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Test-driving the Nissan EV-02 electric car

Nissan invited us out to take a spin in its EV-02 electric car prototype.

Nissan EV-02
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Nissan invited us out to take a spin in its EV-02 electric car prototype. While we were there, Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan North America, chatted us up about Nissan's plans to bring a zero tailpipe emissions electric vehicle to American roads as early as 2010.

Like all automakers, Nissan is under pressure from government regulators to reduce CO2 emissions by 90 percent by 2050. While Perry stated that Nissan does have plans of bringing a hybrid vehicle to the market soon (potentially a plug-in), he also made it clear that Nissan views electric vehicles as the only way to meet emissions requirements. This is where the EV-02 comes in. The key, according to Perry, to making the promise of EV-02 a reality lies in the battery tech and the recharging infrastructure.

EV-02 uses a laminated lithium ion battery tech that crams twice the power and twice the range of more conventional lithium ion batteries into a package that's half the size and half the weight. The battery was developed by Nissan in partnership with semiconductor manufacturer NEC. Nissan will most likely use this same battery tech in its upcoming hybrid.

EV-02 IC
In place of a tachometer, the EV-02 features a big battery meter. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The EV-02--and, by extension, the future electric vehicle it will inspire--features an SAE standard charging system that relocates the bulk of the recharging circuitry onboard to allow for simpler, universal charging stations. The charging station utilizes 220-volt power to recharge the EV from 0-100 percent in about 4 hours. The industry-standard charging station will need to be hard-wired to the grid, necessitating an electrician's installation. Nissan is working with the over 3,000 electric utilities providers nationwide to work out the details of how exactly in-home installations will work and at what cost to consumers.

According to Perry, electric vehicles are 60 percent cleaner than gasoline equivalents, even if the grid is 100 percent coal-fired. Since many grids are not completely coal-powered and will see more renewable power sources in the future, as government regulations put the green squeeze on utilities, that 60 percent will only get better.

The EV-02 can be charged at standard 110-volt outlets, but the charge time is considerably longer (about 14 hours) and Nissan sees this as a less-than-ideal emergency-only option. There is also a 480-volt rapid-charge option that can bring the battery up to 80 percent capacity in as little as 26 minutes. Nissan expects roadside service stations to adopt this more expensive--but much more convenient--offering, empowering drivers to take the EV-02 on longer trips. Home users are expected to stick with the 4-hour charging cycle, because of its low cost (about 90 cents per full charge) and low strain on the electrical grid.

Nissan EV-02
The EV-02 is a preview of what we can expect from Nissan's 2010 electric vehicle. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Once fully charged, the EV-02 will run for an estimated 100 miles before depleting its battery. The EV-02 mule we tested was a retrofitted right-hand-drive Nissan Cube. The drivetrain was whisper quiet. Nissan tuned the mule for economy and restricted us to a closed course with a Nissan chaperone, so we weren't able shred the tires with instant-on torque. Still, we were quite impressed with the linear acceleration exhibited by the EV-02, and its willingness to move .

Nissan plans to offer a vehicle based on the technology present in the EV-02 within 18 months. The vehicle would be unique in design, compact, and 99-percent recyclable, including the batteries. Perry promised that the vehicle would come at no price premium (sitting somewhere in the $20 to 30,000 price range), seat five passengers, and be available with the full gamut of advanced safety features and premium amenities (including GPS, premium audio, cruise control, heated seats, etc.). The vehicle would be eligible for the $7,500 green car tax credit and, with an operating cost below $0.04 per mile, would be cheaper to run than a gasoline vehicle even if gas drops to $1.10 per gallon.

The sole compromise that Perry let slip is that the vehicles will be optimized for the climate in which they are sold, meaning EVs sold in cold climes will feature boosted heat and crippled air conditioning, with hot climates receiving the opposite treatment. This setup sounds a little weird, but we'll wait and see how it works out.

Nissan hopes a lower entry cost, lower operating cost, and immense green cred will create the perfect storm to push electric-vehicle adoption past that of hybrids and into the mainstream.

The vehicle will be available for purchase by the public in various U.S. markets as early as 2010, depending on the regional adoption of the charging infrastructure. Current partnerships include the State of Tennessee, the State of Oregon, parts of California (Sonoma County and the San Diego metro area) and the Tucson, Ariz. metro area.