Before the first electric car was sold, people had pre-conceived notions about them -- and much of what they think will turn out to be wrong. Nissan now has the Leaf on the road, with 4,134 customers having taken delivery as of today. The first demographic data is coming in, and much of it contradicts the established wisdom.
In a press briefing in New York on Monday, Brendan Jones, Nissan's director of electric vehicle marketing and sales strategy, offered these 10 nuggets:
- Tunnel vision. Only one in four of Leaf customers actually looked at another car before buying their Nissan. Of the people who considered other makes, hybrids (especially the Prius) were under consideration, as was the Tesla Roadster -- with most, no doubt, concluding they couldn't afford the $109,000 car.
- California dreamin'. An incredible 60 percent of Leaf volume so far is in California. Los Angeles is now the unexpected leading city, taking over from early front-runner San Francisco. "But we expect San Francisco to again take the lead and surpass Los Angeles substantially," said Jones, who acknowledged that much of the sales in highly traffic-congested LA are driven by the loss of "yellow sticker" HOV lane solo privileges for hybrid cars in the state. Now mostly electric cars, natural gas and -- an incredible rarity -- fuel-cell vehicles are eligible. That's created a rush on Leafs.
- Range non-anxiety. People, even those who drive EVs, think they drive more than they actually do. Jones said that his wife, Cheryl, believed that she drove 70 miles daily, but the actual figure was less than 30. Leaf owners typically clock up less than 60 miles per day, and their average drives are seven to 12 miles.
- It's my only ride. Despite the widespread belief that people will buy range-limited electric cars for second or even third cars, Nissan says that for most owners the Leaf is their primary driver.
- My other car is.... Utilities are tracking likely electric loads based on current Toyota Prius ownership, calculating that the Leaf is a likely upgrade. That's true, but many owners are likely to keep their Priuses for backup, not trade them in. The Prius is the number one car owned by Leaf customers, with 19 percent reporting having one in the stable. Thirty seven percent report owning Toyotas, 23.7 percent owning Hondas. Not many are previous Nissan owners -- just 14 percent. Just six percent own Chevys.
- Still waiting. Nissan is still being somewhat vague about when patient east coast customers will get the Leaf. Jones said deliveries will start "later this year." The holy grail customers are waiting for is an order from Nissan that allows them to actually arrange delivery. Carlos Tavares, Nissan's then-chairman of the Americas (since gone to Renault), has said only that its customers in the seven launch markets (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington) will have cars by the end of the summer.
- No surprise: they're loaded -- and green. This is actually the least surprising thing about Leaf customers. They're college educated, with an average credit score of 750+, and a combination of "environmentalists, EV advocates and tech-savvy individuals." Their average income is over $140,000. I could have told them all that.
- Cold, cold, cold. Jones said that Nissan hasn't fielded many complaints about the Leaf's cold weather performance, but that's probably because most of the cars have been delivered in sunny California. East coast testers, including me, have noted significant drops in range, maybe 70 miles instead of 100, in very cold temperatures. Nissan is obviously anticipating what might happen when it starts delivering cars to the snow belt. Every 2012 car for North America will have a standard "winter package" that warms the front and rear seats, plus the steering wheel and allows the driver to turn down the power-sapping electric heater. The Chevy Volt similarly offers an "eco heater" mode that bypasses the main heater, and gives a starring role to those seat heaters. It's not an ideal solution, because most people want to be all-over warm.
- Going upscale. There are two Leaf models, the SV and the upscale SL, and 95 percent of buyers are going for the upmarket SL. That's because it adds less than $1,000 to the price, and includes a rear-view monitor, fog lights and automatic headlights. But the real reason people want it is the solar panel mounted on the spoiler (which trickle charges the accessory battery and can run the radio). It doesn't do much, but people love the idea of it. More important, SL customers have the option of buying a 480-volt fast-charging port, which can get the car back on the road in 20 minutes to half an hour. An amazing 89 percent of SL buyers are going for the fast-charging port, which uses the Japanese CHAdeMO standard.
- Just looking. Less than half (48 percent) of Leaf reservations (which required a $99 deposit) have turned into orders. Maybe Nissan shouldn't have made it so painless to make the reservation. The $99 was even refundable. Some of those would-be customers bought Chevy Volts instead, or maybe the much-vaunted range anxiety got 'em.
- Nissan Miles: The Battery-Powered Leaf is Stranding Some of its Owners
- Nissan Launches the Leaf: Now Electric Cars Have to Make Their Mark on the Showroom Floor
- Plugging in Renault: What it Means, and What Carlos Tavares has to Do
- Why California is Winning the Electric Car Race