Nissan Takes EV Punt Where GM Failed

Nissan is gambling on a hybrid system that General Motors tried in Europe and flopped.

This high-risk strategy is now part of its wider electrification plan to, eventually, get all its customers into full BEV products. Its e-Power powertrain featured in the IMQ futuristic concept unveiled at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show but the system is already on sale in its home market of Japan in the Nissan Note compact urban car and the Nissan Serena MPV. They use small gasoline engines to act purely as generators for the vehicles’ batteries that feed electric motors while having no input whatsoever in the driving of the wheels. It’s a very similar system to GM’s Chevrolet Volt that was marketed in Europe under the Vauxhall/Opel brands as the Ampera when it was launched in 2011.

I remember testing the vehicle a couple of times during its five-year marketing period on the Continent during which it had sold just 10,000 units. For me, it seemed a good introduction to electrification without the range anxiety. It also was a plug-in hybrid and used a comparatively small and affordable lithium-ion battery pack that could easily be swapped out for a new pack at the end of its useful life without scrapping the vehicle. On a typical business trip of 220 miles from London to Manchester, then four days commuting 26 miles each way from hotel to office, plugging in at both, before returning to the capital city, the car achieved an impressive 75mpg (62mpg US).

However, despite the Volt selling reasonably well in the US, the lack of bulk sales in Europe for the Ampera led to GM deciding not to import the second generation version from 2014 onwards and the car faded into obscurity. Now Nissan wants to target that same Europe with its e-Power version that shares much similar technology but as a self-charging hybrid rather than as a plug-in. No doubt it hopes the market is more electrification savvy and receptive today than it was eight years ago.

At the Geneva show, TU-Automotive caught up with Ivan Espinosa vice-president of Nissan’s global product strategy planning division to find out more about how the carmaker thinks it can become more successful with the technology. Espinosa said the technology has already proved successful in Japan adding: “In the case of the two cars last year in Japan we sold 140,000 Nissan Notes out of which 100,000 had e-Power, over 70% take-up rate so for customers it’s really attractive. Serena we sold 100,000 out of which 40% had e-Power.”

Getting EV aware

He said the strategy is to get consumers used to the advantages of electric powertrains without worrying over range anxiety. “This technology brings the full EV feel to customers and the beauty of it is that all the wheels are powered by electric motors, fed by a battery which is linked to a small engine that acts like a generator and does not help to move the wheels.

“So the customer gets exactly the same feeling of an EV with the immediate torque, good acceleration and very good fuel economy and all with any problems with charging or anxiety about the range. This helps us bridge to our end game of a full battery EV while expanding our reach for electrification.”

Nissan is hoping that once consumers experience electrification, they will want to stay with the powertrain. Espinosa said: “Of course, you don’t have to worry about some markets or countries where you don’t have EV infrastructure yet because you just fill the car with fuel. Yet you still experience the EV feel and we think that the customers will get excited by the technology and, as the infrastructure grows, their next step could be a full BEV.”

He said the size of the gasoline generator is only dictated by the weight of the vehicle it has to move. In this way, while the IMQ was fitted with a 1.5-liter unit, a smaller 1.2-liter equips both the Note and the Serena. Espinosa explained the advantage of having a generator employed for just electric energy alone means: “You can optimize the power of the generator and have it run at the ideal speed for the best fuel economy. We’re in Japan and now Europe and Singapore and this is a core part of our electrification strategy.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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