Nissan unveils zero-emission hatchback "Leaf"

YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co took the wraps off its much-awaited electric car on Sunday, naming the hatchback “Leaf” and taking a step toward its goal of leading the industry in the zero-emission field.

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Japan’s No.3 automaker and its French partner, Renault SA, have been the most aggressive proponents of pure electric vehicles in the auto industry, announcing plans to mass-market the clean but expensive cars globally in 2012.

Nissan will begin selling the first Leaf cars in the United States and Japan in the latter half of next year, adding more models in rapid succession.

Twinning the car’s unveiling with the inauguration of Nissan’s new global headquarters in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn drove up to the stage in a sky-blue Leaf prototype, carrying former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and two other guests to greet a throng of journalists who made the trip from all over the world.

“We celebrate today the start of a new chapter of our company’s life,” Ghosn said.

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Nissan is returning to the port city of Yokohama, where it was founded in 1933, after being based in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district for the last 41 years.

Hit by sliding vehicle sales worldwide since the financial crisis hit last year, Nissan has suspended its goals set under a mid-term business plan, with the exception of its aggressive push into the electric car business.

Nissan did not announce pricing for the five-seater Leaf, but Ghosn said the price, without the expensive lithium-ion battery that Nissan expects to lease, would be within the range of a comparable gasoline-engine car.

Other automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp and Volkswagen AG have also announced plans to launch electric cars in the next several years, but expect implementation to take time due to the vehicle’s high cost, limited driving range and long charging times.

Nissan’s Leaf will have a cruising range of 160 km (100 miles) and a top speed of over 140 km/hour (76 mph).

Editing by Dean Yates