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Nissan lifts U.S. output of electric Leaf as sales rise

A 2013 all electric Nissan Leaf is seen at the Washington Auto show February 6, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

DETROIT (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co Ltd has lifted U.S. production of its all-electric Leaf by about 50 percent to 3,000 units a month to meet growing demand for the car, the head of the Japanese automaker's North American operations said on Tuesday.

Jose Munoz said the Leaf logged record sales of 2,500 units in December and was now the best-selling car in some dealerships in Atlanta, where the government is helping promote the technology, outpacing the Altima sedan.

"This car somehow some years ago was not so appealing in terms of the business for the dealers," Munoz told a group of reporters at the Detroit auto show. "Now the dealers are very positive, they are making business, they are selling cars."

The pickup in sales was driven in large part by Nissan's decision to cut its price by more than $6,000 to $29,650 at the beginning of last year after a shift in production of the model to the United States allowed it to lower manufacturing costs.

Demand for electric vehicles has generally failed to live up to expectations set when models like the Leaf and General Motors Co's (GM.N) gasoline-electric hybrid Volt were being developed.

Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan and its French partner Renault SA (RNO.PA), recently pushed back by two to three years an initial target to sell a combined 1.5 million vehicles by March 2017.

While volumes are still at relatively low levels for a production car -- sales more than doubled last year to above 22,000 in the U.S. market -- Munoz said momentum was building.

One factor is the increase in charging stations in Atlanta and cities such as Seattle and San Francisco on the West Coast. There are currently 554 quick-charging stations, and more than 15,000 slower "level 2" public charging stations across the U.S., Nissan estimates.

"In those areas where we have been able to work together with the government to develop the infrastructure is where we are seeing that the vehicle is really selling well," Munoz said.

The Leaf's customer base is also evolving. While at first most Leaf buyers were green enthusiasts, increasingly customers focused on the potential cost benefits of owning an electric car are showing up at its dealerships, Munoz said.

As a result, it has recently increased prices on some versions of the Leaf, Munoz said.

Nissan produces the Leaf at its Smyrna, Tennessee plant.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne; editing by Andrew Hay)