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Nissan Altra Electric Car from EV Rental

Ever since EV Rental Cars went into business near the Los Angeles International Airport in December 1998, I have been very interested in new additions to their fleet of alternative-fueled vehicles, and have pretty much stayed on top of developments. I rented a GM EV1 from them just a couple of days after they first opened, and I was their first customer for the Honda EV Plus electric and Insight hybrid-electric cars. Thus I was somewhat embarrassed, when I rented the Insight three weeks ago, to learn that they have had the electric Nissan Altra in their stable since the beginning of the year; I guess I dropped the ball on that one! Anyway, my employer's rideshare coordinator, when I took her for a test ride in the Insight, invited me to come to the South Bay Transportation Forum joint meeting with the Westchester/LAX Transportation Management Association, and to bring an alternative-fueled vehicle with me and talk about the various ones available today. I figured this was a good excuse to catch up with the Altra, so that's the one I chose to rent for a day. As a gesture of thanks for the publicity associated with a column in our local paper that appeared as a result of my rental of the Insight, the folks at EV Rental Cars let me have the Altra for free, so many thanks back to you!

Nissan Altra

The Altra was designed from the ground up as an alternative-fuel vehicle, like the GM EV1, Honda EV Plus and Insight, and Toyota Prius, and unlike the electric Ford Ranger, Chevrolet S-10, Toyota RAV4, and Dodge Caravan, which were conversions of existing gasoline-powered models. However, the Altra has a less "radical" look to it than the other ground-up designs; it's basically a mid-sized station wagon like a Ford Taurus or thereabouts, with four bucket seats and a substantial cargo area in the rear, that just happens to have a very muscular suspension and a few extra inches of ride height in order to accommodate the battery pack under the belly. (Note added 12 June 2016: years later I learned that the Altra was in fact a conversion of a conventional vehicle, the R'Nessa, that was sold only in Japan. I made the same mistake with the much more recent Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which I didn't realize was based on a Japanese gasoline microcar until I saw one in Japan. Oh well.) One gent to whom I gave a test-ride said that it seemed like a very reasonable size for a company fleet car, with little chance of engendering complaints about cargo capacity and interior space from users.

Altra left rear corner

They aren't likely to gripe about driving range much, either; the batteries are the first lithium-ion (Li-ion) pack available in an electric vehicle. These use the same advanced, energy-dense chemistry as my portable computer, whereas most EVs these days use the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) chemistry as in my digital camera. (I think that GM with their incredibly efficient EV1, and GM and Ford wth pickups designed for short routes, are the only major automakers still making use of lead-acid batteries, and NiMH is available as an option too for these vehicles.)

Altra instrument panel

Here's a look at the instrument panel; this is the first battery-electric vehicle I've driven that has a tachometer and a water-temperature gauge! Many electric vehicles use water to cool their power-electronics boxes and/or their battery packs, and have a small radiator under the hood behind the air-conditioning condensor; it's just the gauge whose presence surprised me, as the much lower amount of wasted heat from an electric drivetrain compared to an internal-combustion drivetrain means that "boiling over" is not something you worry about. The tachometer is also sort of redundant, since (as in most other modern electric vehicles) the "transmission" is a single reduction gear and therefore the engine RPMs are directly proportional to the road speed. I observed about 6 MPH per 1000 RPM, which means the "redline" at 13200 RPM or so corresponds to a top speed of about 80 MPH, which is the same as the governor setting on the EV1. No "golf carts" here!

The "POWER" bar gauge shows the amount of power being drawn from or put back into the battery pack, with bars above and below the "ON" line respectively. In moderate but not feather-footed city driving, I had no trouble keeping up with traffic using three or four bars and staying below the yellow zone. When putting energy back into the batteries via regenerative braking (whereby the electric motor turns itself into a generator when slowing down and feeds energy of motion back into the battery pack instead of letting it go to waste as heat in the brakes), I noticed that, like the Insight and unlike the EV1, the amount of braking from the electric motor was very slight until you actually put your foot on the brake pedal, at which point it came in smooth and strong. (This may also have been the case with the EV Plus, but I had no power gauge to confirm it.) I got about five or six miles per bar on the "fuel" gauge at left, which with fifteen bars translates to 75-90 miles per charge despite the tall, not-very-slippery profile of the car. All in all, this feels like a very practical vehicle for even fairly long commutes, with plenty of room for passengers and cargo; considering that gasoline prices went up by a dime a gallon in the three weeks since I took the photo at the station where I refueled the Insight before returning it, the timing for consumer introduction of this vehicle feels about right, too! At the 1999 Los Angeles Auto Show I heard that the projected introduction date is the 2001 model year (it's only available for lease to fleets at present); here's hoping...

Gail Lee with CALSTART Blue Sky Award

Thanks again to Terry O'Day at EV Rental Cars for "comping" me the Altra! Gail Lee, who gave me a stack of vehicle information to hand out at the meeting I mentioned, is in the photo above holding the Blue Sky Merit Award that EV Rentals received from CALSTART a few weeks back. Considering that they can't keep their vehicles on the lot because of demand (not unlike, say, Honda dealers with the Insight), they have clearly come up with a much-needed service, and I wish them continued success in introducing airport travelers as well as hobbyists like myself to the advanced transportation options that are becoming increasingly available these days!

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new 2 April 2000, updated 12 June 2016