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Renault Nissan Alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn at unveiling of Leap electric car.
Renault Nissan Alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn at unveiling of LEAF electric car at new corporate headquarters in Yokohama, Japan. Photo by Stephen Clemenger.

Judgment Day for Nissan

EV World's Japan correspondent offers his personal perspective on the Nissan Leaf electric car

By Stephen Clemenger

On the 2nd of August 2009, just after 10:18am at Nissan’s new Headquarters in Yokohama, their new EV, the LEAF, was driven on stage to a waiting of audience of VIP’s, Journalists and invited family members of Nissan employees. All of them got to see, for the first time, what the cover of Nissans EV story looked like. And every one of them made an instant opinion, of whether they liked it or not- it was thus Nissan EV’s Judgment day.

Now over two weeks on, you have probably consumed and digested all the news and details about the Nissan LEAF? Maybe you even caught the excellent video on EV World, of the LEAF (Lithium powered Environmental Affordable Family car), driving on the road? And from all of this you too have made up your mind, as to whether you like the LEAF and whether it will be your next car or not? As for me, to be honest, it has taken me a lot longer than expected to form an opinion. Not that I am lost for words, nor a very slow one-finger typist. It is just that I want to write a balanced view on the Nissan LEAF. For my view must take into account all my experiences with Nissan, by closely following their EV story for EV World. So it must not be just an opinion of what I saw on August 2nd. I must not, as the saying goes; judge a book by its cover but read through some of the Chapters- so let me explain!

Standing in the audience at Nissan’s new HQ and patiently waiting to see what their new EV looked like, as it was driven on stage, I was full of both hope and worry. For I dearly hoped to like what I saw, but it worried me that I would not! Much like a doting father waiting for his child’s first stage performance. I hoped that all the backstage time and effort I have seen Nissan put into this project, would not be forgotten by me. I was worried of how much a leap of faith Nissan are taking, For as Carlos Ghosn later said on August 2nd, “If this is a risk for Nissan, then this is a risk I think is worth taking”. I was also worried about the size of the LEAF, from inspecting its chassis and drive train at a press briefing. It was interesting that it had grown in size from last years B-class Cube based ‘Proof of concept vehicle’, to a C-class Tida (Versa) ‘Engineering Mule’. This made it almost identical in size to the previous 2nd generation Prius and wider and taller than the current 3rd generation. I also hoped that its styling would right, as it can be a crucial part of the equation of success. Just like the cover of a book that browsing customers decided whether to stop and pick-up and read, or pass over and carry on to something more eye-catching.

Unfortunately, as I caught a glimpse of the LEAF’s outline and watched it been driven on stage, an element of disappointment grew that it was not the showstopper I had wished for. Interestingly, only minuets earlier, the LEAF’ Designer had dropped me a hint that his new baby was designed for the “World car market” and was a “Car for the Real world”. Maybe that was his way of saying he could not show the flair and sprit of adventure that was within his previous creation, the PIVO-2. Only last year I was granted the privilege of getting up close and personal with his concept vehicle. Even joining him as a passenger within the PIVO-2, while driving around Nissan’s test centre- quite a Fair ground ride. After this, I remember airing a dream of an idea to him, of what his next EV could be like! Could it retain some of the spirit of the PIVO-2 and perhaps mix it with the dynamic styling of the GTR sports car, with a dash of practicality from the Cube?

My desire to see an ultimate Nissan EV comes from not just the last two years of closely following their story for EV World, but also from 2002 after driving my first Nissan EV. However, their real EV story goes back much further, having started in 1947 with the Tama Electric Car. Then there was a long gap until their next Chapter in 1990, with the start of Lithium-ion research with Sony. This was followed by the release of the ‘Prairie EV’ in 1995, the worlds first Lithium-ion powered Electric car. Two years later, Nissan launched the Altra EV in America and in the same year displayed a concept two seat City Car, called the Hypermini. This brings me to my personal acquaintance with Nissan’s EV story, when in 2002 I test drove the production version of this Hypermini. It proved a dream to drive, with a smooth acceleration and an instant response, while sitting in the sparse but functional cabin. The external styling told a story of both fun and sophistication and it is still current today- some twelve years later.

