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Nissan Shows Off Its Electric Car and New Hybrid

The electric Cube was pretty nimble on the test track, but the new hybrid raises as many questions as it answers

I just got back from driving Nissan's (NSANY) much hyped new electric car and hybrid. The press event, held in searing heat at an advanced technology showcase 90 minutes outside Tokyo, was the first chance that reporters have had to check out the Japanese automaker's new environmental techs.

Most seemed pretty impressed at the electric vehicle, although it's hard to draw too many conclusions. The version we drove was an electric version of a Nissan Cube, a popular model in Japan. However, the company says its EV, which is scheduled for a 2010 launch in Japan and the U.S., will use the same electric system but look completely different from any of today's Nissans.

On the test track, the Cube was pretty nimble, quickly reaching 100km/h on a short straight, despite carrying four passengers. One bad point was the bulk of the batteries—at 300kg—under the rear seats. That meant they were raised higher than normal and not comfortable for those in the back. Still, it's safe to assume the problem will be ironed out by the time the final version appears.

Upbeat About Lithium-Ion Batteries

On a more positive note, Nissan seems very upbeat about its lithium-ion battery technology. While Honda (HMC) and Toyota (TM) are reluctant to use li-ion cells in new hybrids (save a low-volume lease version of the Prius due for 2010), citing safety concerns, Nissan is confident that its batteries, which are half the weight and offer significantly improved performance over the current nickel metal hydride cells, will help it claw back some ground in the hybrid race and make it an EV leader.

Nissan's new hybrid also raises as many questions as it answers. Due in 2010, it will be Nissan's first mass-market hybrid other than a gas-electric version of the Altima, which in any case borrows Toyota technology. The new Nissan system we tried was fitted out in an Infiniti G35, but again Nissan says this is just for test purposes. When it first appears in 2010, it will be on a different, new model. Nissan's engineers said its system, which works best for rear-wheel-drive cars, has more in common with Honda's Integrated Motor Assist gas-electric technology than the more complex systems found in Toyotas. However, thanks to a dual clutch system, it can drive at low speeds in electric-only mode, which Hondas cannot.

Whether it will be a big hit remains to be seen. One worry is that Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn seems more interested in EVs. At a recent press conference in Yokohama, Ghosn's answer to almost every question seemed to mention "emission-free" electric cars. Hybrids, he said, are not as clean. Another issue could be how Nissan uses its system. Yesterday's test car used its 3.5-liter V6 engine, which by adding the hybrid apparently achieved V8 performance levels. That's all well and good, but, as Honda found with its now-defunct Accord hybrid, many car buyers seem to prefer gas-electric autos that improve fuel efficiency rather than performance.

More Green Marketing on the Way

What is clear, though, is that anyone who thought all the hype surrounding the Prius was too much should brace for an onslaught of green marketing. Yesterday, as the local hands boarded a bus back to Tokyo, another load of journalists flown in from around the world alighted at the test track.

That's despite the incompleteness of the new models on show. It was a similar story when Honda recently showed off its FCX Clarity (, 6/16/2008) fuel-cell car, which for all its amazing technology is unlikely to be commercialized until at least 2016. And with General Motors' (GM) Chevy Volt plug-in due in 2010 and a host of other carmakers, not least the Japanese (, 7/2/2008), all pushing their green agendas, this is just the beginning.

Rowley is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Tokyo bureau.

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