UK stock and allowing the carmaker an adequate demonstrator fleet.
In the meantime, Nissan GB is planning substantial investment in its network to prepare for the ‘Euro LEAF’. From 32 electric vehicle specialist dealers, over 150 will be trained and equipped by the end of 2012. By the end of the fiscal year, Nissan GB’s entire dealer network will be ready to sell and service the car. In turn, this will allow extra capacity for the carmaker to sell its ex-rental vehicles.
Douglas explains: ‘The plan is in the first half of this year we’ll get a car at every dealership in the network so people can sit in and try the vehicle within the dealer’s demo fleet. Obviously we have to link that up with training our dealers from an aftersales perspective, but as those dealers are trained and develop we’ll be giving them a car that they can show people and test and evaluate for themselves.‘
But perhaps the big surprise for Nissan is the LEAF’s effectiveness as a halo car, putting the firm back on the radar with fleets it wasn’t previously dealing with, in turn helping to sell other models.
British Gas, which partnered with Nissan to offer charging points for retail and business users, bought almost no vehicles from the manufacturer until recently. The relationship developed through the LEAF has resulted in it adding Nissan cars and vans to its fleet, and it is also trialling an electric version of the e-NV200 electric commercial vehicle from its headquarters in Staines as part of ongoing development.
Douglas puts this down to the LEAF highlighting recent improvements in Nissan’s range-wide emissions: ‘If you look at our lineup over the last five or ten years we haven’t had the lowest CO2 lineup in the country. That has improved immensely over the last 12 or 24 months, and LEAF is the ticket to get us to talk to people,’ he says.
‘We’re a 4.5% market player and a top seven fleet manufacturer – that just about gives us a place at the table. But some of the larger organisations can organise quite a closed shop, especially if they’re spending enormous amounts of money, and LEAF has the power to open the door for us.’