May 9, 2009

Nissan's zippy electric car should generate lots of buyers

Nissan plucked a prototype of its electric car from a demonstration for Washington, D.C., bigwigs and brought it to USA TODAY Wednesday for a runaround.

The body and interior are not at all like the production version. That'll be a four-door, front-wheel-drive hatchback that can hold four or five passengers. But the battery pack and electric motor in the prototype are the same that'll be in the small car, which will start down the assembly line in fall 2010 in Japan.

And when you get to drive a car this far ahead of time — one that the automaker says is "90% there" in performance — how can you not drive and dish?

The still-unnamed Nissan electric, like the Chevrolet Volt electric reviewed last Friday, was a mule: a body from a car about the right size snugged over the correct running gear and chassis. Nissan is using the body of a previous-generation Cube, a small car for the Japan market.

Nissan is short on specifics. We don't know, for instance, the capacity of the lithium-ion battery pack, which runs down the center under the floorboards. It'll be at least a 16-kilowatt-hour pack. Nissan promises the car will qualify for the $7,500 U.S. federal tax credit, and that requires 16kWh. Volt's pack is 16kWh.

The motor was right-by-gosh-now powerful, which is typical of electrics. Unlike gasoline engines, electrics deliver all their torque the moment they begin to turn. No need to rev.

Here's a bet: Americans in urban or busy suburban areas will fall in love with electrics' instant response. Hole in traffic? You're there.

The Nissan felt quicker than Volt. But there was no side-by-side comparison or stopwatch, so that's totally seat-of-the-pants.

Nissan engineers differ considerably from rivals on how to tune the regenerative braking. Regen braking is the system that turns the electric motor into a generator on deceleration and throws some juice back into the battery pack.

You'd never know the Nissan even had regen braking, based on the mule. Lift the throttle, the car slows exactly the way you're used to. Hit the brake pedal, and the car slows more, in exactly the way you're used to.

Nissan says the car will sell best to mainstream buyers if it's, well, exactly the way they're used to.

Regen braking in some electrics slows the car severely the moment you ease pressure on the throttle and gets even more aggressive when you hit the brakes. Nissan engineers believe that's the wrong approach. "We want the driving experience to be transparent," says Mark Perry, U.S. director of product planning for Nissan.

Truly, it was a refreshing change. The motor is still acting as a generator and refilling the battery, but the oddball feel and typical whine were absent.

To be clear: Electric cars have conventional brakes. The regen system is a recharging setup. It isn't the primary way to slow or stop the car.

The nod to mainstream buyers is a big issue for Nissan. It must begin selling at least 100,000 electrics a year in the U.S. as soon as 2012 to meet its business plan, and to prevent demanding CEO Carlos Ghosn from whacking some heads.

The Nissan is pure electric. You drive until the battery pack is low, then stop and plug in for a recharge. Unlike the Volt, it has no "range extender" gasoline engine. But Nissan says its car will go 100 miles on a charge compared with Volt's 40 miles on battery before Volt's gas engine has to start running to generate power.

Nissan says 100 miles covers about 98% of daily driving needs in America.

As is becoming the norm, Nissan will encourage customers to have a heavy-duty circuit, typically called 220 volts, because that charges much faster than plugging into a standard 110- to 120-volt household outlet. A few hours vs. overnight.

Eventually, merchants and offices may offer 480-volt "fast-charge" hookups — 30 minutes or less — as a shopper lure or worker perquisite.

All Nissan will say about price is that it should be about the same as a bigger family sedan. So — wild guess — maybe $25,000 for a car that — if not electric — would be $15,000.

In return, you can ignore gas stations. And even where it's expensive, electricity's cheaper than gas. Nissan swears its electric makes economic sense even if gasoline were just $1.10 a gallon.

The body and interior will play a big role in the car's appeal. But if the mule was a true harbinger, nobody's likely to reject it because of how it drives.

By James R. Healey, USA TODAY

5-8-09

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