NASHVILLE -- Nissan Motor Co. has agreed to buy back two of the seven Leaf electric cars whose owners in Arizona have publicly raised concerns about aging batteries.
The gesture could help mollify a small group of Leaf owners and green-car enthusiasts who have been raising questions about whether the electric car's battery is too quickly losing its ability to hold an adequate charge.
In response, Nissan earlier this week said it would enlist an independent, global panel to help it communicate with worried Leaf owners that there is nothing wrong with their batteries.
"We are not happy that we have any customers with concerns and we're working hard to improve our customer communications to better meet their expectations," Nissan chief spokesman Dave Reuter said. "In Phoenix, we have sold approximately 450 vehicles, with the majority of those to very satisfied owners. In fact, worldwide Leaf customers are some of Nissan's most satisfied. It's important that this perceived issue is placed in context."
The concerns of seven disgruntled owners -- raised publicly and posted on environmental websites and online forums -- comes as Nissan prepares to begin mass production of the Leaf in Smyrna, Tenn.
Nissan is just days away from starting up a factory there that will produce as many as 200,000 lithium ion battery modules annually, supporting a new Leaf assembly plant built to supply U.S. dealers with 150,000 electric cars a year.
The U.S. project has cost Nissan $1.6 billion and is part of a global, multi-site $5 billion Leaf manufacturing program.
The small group of Phoenix customers believes that their Leafs are not holding a charge as long as they should be after only a year or two of use.
Nissan attempted to respond quickly to the complaints this summer, but has been unable to resolve them.
Last weekend, Nissan's head of North American research and development, Carla Bailo, posted an open letter on the Leaf owner website, mynissanleaf.com, announcing that the company has asked electric-car advocate and former General Motors marketing manager Chelsea Sexton to form a worldwide group to help it communicate to owners about the Leaf.
Nissan said the panel will independently review data that Nissan engineers have compiled to investigate the complaints.
"Members would be selected by Chelsea, not Nissan, and they would recommend their own mandate," Bailo's letter says. "But our hope is that they would hold up a mirror to us and help us to be more open and approachable in our communication and to advise us on our strategy.
"We at Nissan stand by our product, and we also stand by our customers."
Nissan has repeatedly reminded buyers that the Leaf's lithium ion battery modules will lose their ability to hold a charge with age. But they should retain 80 percent of their charging capacity after five years of use, the factory has made clear.
The seven Phoenix owners claim that their batteries are losing capacity after only a couple of years, and have questioned whether the product is flawed.
In response, Nissan took all seven Leafs to undergo tests at its Arizona proving grounds. Engineers found that the cars in question simply had higher-than-normal mileage, Bailo said in her public letter.
She said Nissan concluded that the battery performance was in line with the wear and tear on the specific cars.
In estimating the Leaf's battery will hold 80 percent of its original charge after five years, Nissan said it assumed owners would drive, on average, 12,500 miles a year.
Reuter said Thursday that Sexton's independent panel will serve as an intermediary on questions about Leaf technology, help Nissan understand customer concerns and also help Nissan reassure customers.
He said the panel -- which has not been formed yet -- will be presented with all of Nissan's data on the situation.
"We're not going to say to the panel, 'Take our word for it,'" Reuter said. "We're going to give them all of our data to see for themselves. The data shows that the car is performing as it should be.
"We're 100 percent certain that there is no defect."
Separately, Reuter said that Mark Perry, Nissan's director of product planning for the Leaf since the project began and a familiar face in national electric-car circles for the past few years, will retire from Nissan on Friday.
Reuter said Perry, 55, has been planning the retirement for months.
The Leaf, which first went on sale in December 2010 as a low-volume import from Japan, now retails for $36,050 including destination charges, and is eligible for a $7,500 federal credit.
About 14,000 Leafs have been sold to U.S. consumers over the past two years, and about 37,000 globally.
Nissan also plans to use the same lithium ion battery to fuel an upcoming Infiniti vehicle, a small commercial van, and an electric taxi that will be used in New York City and possibly other cities.
Reuter said Nissan negotiated to buy back the two Leafs in Phoenix in accordance with Arizona law.
"The Arizona state repurchase law was only used for formula guidance in determining appropriate terms and conditions of the repurchase, including calculation of the repurchase amount," Reuter said.
The company said the remaining five Phoenix Leaf owners had not expressed interest in selling their cars.