In 2005 Nissans next Chapter, the PIVO, was written. It was a cute cartoon like small three seat car, which took the concept of an EV in a different direction- literally. You could argue that it was just an irreverent concept, but you would never mistake it for anything else other than a Pure Electric Vehicle. Two years later, Nissan decided to do a sequel called the PIVO 2, their Chapter Eight. This time their concept car had a more serous look as it included genuine technological advancements, which were a visual commitment to Nissans EV intent. Later that year, I interviewed for EV World, Minoru Shinohara the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of the Technology Development Division. He gave me an insight in to how the next few chapters of the Nissan EV story would pan out. He also outlined both the plot and some of characters that we would meet on the way. However he did not go into detail of what the cover would look like!

Not quite a chapter, but this could well be in the future as sister vehicles to the LEAF, are two Nissan EV concepts produced in 2007 and 2008. The first was the Mixim, a small two-seat sports car, shown at the Frankfurt 2007 Motor Show. The second was displayed at the Paris Show last year, called the NUVU; it represented what a small 2+1 City car would be like.

Nissan’s Chapter Nine of their EV story, came about this time last year with their ‘proof of concept vehicle’ the EV-01 based on the Japanese market Cube. Although we were only allowed one lap of Nissans test track, it was prove enough that Nissan were creating something special. It had a genuine potential to be a true mass production EV, with a driving experience that put a smile on your face. With a low centre of gravity and an almost 50/50 weight-distribution, you could get it to safely squeal its all four of it’s tyres around a long sweeping bend.

Again not quite a new Chapter in their EV story, but a very thought provoking event, was a lecture given by Nissans Battery guru Hideaki Horie. For he has spent the last 19 years at the head of their Lithium-ion research and gave us no reason to doubt that Nissan had created a winner, as their battery technology was far superior to anyone else’s. This advantage was not only in the efficiency of charging (low build up of heat), but also in the way it discharged its power (wasting less stored energy). He also made one final statement, which was slightly shocking!! Such is the reliability of their technology that he was confident that their battery could last up to ten years in the Car. But after that, it was still more than capable of being an Energy storage unit that would revolutionize the world. In fact it would do nothing more than create the worlds next Industrial Revolution!

Nissan’s Chapter (Ten) was at the end of July this year, when we had an invitation to drive their latest EV development at the same test track as last year. Their EV-12, which they called an ‘Engineering Mule’, had the body of the mid-size C-segment Tida but the production EV transmission and floor plan of the LEAF. To understand more about this new EV platform, we were given a presentation and allowed to view it up close. It was explained to use that the platform will be shared with Renault and their EV’s, as well with other EV’s from Nissan. To reduce costs, current front drive components were used, but everything back was purposely designed for its EV role. The battery installation was interesting, as it was arranged to provide more foot space for the rear passengers. It was also confirmed that it had no compatibility with any battery exchange system. For Nissan see no reason to do this, as customers will already have two charging options and they are even working on a third option called conductive charging. This system could be done either stationary or on the move and they had a demonstration of this in both full scale and model layout form. However, they stressed this technology was in its early days of development and would be available much later. So to inspire confidence in charging at the launch next year, Nissan have developed a GPS system that gives the distance and location of the nearest charging system. So you would not be left high and dry for lack of juice after 160km.

When we finally got behind the wheel of the EV-12, it proved a revelation to dive. It drove beautifully, with a level of maturity from the promise of last years EV-01. Again, our assessment was limited to only one lap of the test track. However, this time it did include two long straights, which gave us an opportunity to see how close we could get to the claimed 140 km top speed. Well I got to over 125 km before braking hard for the tight bend. Initial acceleration was very impressive and pulled with a linier force all the way up to that speed and it was still pulling when I ran out of straight road. So there is no doubt that it would achieve its claimed top speed of 140km. It was though; it’s cornering that set your pluses racing. For you could, if you had the courage, push this car through a corner with all the vigor of a sports car. Perhaps this is the result of having a significant amount of its weight mounted directly beneath you and right in the centre of the car. So I came away from my brief but very electrifying test, with a conclusion. That if Nissan managed to get the styling to match the driving performance of the EV-12 Mule, then they would be on to a winner. They would be able to attract not only the converted ‘Green’, but also the unconvinced and skeptical customer.

