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by Tim Beissmann

A number of Nissan LEAF owners in the US and Japan have had difficulty restarting their new electric vehicles, but Nissan has not recalled the cars because it says it is not a safety issue.

Nissan has traced the fault back to the LEAF’s air-conditioning unit and is continuing to investigate whether the defect is a hardware issue or a programming one.

Nissan says the number of affected vehicles is only small, but considering that the LEAF has only been on sale globally since December, the total number was never going to be large. So far, 452 Nissan LEAFs have been delivered in the US.

Nissan today explained the issue was caused by a malfunctioning sensor in the air-conditioning system but insisted the defect did not make the LEAF unsafe.

“If this sensor is activated it will illuminate a warning light on the instrument panel and may cause the vehicle to not restart once it has been turned off,” Nissan said in a statement.

“This is not a safety issue as the vehicle will not stop running while being driven but may not restart after being turned off. We are actively investigating to determine the root cause and what action is necessary to address the issue.”

Nissan has received more 20,000 pre-orders for the LEAF in the US and 6000 in Japan, accounting for its entire first year of production.

It won the 2011 European Car of the Year award and is a finalist in the 2011 World Car of the Year contest.

Nissan will be desperate to identify the root of the problem and find a solution as quickly as possible. All manufacturers currently face an uphill battle to convince the public that electric vehicles are reliable, and the longer the saga drags out the more damage it will do to the LEAF and EVs in general.

The Nissan LEAF will go on sale in Australia in the first half of 2012.