YOKOHAMA, Dec 17 — Would you buy a petrol-powered car if there were no petrol stations? Probably not.
In a similar vein, a lack of charging stations could be one reason electric vehicles (EVs) have failed to take off in Singapore.
But Nissan believes it has the answer: Give the EV its own built-in charger, and let the charger run on petrol.
Nissan calls the concept “E-Power”, and the car, known as the Note E-Power, went on sale in Japan in October. The small, five-door hatchback is driven by an 80kW electric motor.
Unlike normal EVs, the Nissan has a lithium-ion battery so small it could only run a hair dryer for a little over an hour. So to keep going, the Note E-Power uses a 1.2-litre engine as a mobile generator.
This is one EV that you do not need to plug into a power outlet. Instead, it converts petrol into electricity on the go. The petrol engine has no mechanical connection to the wheels, and cannot power the Note directly.
Taking a leaf out of the EV book
The setup effectively makes the Note E-Power a hybrid car, albeit a unique one. Normal hybrids like the Toyota Prius are still powered by an internal combustion engine, and only use electric power for assistance. The E-Power concept flips this idea and makes electricity drive the star.
Why do things this way?
“In Japanese driving conditions, this system is very useful,” said Naoki Nakada, the engineer behind the Note E-Power. In start-stop conditions, he said, electric drive is more efficient than a petrol engine, which tends to do better at constant highway speeds. The E-Power’s generator runs at an optimal speed while the electric motor powers the car in urban traffic.
Nakada also designed the drive system for Nissan’s Leaf, the best-selling EV in history. It is that car’s driving characteristics that he most wanted to incorporate into the Note E-Power. “I really want people to experience driving with an (electric) motor,” he said.
After a quick spin in a Leaf to develop a base for comparison, I drove the Note E-Power for two laps on a private Nissan test track. Up to a point, it does feel like an electric car. It accelerates instantly, and it moves in eerie silence. Nissan said it is measurably as quiet as most luxury cars.
But when the generator kicks in, it produces a steady thrum that your ears easily detect. Its presence takes some getting used to, because it activates to top up the battery whenever the system needs it. One moment the car is silent, then it abruptly buzzes with engine noise.
Still, the system is more efficient than petrol power. The Japanese government’s fuel economy tests show that the Note E-Power averages 34km/lL. That falls short of the 37km/L achieved by a Toyota Prius C, but is a 29.8-per-cent improvement over a Nissan Note with a supercharged 1.2-litre engine.
In Japan, the E-Power version costs about 13-per-cent more than the petrol-driven Note 1.2 DIG-S, which sells for S$80,800 (RM250,467) with COE here. Since it is only available in Japan, CO2 figures using the same testing cycle as Singapore-registered cars are not available. If the car does indeed qualify for rebates from the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme, this could lower its Singapore price to a competitive level.
That pricing strategy is something Nissan hopes will let more people get hooked on EVs. The Leaf may be a bestseller, but it has still fallen far short of Nissan’s sales targets.
Perhaps EVs face too many hurdles.
“The percentage of sales is still small at the moment because costs for the technology are still high, the infrastructure and incentives to support customers with these type of vehicles is still missing, and there are limited reasons for customers to switch to a new technology,” said Axel Pannes, the managing director of BMW Asia.
BMW leads the EV market in Singapore, but it is hoping to boost electromobility by launching five plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) next year. These are most efficient when charged regularly from a wall outlet, but can also run for hundreds of kilometres on petrol.
“We also believe as the range of EVs and PHEVs grows, demand will really pick up,” said Pannes.
Daniele Schillaci, Nissan’s global head of marketing, estimates that it could take 10 years for EVs to become as cheap as normal cars to manufacture, so E-Power is meant as something of a gateway technology.
This turns the Note into a sort of EV-lite, with many of the driving characteristics of one, but none of the main drawbacks.
Yet, the car faces other hurdles. A spokesperson for Tan Chong Motor Sales said the company is keen to import the car, but anticipates questions from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) about how it should be taxed.
Should the Note E-Power be treated like an EV or a hybrid car?
Unlike any car on sale, its legs are powered by electricity, but its heart is fuelled by petrol.
Defying conventional classification could land the Note in regulatory limbo. Other EVs and PHEVs took more than half a year to be approved for sale while the LTA pondered how to classify them, said industry sources.
Whether or not the E-Power technology does get tripped by red tape here, Nissan could be onto something big. In November, the car’s first full month of sales in Japan, 15,700 people bought a Note E-Power. That was enough to make it the bestselling car in Japan. — TODAY