For they need all the converts they can get to the EV coarse, if they are going to achieve all of their sales targets! When this Nissan EV Story is told in many years to come, as one of great success or dismal Failure, it must mention the level of commitment Nissan has made to build so many Pure Electric Vehicles. To give you an idea as to the level of Nissans challenge and a yardstick to which to measure their 350.000 a year (200,000 in the USA, 100,000 in Europe and 50,000 in Japan) commitment, several interesting figure come up. The current World (personal) EV market stands at over 1 million units, but 98% of these are two wheelers. The largest number of ‘four wheeled Electric vehicles’ sold per year, are Golf Carts (Golf buggies), with about 300,000 throughout the world. PSA –Peugeot Citroen, over the years has produced over 5,000 EV’s, but mostly for commercial or governmental use. In America, Global Electric Motors sell 4,000 GEM’S vehicles per year and have made 40,000 to date. More of a car but still classified as a Low Speed Vehicle, is from a company called REVA. They claim that their Electric vehicles sales of 3,000 to date (from 1991) will be eclipsed next year by the opening of their new 30,000 capacity factory. Finally, getting to the real cars and the ones that passed current automotive type approval, Mitsubishi hope to produce 2,000 I-MiEV’s by the end of this year. Toyota produced over 1500 RAV4 –EV’s and GM’s much-loved EV1 was produced in 1160 examples of which 834 were leased. Very close behind this is the Norwegian THINK, with over 1105 examples created to date. Although last year saw the official EV total for the USA at only 685 units, this year even Tesla hope to make over 1,000 Roadsters. To date, they have sold 500 Roadsters and production is now running at over 100 per month. Back in the 90’s Honda’s effort was called the EV Plus with 340 examples produced. And finally, when production ended of Nissan last EV, the Hypermini, only 219 existed and many are still running today. Interestingly, this final figure from Nissan almost matches the total number of EV’s sold in the UK in 2008. And this is country to which Nissan will commit, early next decade, both a Battery and Car manufacturing plant with the capacity of 100.000 units each. The confidence for this number comes from all the market predictions that the EV market to grow. First, to over one million EV’s (cars) by 2015 and then go on to reach beyond 6 million in 2020. These figures for the EV sector come from a prediction of over 10% of the Global Car Sales, which were over 60 million units in 2008.

So now you can understand why, as I listened to Carlos Ghosn introducing the latest Chapter of Nissans EV story, I desperately wanted to be enamored with this LEAF. I wanted it’s styling to have its own voice and speak of the desire of ownership. Just like the MINI where they produce over 300,000 units per annum spread over three slightly different models. So being an EV could have been just an added quality for the LEAF. However, it did have its own unique EV form, unlike the MINI-E, the Mitsubishi I-MiEV and even to a certain extent the Tesla Roadster. As these are all based on current mass production models, converted to Electric Drive.

So Nissan has had to walk the tightrope between looking like a serious mass production car on one side and a dedicated Pure Electric Vehicle on the other. They have had to show a visual difference to the ‘smoking’ normal Gasoline car and the ‘low smoking’ Hybrid and define the look of a ‘non-smoking’ Pure Electric Vehicle. This look should have some level of familiarity, which would not scare away potential customers from driving something different. It is a shame this plainer exterior does not really communicate its hidden sporting talents. But time will tell whether being just plain green was the right decision and have the power to attract people to an EV, as the 5,000 initial users drive by?

There is a hope for me that a more radical Nissan EV will arrive later. For the LEAF will not be the only product from Nissans EV investment plant. It will therefore be no Prius and made to survive on its own for a long time, as the sole visual Green product. Just as Toyota is expanding the range of Hybrids, Nissan will do the same with its Zero Emission Vehicles by producing another two models in the next few years. This will further develop in to a full range of ZEV’s, which will cater for every taste and cover every task and price range. We might even get an idea of what is coming next, at either next month’s Frankfurt Motor Show or at this year's Tokyo Motor Show in October.

So then I will reserve my ‘Judgment day’ till next year when I view the true picture of Nissans cover to their EV story. And maybe urge you to do the same and never judge a book by its cover. Finally, to quote a member of the Press Office in Nissans new headquarters- “Do not worry about the styling of the LEAF- it will grow on you”!!!

Times Article Viewed: 12081
Published: 22-Aug-2009

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