Nissan EV (© Jacob Gordon)Click to enlarge picture

Having fallen behind domestic rivals such as Honda and Toyota in the green stakes, Nissan decided to make EVs the focus of its eco-strategy by announcing it will be the first manufacturer to mass-produce a fully electric horseless carriage.

Nissan Motors recently announced plans to bring an affordably priced electric car to the U.S. market by 2010, raising the stakes in the race to develop environmentally friendly, zero-emission vehicles by being the first major automaker to commit to delivering an electric vehicle (EV) for a certain market by a certain date. While Nissan's yet-to-be-named initial offering will most likely be a small economy-sized car, Carlos Ghosn, the Japanese automaker's chief executive, says the company also plans to roll out a complete line of EVs in all shapes and sizes worldwide by 2012.

According to Ghosn, Nissan's decision to accelerate its EV development program into hyperdrive stemmed from growing public concerns over soaring prices at gas pumps and the negative environmental impact of fossil fuel use, rather than the need to meet stricter U.S. fuel-economy standards that take effect in 2015. Having fallen behind Japanese rivals Honda and Toyota in hybrids, Nissan has definitely made the EV the pillar of its green strategy.

Although Ghosn was willing to share his company's position on electric-powered cars, he was unwilling to share any real details about the new electric products. However, company sources tell us that the car will not be a version of an existing model, but rather a uniquely designed sedan with room for up to five passengers. It will be powered by a special breed of laminated lithium-ion batteries made by consumer electronics giant NEC. Minoru Shinohara, Senior Vice President of the Nissan-NEC joint venture, claims the new battery pack (which will lie flat under the car's floor and won't intrude on cabin or trunk space like the one in the Nissan Altima Hybrid) is capable of traveling up to 124 miles between charges.

While this kind of range is respectable, it's still about half the distance claimed by the exotic Tesla Roadster (220 miles). Charging time, drive motor and specific performance specs are still highly guarded secrets. However, sources say the car will offer performance comparable to that of Nissan's most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered automobiles.

Although the automaker declined to discuss how much the vehicles would cost, Mark Perry, Nissan's North American director of EV and Advanced Technology strategy, stressed that they would be priced competitively with comparable vehicles, and that the first EV will cost "considerably less" than the $40,000 price tag expected for the Chevy Volt, General Motors' plug-in hybrid due in 2010.

As the electric car market continues to grow, one thing is for certain: Nissan wants to be a frontrunner. "We are determined to achieve zero-emission-vehicle leadership," says Perry. "Not just to be a competitor, not to just have a few vehicles, but to lead the market in quality and number of EVs."

Are electric vehicles really ready for prime time?

While Nissan hasn't played in the electric since marketing its J-cool Hyper Mini, which was built from 2000-2003 in Japan, its experience with battery power goes back over 60 years, starting with the Tama in 1947. A box-shaped two-door with seating for five, the Tama featured an upright posture giving drivers a commanding view of the road and offered plenty of cargo room. Yet it was respectably compact, perfect for city dwellers with limited parking possibilities.

Nissan will need to rely on this experience as Japanese rival Mitsubishi Motors Corp., working with Japanese battery maker GS Yuasa Corp., said it was building a plant in Japan to mass-produce lithium-ion batteries for its electric vehicle. Mitsubishi plans to have the vehicle available for rental next year and for sale the following year. Meanwhile, both Ford and Toyota are working on plug-in electric hybrids for release during the same timeframe.

Jacob Gordon is a freelance writer, a blogger for TreeHugger.com and a producer of TreeHugger Radio. He can be reached at jacob@treehugger.com.

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