Nissan Altra EV
By Tom Barnard -- Tell someone you are going to drive an electric car and you will probably be greeted with unfunny comments about delivering milk or sweeping roads. The concept of a cheap-to-run car with absolutely no emissions to pollute the air we breathe is all very well, but not if it means causing traffic jams behind you when driving up the slightest of gradients.
What's needed, then, to convince car buyers of the merits of plug-in-power is a model which looks the same as everyone else's, can keep up with traffic in town and on the motorway, and is easy to use as any combustion-powered machine.
A car like the Nissan Altra EV, in fact. The new sate-of-the-art model has been built to prove electric vehicles can be equally as practical as everyday runarounds. It is as big as a proper car - about the same size as a very tall Primera estate - with four seats and a spacious boot, has a top speed of 75 mph and a 14 seconds 0-60 mph time. Its range is still rather more limited than the average petrol car at around 120 miles, but when it costs only '£1.50' to fill up who's complaining?
This major advance has been made possible by using the battery technology which has seen laptop computers and mobile phones shrink in size. Nissan claims the pack should last at least 100,000 miles of charges before it starts to deteriorate, and even then it will keep going, although performance levels will be less. On the road, the Altra surprises by virtue of being straightforward to drive. Flick the ignition key and all the dashboard lights illuminate as normal. Then turn the final click in the barrel, and, instead of hearing a starter motor churning, you see a light showing 'GO'. Slot the column-mounted gear selector into D and squeeze the throttle. For the first few feet, the Nissan creeps forward with no noise at all except for its tyres crushing the gravel. Push the throttle harder and the engine can just about be heard whirring if you strain hard enough. It sounds like sitting inside a jet taking off while you have your fingers in your ears. This silence has two disadvantages, however. At any speed, the wind and tyre noise is much more noticeable than in a conventional car because there is no engine sound. The other problem is people outside, especially pedestrians, stepping out in front of you because they haven't heard the Altra coming. It is advisable to keep your hand hovering above the horn when driving in town.
On the open road, the Altra accelerates keenly, and is more than capable of holding its own in the motorway fast lane, although it is best to cruise with the trucks if you want to preserve the battery's life. Then you can use the power you save to play with some of the Altra's toys. There is a stereo system and air-conditioning, plus a hi-tech-looking digital dash display , but the clever bit is in the keyring. A remote control fob lets drivers programme in a pre-set temperature for the interior for when you return to the car in the morning. You charge up the Nissan overnight so it's warm or cool inside depending on the weather.
The main reason we are not already driving cars such as this is the cost. It is currently only on sale in California, USA, where drivers can avoid buying the car by leasing it for a subsidised £250 a month. They also benefit from free parking spots at train stations, airports and shopping centres, which is yet another incentive to plug in rather than fill up. Nissan's Altra EV is the most convincing electric car yet - if the Government gave help towards encouraging such vehicles, we could all be breathing more easily.
The Altra EV is so practical it does not seem like a stereotypical electric vehicle. It behaves more like a normal car which happens to be powered by electricity. It has the performance to keep up with most traffic, a decent range and is easy to drive. But without Government help to set up an infrastructure and tax benefits, the Altra and its like will not be sold here.
At a glance
* State-of-the-art electric vehicle for sale in the US
* Uses Lithium-Ion batteries to ensure fast charging and long life
* Full charge costs around £1.50 and lasts 120 miles
See also EV World Test Drives for review of Nissan Altra EV.