Nissan EV-02 prototype - click above for a high res gallery

Among the world's high-volume manufacturers, two stand apart from the crowd in their efforts to bring battery electric vehicles to the masses. Nissan and Mitsubishi have been diligently developing EVs, and traveling the world to sign agreements with utilities, research organizations and governments to promote the deployment of charging infrastructure to support those vehicles. Nissan, in particular, has formed partnerships Arizona (Phoenix and Tucson), California, Monaco, China, Ireland, Zürich, and Tennessee, among many others. Right now, Nissan North America is in the middle of a nationwide tour with one of its prototype electric vehicles, letting journalists and local officials try it out. Last week, the tour stopped in Novi, MI where we had an opportunity to take a quick drive in the Cube-based powertrain mule.

Nissan is planning to introduce a new purpose-built electric car in the fall of 2010. Nissan has been developing and testing electric cars since at least the mid-1990s and leased limited numbers of its Altra EV late in the decade when California was mandating zero emissions vehicles. The company has continued down that path ever since and VP of product planning Larry Dominique explained that the company believes electrically-driven vehicles will be essential to meeting reduction targets for atmospheric CO2. Meeting those targets will require getting vehicle greenhouse gas emissions down to 20-40 g/km well-to-wheel by 2050. The first step in that process is the company's upcoming EV. Read on to learn more about where Nissan is going and how the current prototype drives.

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In the near term while EVs remain low volume, Nissan will continue to improve internal combustion engines including both gasoline and diesel engines. In 2010 Nissan will also debut an in-house developed hybrid system in the new Infiniti M. Long-term, Nissan is still actively pursuing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles which it believes will live alongside battery vehicles for various applications. The car of the moment, though, is the new EV.

The powertrain and energy storage system that will appear in the new car is currently be tested in examples of the first-generation Cube like the one we drove. Just as every other manufacturer is doing, Nissan is pursuing lithium ion battery technology. Also like a number of other carmakers, Nissan has formed a joint-venture with a battery maker to produce the cells. In Nissan's case, Automotive Energy Supply Corp is a partnership with NEC and NEC Tokin. AESC is developing a large format prismatic cell much like those being done by other companies. Not much detail is available about the chemistry at this point except for the fact that it will use manganese anodes.

Those cells will be combined into a horizontally arranged pack that, like in the Cube mule, will be mounted under the floor. The car itself will be a C-segment compact similar in size to a Versa or Sentra, but with an completely new design. If the image in the presentation (below) is representative, then Nissan will be taking advantage of the small size of the electric motor to create a very low hood. Under that hood will be an AC induction motor driving the front wheels. The 35 kWh battery pack is sized to give a nominal range of about 100 miles.

Most other carmakers with battery joint ventures plan to keep the battery supplies to themselves. Not so with AESC. As production volumes increase, Nissan plans to offer up lithium ion batteries to any companies that are interested.

So far, Nissan has tested the Cube mule on the LA4 driving cycle and is easily able to achieve that. Of course, your mileage will vary depending on factors like using headlights, heaters, and other accessories. Nissan engineers are working diligently to optimize all electrical systems in the car to minimize energy consumption. The structure of the car will use plenty of aluminum to keep weight down as well as the usual low rolling resistance tires.

Nissan is also working to minimize resource usage in all aspects of the new EV. The materials that comprise the bulk of the 5 door hatchback will be made from recycled materials and the car as a whole will be 99 percent recyclable. The plant that is to initially build the car in Japan has wind turbines that provide much of its electricity needs.

But what about the prototype? Like the first-generation Scion xB, the Cube is a relatively tall car that is surprisingly roomy inside relative to its exterior dimensions. The powertrain in the car is largely representative of what will be in the production car, although engineers are still doing fine tuning and calibration work. As usual, the electric motor produces plenty of low end torque and sends it to the wheels through a simple reduction gear set. Stepping on the accelerator (there is of course no throttle in this zero emissions vehicle) brings with it brisk acceleration.

Like most EVs, driving this prototype is a largely uneventful experience. We only got to take a couple of laps around a course set up in the parking lot of the Rock Financial Showplace. The car sat silently, already "running." Once seats and mirrors were adjusted, we put the shifter into Drive and pressed the go-pedal. Aside from the eerie silence, the EV drove like pretty much any other contemporary car. The electric power steering feels good, with decent weighting and the brakes didn't exhibit any peculiarities during blending of regenerative and friction braking.

One advantage of electric vehicles is that although the batteries add a lot of mass, that mass is concentrated low in the car which aids handling. The result is that, although the EV-02 is taller than most cars, its cornering stance is comparatively flat. Since the first-generation Cube was a Japan market only car, this prototype is right hand drive. Unlike the normal production Cube's bench seats, the prototype has four individual bucket seats mounted atop the two parts of the battery pack sections. The larger production car will have the pack rearranged into a lower flatter format allowing seating for up to five.

Like other similar cars, a full charge on a 240V circuit should take 3-4 hours although it will be possible to do a quick 80 percent charge from a high current circuit in about 25 minutes. The battery management system will allow the battery to be quick charged only up to 80 percent and then slow down the charge rate. This is being done to prevent over-charging and damaging the battery. Nissan is still looking at battery swapping as a longer term solution, but the logistics are difficult. In spite of Nissan's partnership with Better Place in Israel and Denmark, it is unlikely that swappable batteries will be available in the U.S. anytime soon.

The new car will be equipped with the SAE standard J1772 connector that is expected to be finalized by this fall. That means the car will be able to be charged from any similarly-equipped charging station.

At first, the new car will be built in low volumes which will initially go to commercial and government fleets for field testing. As production is ramped through 2011, some cars may be made available to retail customers. By 2012, Nissan plans to have global retail availability of the EV. Over the coming years, Nissan will also start making electric drivetrains available in other cars as an alternative to internal combustion engines. Dominique tells us that by 2015, Nissan anticipates that as much as 10 percent of Nissan's global volume could be EVs.

One interesting aspect of Nissan's EV program is the pricing. The plan is for the new EV to be priced at about $25-33,000. With an estimated efficiency equivalent of 367 mpg based on EPA formulas, Dominique expects the total cost of ownership of the EV to be similar to a similarly-sized and equipped ICE car when factoring in fuel costs.

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