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U.S.-Made 2013 Nissan Leaf Has Only 15 Percent Local Content; Here's Why

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2013 Nissan Leaf, Nashville area test drive, April 2013

2013 Nissan Leaf, Nashville area test drive, April 2013

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The 2013 Nissan Leaf electric car is assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, for North American sales.

In fact, Nissan got a low-interest loan for $1.6 billion from the U.S. Department of Energy to make that possible.

So why does every 2013 Leaf carry a window sticker saying that its U.S. and Canadian content is just 15 percent--while 80 percent of its parts content comes from Japan?

American Automobile Labeling Act sticker on a new 2013 Nissan Leaf [photo: Andrew Chiang]

American Automobile Labeling Act sticker on a new 2013 Nissan Leaf [photo: Andrew Chiang]

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Sticker shock

The question arose in late July, coming from electric-car enthusiast Andrew Chiang, who photographed the sticker on a brand-new 2013 Leaf at Nissan Sunnyvale, in California.

Chiang posted the photo in the San Francisco Bay Area Nissan Leaf Owners Group on Facebook, and it seemed worthy of an answer.

Ten weeks later, after multiple queries, responses, phone calls, and in-person conversations with various Nissan officials, we've pieced together the story.

You can think of it as a Good News/Bad News story.

It gets better

First, the bad news: The earliest 2013 Leafs did indeed have only 15 percent of their parts manufactured in the U.S.

The bulk of the parts in the cars were manufactured in Japan and imported from there, whether directly by Nissan or by its parts suppliers--even if those suppliers were U.S.-based.

The good news, however, is that the content manufactured in the U.S. will be considerably higher for 2014 Leaf models.

Nissan declined to specify that number, saying that the 2014 models (which will arrive at dealers in December) were still being finalized.

2013 Ford Focus Electric

2013 Ford Focus Electric

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Similar to Focus Electric, soon

But Brian Brockman, a senior manager of corporate communications, suggested that the 2014 Leaf percentage for U.S./Canadian parts content would be "roughly similar to other U.S.-built advanced technology vehicles."

Asked for an example, Brockman suggested the 2013 Ford Focus Electric--which has a U.S./Canadian parts content of 40 percent, according to the listings of American Automobile Labeling Act (AALA) content compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The 2014 Chevrolet Volt, for purposes of comparison, has a U.S./Canadian parts content of 45 percent. Of the remainder, 19 percent comes from Korea and 17 percent from Japan.

GM did not receive DoE low-interest loans following its 2009 bankruptcy and Federally-backed restructuring.

The Tesla Model S is the third of the three best-selling U.S.-built plug-in electric cars; it is not listed in the 2012, 2013, or 2014 AALA reports.

Tesla paid back its entire $465 million DoE loan in May, several years early.

Lithium-ion cell modules transferred into battery pack at Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee

Lithium-ion cell modules transferred into battery pack at Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee

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The fine print

Both Brockman and Billy Hayes, Nissan's Japan-based vice president for global electric car sales, noted that a number of factors played into the low domestic content number for 2013.

  • Most important, the AALA percentage reflects the country of origin of the materials and parts--even if Nissan purchased them from a U.S. company.
  • The labeling doesn't reflect any of the labor costs to assemble the Leaf; it's solely based on the value of the car's component parts.
  • While the lithium-ion cells for the Leaf's battery are assembled in Tennessee, the critical electrode material is fabricated in Japan and shipped in huge rolls to Smyrna.
  • Similarly, many of the car's power electronics, control systems, and other electromechanical components--essentially the rest of its powertrain--are from Japan.
  • The 2013 label was calculated for the very earliest Smyrna-built pre-production Leafs, before Nissan had finished local sourcing for all parts.
  • Those first Leafs used electric motors built in Japan, but production of motors for U.S. Leafs has now been transferred to Decherd, Tennessee.
  • The AALA label is calculated only once a year, and is not modified for running changes.

Nissan lithium-ion cell fabrication & battery pack assembly at Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee

Nissan lithium-ion cell fabrication & battery pack assembly at Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee

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No other info

Nissan says that the U.S. and Canadian content of the 2013 Leaf has risen during the year's production, but declined to provide more recent numbers.

The company, indeed, would not offer any other metrics that might provide an alternative picture of the car's total U.S. economic impact.

"We do not provide other localization metrics outside of the company," Brockman wrote.


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