Driving Nissan's Electric Cube

This may look like a run-of-the-mill Nissan Cube, but in order to grasp its importance, you need to think outside - or underneath, rather - the box. You're looking at an early prototype for Nissan's forthcoming electric vehicle, due late next year.

Having slid behind the wheel for a brief spin, we walked away impressed. The low-end torque of the 107-hp AC motor is grin-inducing, and plays well with the Cube's already agile chassis. Both the electric power steering and regenerative braking elicit a natural feel - a tremendous feat, but engineers claim further refinement is needed before it's installed in the production EV.

Don't expect that car to be built from the boxy-chic Cube, however. Although it will be a compact car, Nissan's developing an all-new platform for the electric. Larry Dominique, Nissan's vice president of product planning, says some parts for the new five-passenger vehicle will be culled from Nissan's B- and C-segment lines (Versa and Sentra, respectively), but at least 80 percent will be new.

That may sound odd, considering other firms are complacent in converting existing products into electric vehicles, but there's a good reason for taking this route: packaging. While these prototypes were built from the seven-seat Cube Cubic (a Japanese-market exclusive), they seat only four, with batteries squeezed between bucket seats in the first and second rows.

Such an arrangement works well for testing future powertrain, but won't attract consumers. "This has to and will be a real car," says Dominique. "There will be other EVs out there, but we want to show that this can be used by families as a primary vehicle."

If Nissan's figures hold true, that may well be possible. Thanks to lithium-ion polymer batteries developed by a joint venture between Nissan and NEC, the EV should have a fairly substantial range. Early tests using the EPA's LA-4 test cycle indicate the car will travel just over 100 miles on a single charge, yielding the equivalent of 367 mpg.

Obtaining that charge, however, may flummox most buyers. EVs aren't like normal cars - unless you're in a handful of progressive cities across North America, charging stations are few and far between, perpetuating the "range anxiety" mentality often hyped by proponents of hybrid vehicles.

This isn't lost on Nissan, which has partnered with several groups, including tech firms, utility companies, and municipalities, to develop a method for growing the charging infrastructure. Presently, Nissan's electric architecture will be capable of charging in three different ways, each suited to a different situation or installation locale.

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