Nissan pins green hopes to new electric car

YOKOSUKA, Japan — The mock-up of Nissan's highly anticipated electric car starts with beautiful silence when you turn the key and then cruises off with a satisfying electric hum.

But it also lugs 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of lithium ion battery packs, enough to fill the floor space in the back seat and force passengers to scrunch up their legs.

The test car also does 0 to 100 kph (0 to 62 mph) in a tepid 13 seconds.

There's a lot at stake in getting this car right. It is scheduled to debut in 2010, and it is the centerpiece of Nissan's plan to leapfrog Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. in green technology. Its mission: Make Nissan a pioneer not only in lithium ion batteries but also in zero-emissions vehicles.

Urban runabouts

The back seat issue is mostly a layout problem. The mock-up's electric drivetrain was wedged into the chassis of a Nissan Cube compact for test purposes. When the vehicle debuts in two years, it will be a new model — presumably with ample room for the battery. More important than space will be battery performance.

Nissan's lithium ion formula calls for flat, laminated cells with manganese anodes and carbon cathodes. They are cheaper and less prone to overheating than lithium ion batteries based on other chemistries, such as nickel-cobalt, Nissan says.

Nissan's first test will come against Mitsubishi's i MiEV electric car, which goes on sale next year. Both cars are powered by lithium ion batteries and are envisioned as compact urban runabouts.

It's difficult to judge the performance of the Cube vs. the i MiEV, because the Cube is bigger. But the test Cube's batteries are twice as heavy as the i MiEV's.

What's more, Nissan's battery has a range of 62 miles compared with the i MiEV's 100 miles.

In the end, pricing will be key, says Mitsuhiko Yamashita, Nissan's r&d chief. Lithium ion batteries account for up to 30 percent of the total cost of electric vehicles, he says.

The only way to make electric vehicles affordable at the start will be through government incentives such as tax breaks, Yamashita says. Nissan is pursuing that track in agreements with governments in Israel, Portugal and Denmark, as well as in Tennessee.

The electric vehicle was shown alongside Nissan's upcoming hybrid vehicle at a technology showcase last week at the company's Oppama proving grounds south of Tokyo.

Gas pedal pushes back

Among other innovations Nissan showed off:

-- An Eco Pedal accelerator that pushes back when lead-footed drivers stomp on the gas. The idea is to encourage more gentle, fuel-efficient driving. The feature will debut next year.

-- A Safety Shield all-around collision-prevention system that uses sensors to monitor rear blind spots when shifting lanes or backing. It uses braking to steer the car away from danger.

-- Smart Auto headlights that are sensitive to light conditions. They automatically turn on earlier at twilight but aren't fooled by driving into darkened areas such as shadows. 

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com

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