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(photo by Nissan)

You may have missed this news among all the recent clamor over “clunkers,” but Nissan just rocked the automotive world.

The company opened a new world headquarters this past week in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, and company CEO Carlos Ghosn used the grand opening to announce that the Leaf, an all-electric, zero-emissions five-passenger hatchback, will be sold worldwide starting in late 2010.

Thus Nissan aims to become the first major car maker to mass produce an EV for the world. And more than anything else, Leaf will be a reflection of the determination of Ghosn, one of very few non-Japanese corporate leaders in that country, and one of the most respected.

The prototype Leaf which was displayed at Ghosn’s press conference looks very close to a production version, says the company. Because aerodynamics ultimately controls the design of high-mileage cars like EVs and hybrids, which is why so many of them look alike, Leaf looks even geekier than you’d expect. If the car does make any styling statement, inside and out, it’s “Look at me … I’ve been sent from the future!”

Within the auto industry, Leaf was no surprise. Ghosn, the French-Lebanese Brazilian-born chief of the Renault/Nissan alliance, has adamantly been against spending the billions necessary to develop and manufacture gas/electric hybrids, choosing instead to focus the company’s time and money on what he saw as the inevitability of electric cars.

Nissan does sell a hybrid version of its Altima sedan, but the car’s drivetrain technology is licensed by Toyota; it’s essentially a Prius with a Nissan body.

Leaf uses a lithium-ion battery pack and regenerative braking to keep the juice flowing. The battery is under the seats and floor, allowing for the expected interior room in a car its size.

No pricing and little performance information has been released, but Nissan promises the Leaf will be “competitively priced” in its segment, which is what we’d expect them to say.

It’s estimated the battery pack alone now costs Nissan as much as $10,000; they may initially lease the pack to Leaf owners, with new batteries installed when necessary at no extra charge (pun intended). Those costs will drop quickly as production advances; Nissan says they’ll be building 200,000 Leafs (Leaves?) by 2012, and other car makers are planning their own EVs or hybrids using lithium-ion technology.

Nissan claims a top speed of more than 80 mph for Leaf and a range of over 100 miles-per-charge.

The company says Leaf can be fully recharged via a 220-volt household outlet in under eight hours and will also charge to 80 percent of its capacity in less than half an hour if a to-be-available quick charger is used.

Japan’s second leading car maker also says the electric motor will develop 80 kilowatts, which is the equivalent of about 107 horsepower.

Ghosn says they’ll build the car in Japan, Great Britain and Smyrna, Tenn., where Nissan has their U.S. manufacturing plants. And the company has already begun investing the billions necessary to get those assembly lines up-and-running.

Leaf is just the latest big news from Nissan since Ghosn started running the company in 1999.

A corporation in serious trouble when he took over, Ghosn cut the company’s home country workforce, a then-necessary action a Japanese executive might not have been able to do because of Japan’s tradition of lifetime employment.

That got the attention of everyone in the country; people liked his swagger and outspokenness, qualities almost never found in Japanese executives. In fact, those very traits can keep an executive from moving up in their career. Ghosn is likened to Akio Morita, founder of Sony, and Soichiro Honda, the two major “un-Japanese-like” gods in the pantheon of Japan Inc.

The jury is still out on Ghosn’s cost-cutting move of Nissan’s American headquarters from Gardena to Nashville. The Southern California lifestyle has always been a major influence on Nissan’s U.S. products, starting with the Z-car (almost 40 years ago). What inspiration Tennessee might offer remains to be seen. The company’s styling studio, Nissan Design International, is still located in La Jolla … at least for now.

Leaf, when it goes into production, will represent a bunch of “firsts,” but perhaps most importantly it will put pressure on every other major car maker to mass produce their own EV, which is a real car, and more than a glorified golf cart.

And if all goes as Ghosn hopes, Leaf will also represent proof-positive that an uncompromising point-of-view and vision for the future are still good things in an auto industry leader.

Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winner who has covered the world’s auto industry and motor racing for over 35 years. He created, writes and moderates the only all-automotive blog on The Huffington Post at www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-parker. Parker hosts live one-hour automotive and motor racing call-in radio shows each Saturday and Sunday at 5 p.m. on www.TalkRadioOne.com. Contact Steve through his own automotive issues Web site at www.SteveParker.com.

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