Independent, Expert EV Reviews & Advice Since 2006

Nissan’s Electric Future

Nissan claims it will be the first manufacturer to offer UK motorists a family hatchback that has been designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle.

The company says the car will be with us by 2011, and Green-Car-Guide has driven the prototype of the vehicle. Ignore the boxy body of the Cube EV-02 you see in the pictures; the car won’t look like this but the powertrain underneath this EV-02 test car will be virtually the same as you will get in the final production car.

If, like many motorists, you’re not sure about the idea of an electric car, you’ll be relieved to hear that this test car is excellent to drive. Forget what you may have read about quadricycle electric cars you can buy today; the EV-02 is way ahead in terms of the acceptability of the driving experience.

Imagine how a small 110hp automatic car feels to drive and you’ll be close to visualising how the EV-02 behaves. However you then need to factor in the torque of a 3-litre V6 engine. Then you need to imagine the maximum torque being available at all times from the electric motor that is reputed to spin up to around 12,000rpm. Finally, you need to make the car virtually silent. Then you’ll end up with a good impression of how Nissan’s first mass-market electric car feels to drive.

If you think that changing gear is a bit of a bore, then you’ll like electric cars – they have no gearbox, just a reducer to make the car go forwards or backwards. In fact an electric car has much lower maintenance requirements than a conventionally-engined car; mechanically an EV is mostly comprised of just a battery, an electric motor, and an inverter that conveys the electricity from the battery to the electric motor.

Nissan has taken an interesting approach to green cars. The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the company is not making any effort to turn its cars green. Nissan does not have any hybrids, or even any super-low emission model variants on the market in the UK at the moment. The company has instead chosen to miss out the intermediate stage of low emission internal combustion engine models, and has gone straight for an all-out electric vehicle.

Against a backdrop of climate change and peak oil, you may have noticed that all the talk is now about electric vehicles, so perhaps Nissan has made a shrewd move to focus on this area. Electric cars themselves emit zero CO2, and even with today’s mix of electricity generation, the emissions including the electricity generation stage are significantly less than that of an equivalent petrol or diesel engine. This lifecycle CO2 figure will reduce still further as the planned increases in renewable energy generation come on line. And Nissan claims that its first EV will be 99% recyclable.

So if the company’s first electric car doesn’t look like the Cube, what will it look like? Well, all will be revealed very soon, in early August 2009 in fact, at Nissan’s new Yokohama HQ prior to the official public launch at the Tokyo Motor Show.

Nissan says the styling will be a ‘transition’ – neither a bland hatchback that will merge in with today’s conventionally-powered cars, nor something so radical that it will be a step too far for car buyers. All that the company will say at the moment is that the car will be a 4/5 seat, 5-door hatchback with ‘no compromises’ in terms of the driving experience and accommodation. It will have an all-new platform, designed around the flat under-car battery, although some components will be derived from an existing C-segment Nissan. Production will start in 2010 with sales in Japan and North America in the same year.

In terms of performance, the car will have a top speed of around 90mph, 0-60mph in a similar time to today’s 110hp C-segment hatchbacks, and a range of 100 miles after a 6-8 hour charge (a 30 minute charge from a high voltage source will give an 80% charge). This range may be less than that of the car you own today, however all the statistics prove that most people drive much smaller distances than this on an average day.

Nissan has not been developing the car all on its own. A key factor in Nissan being able to bring the vehicle to market is the battery technology. Nissan has a joint venture with NEC, who has developed the lithium-ion batteries, so saving Nissan the hassle of doing this. Nissan after all makes cars, not batteries.

Also, Nissan has another partner in the form of Renault. The Renault-Nissan Alliance has jointly developed the project and both companies have shared technologies in order to make the process as efficient and cost-effective as possible. In comparison, the first EV that Renault is bringing to market is a light van, but both Renault and Nissan plan to roll out other model variants after the launch of the initial car.

Apart from working on the cars themselves, the Alliance has also been doing a lot of work on developing infrastructure partnerships around the world, and especially in Europe. It’s the classic chicken and egg scenario. What comes first? Electric cars? Or the ability to recharge them?

The answer is obviously that both need to happen at around the same time. Which is why the Alliance has been working with a wide range of organisations ranging from governments to power companies in order to develop the infrastructure necessary to enable the company to market its EVs. Even car hire companies such as Europcar are a partner; the idea is that if you buy a Nissan EV and you find yourself needing to drive to Scotland, then Europcar will do a good deal on hire rates.

However there is also the ‘Project Better Place’ model, the idea being that when you run out of juice in your battery, you pull in to a garage and take the battery out, replacing it with a fully charged one. When Nissan’s EV arrives in the UK it initially won’t have a ‘quick-drop’ battery, although this could be engineered for subsequent vehicles. Nissan does not seem convinced that this battery replacement model will work, especially in terms of roadside garages always having the right type of battery in stock.

Beyond the car itself, Nissan has a vision that includes a variety of innovative ideas. Apart from the having the ability to charge your car at home and work, the company sees charging happening by simply driving down a road – ‘contact-free’ charging. The company also envisages that access to urban areas will become easier and cheaper in an EV.

So if everyone buys an electric car, will it mean there won’t be enough electricity to recharge them? Well, it’s highly unlikely that the entire UK motoring population will change to EVs overnight. Nissan reckons that 10% of our cars will be electric by 2020. By that stage we will have new power generation, including the third stage of offshore windfarms, which should be generating renewable energy throughout the night, when electric cars will be recharged.

What about the price? Nissan says that the price of its electric cars will be comparable with a similarly-sized petrol hatchback – after you get a reduction of up to £5000 promised by the UK government to kick-start the purchase of electric vehicles.

However, then there is the issue of the battery – which is not necessarily included in the purchase price. Nissan shares the view of other EV manufacturers that when you buy a petrol or diesel car you don’t pay up-front for all the fuel for the entire ownership period of the vehicle, so why should you pay for the entire battery cost up front? Therefore in most countries, probably including the UK, (but dependent upon local market conditions says Nissan), it’s likely that there will be a monthly cost on top of the purchase price for the leasing of the battery.

In addition to that will be the price of electricity, however that is likely to be around 20% of the cost of petrol or diesel (mile for mile). Overall, electric cars are likely to be cheaper to run than petrol or diesel, costing £2-£3 to charge overnight, and needing 2-3 charges to match the range of a full tank of fuel. This differential should increase as fossil fuels run out and prices increase, and as incentives for EVs get rolled out and taxes on petrol and diesel cars rise.

For around one hundred years the progress of the automobile has edged forward incrementally. Now we suddenly find ourselves at a point in time when evolution has stopped, and we are in a revolution. A few years ago most people thought they would never be driving viable electric cars in the foreseeable future. Nissan may be about to lead the way in changing that expectation. However a change of mindset from motorists will be needed to embrace the new world of EVs, and Nissan is also planning to have influence here.

Thanks to Richard Bremner for modelling the EV-02 in our photographs.