Has the Nissan Leaf Really Withered Already?

Through February, a measly 173 Nissan Leafs -- the new all-electric plug in car -- had hit the streets in the U.S. That sounds pretty weak. After being on the market for three months, isn't there more consumer interest in a zero-tailpipe emission vehicle than that?

My colleague Megan McArdle addressed this question earlier, also wondering where all the green-hearted Americans were. They certainly appeared to be plentiful last spring. By late-April, 13,000 Leaf reservations had been made by individuals -- not dealers -- in the U.S. in just 35 days. So what happened?

I contacted Nissan to find out. A spokesperson confirmed that the low number of vehicles hitting the road through February was accurate, but that's because this number reflected deliveries. She also said that high number of reservations was also correct. The low number of deliveries is reflective of production ramping up slowly. Through February, the vehicles were only available in six or seven markets. Throughout the rest of the year, however, she said 50,000 Leafs will be produced, available worldwide.

Slow production was one of the possible explanations that Megan listed, but she also mentions that 4,000 units should be produced by the end of the month. So we should see the Leaf's delivery numbers ramp up quickly as production increases, as there does not appear to be a lack of demand according to its reservations.

That is, if people stick with the reservations. The bar was pretty low to reserve one -- just a refundable $99 deposit. So there might be some question of whether these reservations indicate serious interest. But would that many people really bother paying $99, even if they could get it refunded, if there wasn't a strong chance they would buy the vehicle?

And remember, that was back in April. At that time, gasoline was only around $2.80 per gallon. Now, the national average is approaching $3.50. The price of the vehicle remains the same, which makes it look like an even better deal at around $25,000 after the tax credit.

Yet this all makes a key assumption: that people like the car when they actually drive it. Those who made the reservations did not have that opportunity. So if it drives like a golf cart, then these consumers may quickly renege on their commitment. I have not had the opportunity to drive one, so I can't say whether or not it drives well, though it's easy to find reviews by critics who enjoyed the experience. I have seen the car in person, however, and thought it had a nice design.

So we'll have to keep our eye on the Leaf over the next few months. If deliveries don't improve much by this summer, then there might be more reason for concern. But a slow first couple of months during its roll out should probably be expected. This technology is about as brand new as we've seen in a car meant for a general audience, so Nissan certainly would not want to rush production. With that said, it can't wait too long to ramp up deliveries, or it will get precisely the kind of bad publicity that a meager 173 vehicles on the road in three months provides.