Carlos Ghosn laid a $5 billion bet in 2009 that the world’s next Ford Model T would be electric, and that Nissan Motor Co. would lead a revolution embraced by nations such as Denmark. Three years later, sales of Leaf plug-in vehicles in the Nordic country: 73.
Nissan’s chief executive officer has long fronted a campaign to convince the world that by the end of the decade, 1 in 10 cars sold will be electric. Customers haven’t bought in, as prices remain high and charging stations are few and far between. Sales for 2012 were half their target in the United States.
Ghosn’s response has been to double down. Last week, he put his chief operating officer directly in charge of electric cars, elevating the Leaf’s importance for the future of Japan’s second-biggest automaker. With Nissan sales falling short in the United States and China, some investors say they’d prefer the CEO to focus on more immediate concerns.
“When we see this situation of Nissan missing targets in several markets, the atmosphere of trust has begun to deteriorate a little,” said Takashi Aoki, a Tokyo-based fund manager at Mizuho Asset Management Co. “As long as Ghosn meets profit targets, investors won’t fret.”
While Ghosn, 59, still gets the benefit of the doubt from asset managers such as Aoki, such creeping concerns are an adjustment for a man credited with turning Nissan from near bankruptcy in 1999 into the world’s most profitable major automaker five years later. Ghosn’s management acumen won him offers to run General Motors and Ford — and a starring role in a comic book that sold 300,000 copies in Japan.
Today, Nissan’s flagship Altima has been overtaken by Honda’s Accord as the second-best selling midsize sedan in the United States.
Deliveries in China — Nissan’s biggest car market — are shrinking amid a lingering backlash against Japanese brands caused by a territorial dispute.
Then there’s the Leaf, whose development is being pushed ahead amid sputtering demand. Days after putting COO Toshiyuki Shiga in charge of electric vehicles, a branch of China’s top economic planning agency said Nissan and its local partner plan to build an electric-vehicle plant able to make 50,000 units a year by 2015, as many as Nissan does in its Leaf factory in Japan today. Nissan declined to make executives available for comment.
Like Ghosn, China has grand ambitions for electric cars, targeting 500,000 EVs and plug-in hybrid vehicles to be on its roads by mid-decade and 5 million by 2020. There are now 27,800 — about 80 percent of which are public buses. Lately, some of China’s top policy makers are having doubts. The nation’s industry minister this month said the government should consider backing more conventional technologies, such as gasoline-electric hybrids.
While interpretations of recent government comments are speculative, “what is clear is that the Chinese government has set impressive goals,” Nissan said in an email.
Ghosn, who’s also CEO of Renault SA, didn’t immediately aim for the biggest markets with electric cars. In 2009, he singled out Denmark, Israel and Portugal as markets populated by consumers concerned about the environment, and with infrastructure that could be adapted to the needs of electric motoring. They’re also small enough to suit the restricted driving range of all-electric vehicles.
“Our electric vehicles are a breakthrough because they are designed to be mass marketed,” Ghosn said that year, discussing the $5.2 billion Nissan and Renault would commit to invest in the technology.
Countries like Denmark haven’t responded to Ghosn’s zeal.
Prices remain high. According to Nissan’s U.S. website, a Leaf starts from $21,300 after federal tax rebates, comparable to the price of an Altima, which is roomier and has 70 percent more horsepower. In Denmark, Nissan’s site advertises a Leaf for more than $46,400.