A YEAR ago today Prime Minister David Cameron visited Sunderland to officially launch production of the Nissan Leaf electric car. Business Editor, Andy Richardson checks on progress of the hatchback which put the North-East at the centre of a revolution in motoring.
THE Sunderland-built Nissan Leaf is more popular with owners than the version built in Japan, the car maker's electric vehicle boss told The Northern Echo on the anniversary of the hatchbacks debut.
More than 13,000 Leafs have been built at Nissan's North-East factory in the 12 months since Prime Minister David Cameron formally set the production line rolling.
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The company set aside £420m to equip the Sunderland plant to produce up to 50,000 Leafs a year, employing 560 workers.
Nissan chiefs have been delighted by the way that the 2011 Car of the Year has been integrated into a plant where the Qashqai, Juke and Note remain the flagship models.
The first version of the Leaf was made in Nissan's homeland, before the North-East plant was chosen to build the revolutionary car for the European market.
In Norway, where electric vehicles owners are given huge package of benefits, the Leaf has been a major success, becoming the countrys third-most sold passenger car last year. It remains rare sight on UK roads, however, and Nissan's global chief Carlos Ghosn's prediction that the company would sell as many as a half a million Leafs by the end of the decade now looks wildly optimistic.
Leaf represents only about three per cent of total output from the Sunderland factory, but the technical challenge of integrating into the same line that builds the popular Qashqai model was considerable.
"It is proof of the first class expertise of Sunderland that things have progressed so well," said Jean-Pierre Diernaz, director of electric vehicles, Nissan Europe.
"Being able to build such a different car with a completely different power train to the existing models on the assembly line shows how flexible the workforce here is.
He added: "Approaching the first anniversary is a massive milestone for us. We are very pleased. Worldwide we have produced 100,000 and doubled sales year on year in Europe."
Nissan declined to set production or sales targets when Leaf launched in the UK, and this week Mr Diernaz was remaining similarly tight-lipped about how many it expected to produce in the coming years.
"This is very hard to predict," he said. "I cannot give you a number. "Year on year we need to increase. It will double this year. I honestly dont know it we will do that next year or even better. Today we are pleased with what has been achieved.
"To put it in context, it took Toyota twice as long with its hybrid vehicle to achieve 100,000 units globally than we did with Leaf.
"Levels of satisfaction from our customers is 95 per cent, the highest in the entire Nissan range. We have even managed to improve on customer satisfaction with the European-made Leaf over the one produced in Oppama (Japan).
About 40 per cent of the parts for the Leaf are provided by UK-based suppliers, and the total European content is about 75 per cent. Nissan hopes to increase the amount provided by local firms in the coming years.
Nissan's battery plant, which opened in Sunderland at the start of 2013, will soon export units to Spain where they will be used to power the NV200 electric van.