Sometime during my visit to the Detroit Auto Show, Nissan sold its 10,000th Leaf electric car to an American consumer. (About half the world total, 21,000, have moved globally.) That’s not a huge number — the company sold almost 10,000 similarly sized Versas in one month last December. But it’s a milestone for battery cars. You have to go back to the Sebring-Vanguard Citicar of the 1970s to find an EV that even sold 4,000 units. How many General Motors EV1s were sold between 1996 and 1999? Just 1,117.
In Detroit, I talked to the Nissan team, who had just unveiled a really cute Japanese-style utility van with most of the Leaf’s drivetrain. It’s an electrified version of the small NV200, which hasn’t been sold here but is New York’s next taxi. The NV200 is a familiar sight on roads in 30 countries, where they like their vans smaller and more fuel efficient. Joe Castelli, a vice president for commercial vehicles, told me, “A truck is the next step in our electrification strategy. It’s a nice fit for zero emission.” The van was tested by the Japanese Post Office last summer and fall, and since December it’s been undergoing trials with FedEx in London.
The van, which can carry a 1,500-pound payload, will roll out in 2014, though there’s no word yet on whether it will reach the U.S. Various configurations will be available, including a pure cargo van with no passenger seats, or fully trimmed as a people mover. As shown in Detroit, it’s pretty much a Leaf up to the A pillars, after which it becomes a very upright van.
“We’ll have four EVs,” Nissan’s Mark Perry told me, “including the Leaf and [in 2014] its Infiniti version, the light commercial van we just debuted, and, sometime after 2015, one of the concept cars we recently showed off in Japan.”
Yes, there’s another one coming, and it could be quite fanciful. The cars Perry was talking about include Pivo3 (right), a very small three-seat urban commuter with the driver in the center. Designed for tight urban situations, the Pivo3 has pivoting rear wheels and can practically turn around in its own space. Doors slide back, so you’re not going to hit the curb. Placed sideways, you could put two of them in a conventional parking space.
The Townpod (left), first shown in Paris in 2010, is more conventional, though it’s a virtual cross between a crossover and a small sedan, with a customizable interior. The suicide-type doors open wide for great access. According to François Bancon, general manager of Nissan’s Exploratory and Advance Planning Department, consumers “know what is essential for their lives, so it is logical that they should be the ones who determine the ultimate specification of their cars. For them an off-the-shelf solution is not enough and the best-equipped people to tailor-make their cars are themselves.” Hence, the Townpod.
And the third option is a high-performance two-seater sports car called the Esflow (right). It’s got two electric motors, is reportedly screamingly fast, and has 150 miles of range. It wouldn’t be cheap to build and probably sold in relatively small volumes, but it would have a halo car like Tesla’s Roadster — which helped establish the brand and pointed the way toward the more mainstream Model S coming later this year.
The Townpod may be too similar to the NV200 in concept, and the Esflow too expensive to build. That leaves a perhaps less experimental version of the Pivo3, maybe without the pivoting wheels or the sliding doors. You’d be left with something like the BMW i3 city car, the Tata eMO (designed to sell for just $20,000) or, on the hybrid side, the just-unveiled Prius C. If it can be built to a budget and be much cheaper than the Leaf, it has a good chance of seeing production in the not-too-distant future.
By the way, the NV200 should make a pretty cool taxi for New York. Built in Mexico, it will sport sliding doors for easy entry, a transparent roof panel so you can see the tall buildings, environmentally friendly fabric seats, overhead reading lights, and even a mobile charging station with a 12-volt outlet and two USB plugs. Here's a look at it on video:
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