The case for electric cars
(or what’s it like to drive Nissan EVs)

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By Brian M. Afuang

A RECENT Nissan Motor symposium held in Singapore saw the car maker pitching its electric-powered mobility initiatives in this part of the world. Presented in one of the discussions was a study Nissan had commissioned Frost & Sullivan to conduct, titled “The Future of Electric Vehicles in Southeast Asia.”

The study found a significant number of consumers in the region — 37% of the 1,800 respondents from six countries — are open to buying an EV as their next car. “Most eager” among those surveyed were people in the Philippines (46%), Thailand (44%) and Indonesia (41%).

But the enthusiasm is not matched by uptake, with EV penetration “remaining miniscule,” the study noted. Some key factors cited as barriers to the region’s higher adoption of EVs are consumers’ concerns over electric power range, safety, charging infrastructure, reliability, maintenance and operation costs, and the higher prices commanded by electric or hybrid powered cars. A “latent demand” is what the study called the region’s eagerness toward EVs.

At the center of the discussions were Nissan’s current EV models — the full-electric Leaf and the hybrid Note — as the car maker outlined its plans on zero-emission, ampere-dependent transportation and the platform this provides for autonomous driving technologies. To put a real-world spin on the presentations, Nissan offered up the cars for a brief drive at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, whose Center of Excellence for Testing and Research of Autonomous Vehicles has a test track designed for self-driving cars.

Lined up first for the drive was a Note powered by a conventional engine — obviously intended to allow for a direct comparison with Nissan EVs. Expectedly, there was nothing extraordinary about driving this car, especially so because the track layout simulates actual city streets.

Next up was the Note e-Power, a hybrid car in the sense that it packs both an electric motor and a gasoline engine (a small three-pot 1.2-liter unit). Unlike in most hybrids though, the engine in this case only serves as a charger for the electric motor’s battery pack — it isn’t even connected to the wheels, as the car is propelled solely by its electric motor.

The Leaf was served up last. With styling that is decidedly more conventional compared to that which marked its predecessor, the current Leaf’s looks alone declare EVs will soon be the norm rather than the exception. Well, Nissan said it had sold more than 300,000 Leafs since the original model debuted in December 2010, which is the most for any EV.

Now how does driving the voltage-propelled cars compare against the engine-run Note? Frankly, the EVs are easier to run. For starters, the Note e-Power and the Leaf both do with what are basically large toggle switches rather than a traditional gear lever — which in most modern cars still let the driver select lower or higher gears, along with park, reverse or neutral. The switches on the Nissan EVs, in contrast, only have one forward drive setting. So simply flick these spring-loaded switches forward or back to get, respectively, reverse and drive, or flick them to the right to get neutral. Engaging park means pressing a large button located on top of the “gear” selector.

True, the EVs’ shifters aren’t all that much different to operate; the significant difference is that these shifters are not bolted to a conventional gearbox — or any type of a transmission, for that matter — because EVs’ electric motors spin the car’s wheels directly.

Nissan has taken advantage of this RV-unique trait by fitting the Note e-Power and Leaf with what it branded as e-Pedal. The e-Pedal lets the driver use the throttle not only for accelerating the car, but also for decelerating the car — stepping on the brake pedal is needed only when one wants to stop the car quicker than that which can be managed by the e-Pedal. So, basically, the Note e-Power and Leaf allow for one-pedal driving in most situations.

Surprisingly, traversing urban streets is one those situations. At Nanyang University’s test track, slowing down for speed bumps and right-angle corners required only easing off the e-Pedal — this is enough to slow the car down. Or even stop it, given a few more meters. In other words, driving requires (apart from steering) just pressing the e-Pedal to move, and stepping off it to stop. It is that simple.

Not to mention intuitive to use. Unlearning one’s habit of alternating between throttle and brake pedals took no more than a couple of minutes. Get over this, and both the Note e-Power and Leaf drove like any other fossil fuel-run car.

Now, whether consumers finally adapt the habit of plugging in, as opposed to filling up, is a matter that may take a bit longer to settle.