Round the block: Nissan’s electric car prototype test drive

23 July 2009

Nissan EV-02 electric car prototypeWe’ve come a long way – all the way to Switzerland, in fact – to drive Nissan’s prototype electric vehicle. It’s an EV-02, a Japanese-model Nissan Cube in panda-hued livery, carrying a barrowload of batteries and an electric motor under the bonnet. And we can tell you that it’s pretty quick off the mark, too. Not that we’re driving it. It’s in front of us and getting away, zipping up a rising stretch of chocolatey-smooth Swiss tarmac as we struggle to keep up in an automatic Nissan Note. As the Note’s autobox hunts high and low for the right gear, its cubic cousin reels in the road and leaves us for dead. “The gearbox in this is a bit tired,” admits our Nissan minder, sheepishly.

We find ourselves in the befuddled Note through a spot of corporate paranoia. The electric Cube is a Japanese car, and the Swiss drive on the other side of the blacktop from the Japanese. The Note is present to familiarise us with piloting a small, right-hand-drive automatic on foreign soil before we are let loose on the pricey prototype. It’s all a bit unnecessary. Unless of course the idea is to make the Cube feel better through stark contrast. The Note’s combination of small engine and auto-box is not the sort of recipe to be relished, tired or otherwise.

Eventually we arrive back at base and are able to swap Note for Cube. We are not allowed to look under the bonnet or at the batteries of the EV-02, but we are assured that they are there under the skin somewhere. It’s notable that this tall, boxy Cube has no rear footwells.

We climb aboard, over the surprisingly high side bolster of the sporty black fabric seat. A very plasticky makeshift centre spar, running at elbow height from the centre console rearward, offers up an auto-style shifter with park, reverse, drive and neutral options. Our new Japanese minder politely informs us that in Japan the indicator and wiper stalks are transposed from the UK norm, and that the EV-02 is already switched on and ready to go. We glance at the dials – and find that there’s nothing to tell us that the car is alive. The twin-dial dash offers a km/h speedo, a very large battery-charge meter presently showing half full, and not much else. Apparently the production electric car that Nissan will bring to market late next year will beep or chime or chirp to tell you when its running. Or ready to run.

We buckle up, slot the gear selector into drive, release the handbrake and prod the appropriate pedal. The EV-02 obliges by surging forwards in total silence.

It really is uncanny. We’ve driven a few EVs before, but none this good. Up to about 30mph there is simply no noise at all. No milkfloat whine from the motor, no hum or hiss from battery coolers, no squeaks or rattles. And this car is pleasantly eager. The lack of gear changes – there’s just one forward and one reverse ratio – adds to the impression of acceleration. On the slope where the Note hunted vainly for gears, the Cube just gets on with the job of going faster. And it tends to be going faster than you think. You could lose your licence in this EV.

We approach a junction and are surprised at the need to brake quite firmly. It’s a heavy car, and unlike most EVs it’s not set up for aggressive energy recuperation as you lift off. A word with our passenger reveals the truth – there’s no regenerative braking on this prototype at all. Nissan’s production EV will have regen, but apparently it will be set up to feel like engine braking, not something to leave you straining against your seatbelt.

We turn right at the junction but only after, somewhat predictably, indicating our intentions with the wipers.

It’s probably the smooth road, but we can’t even hear the tyres on tarmac. We begin to understand why there is already a vocal lobby asking for EVs to make an artificial racket. And surprisingly, the EV-02 isn’t even rolling on low-friction rubber. Perhaps there’s a ton of soundproofing felt under the carpet – alas we are denied the opportunity to prod and poke enough to find out.

All too soon our spin around the block is over. We haven’t learned much about the EV-02, except that it’s smooth, silent, quick and clearly nothing like the real electric vehicle that Nissan will unveil for the first time next month and start selling for Christmas 2010.

But if our piebald ride is anything to go by, that production car is going to be very good indeed.

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