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.
The simplest, which Nissan calls "Phase One," is likely to be the most popular. This mode's charger requires only a 120-volt electrical supply, meaning it can be plugged into virtually any existing AC outlet without extensive modifications. That can't be said for Phase Two, which uses a hard-wired 220-volt supply to cut the charge times in half. Both chargers use a connector patterned after a new SAE standard, allowing them to be used on multiple makes and models in the future.
Even more preparation is required to install a Phase Three charger, which is still under development. In this mode, a whopping 400-600 volts are channeled into the vehicle, allowing it to recharge the battery to an 80-percent state (any more would severely tax the battery) in a scant 25 minutes. Given the cost demanded by such a system, Nissan says it thinks it's something municipalities would invest in. We think gas stations interested in playing to the EV crowd could figure out a way to sell access to such a device, allowing drivers to further their range.
Such a charger may incur a slight premium, but the electric car itself won't. Dominique says there will be "no price penalty," as the car will likely sticker between $25,000 and $30,000. Assuming the cost of electricity is approximately $0.14 per kilowatt-hour during peak hours, the car will cost less than a nickel per mile to operate - less, perhaps, if driven more than 15,000 miles annually.
Nissan plans on unveiling the finished product in 2010, offering early examples to fleet customers and development partners the same year. Production units won't make their way into the hands of consumers globally until 2012.
In Short (Circuit)
Price: $25,000 - $30,000. Cars will be sold and leased to consumers in a normal fashion beginning in 2012.
Powertrain: 107-hp AC induction motor powering the front wheels. Power is sourced from a 35-kWh lithium-ion battery packaged beneath the front and rear seats.
Class: Five-passenger compact; most likely a hatchback. Sized between Sentra and Versa, rendering it comparable to the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.
Body structure: Unitized construction, likely an aluminum-intensive structure.
Performance: Top speed of approximately 85-90 mph.
Nissan estimates a 100-mile range on a single charge. Depending on the voltage, charging can be performed in under a half-hour.