EV WORLD <-- TESTDRIVES


California Commuter

Robert Oberhand
Contributing Editor

When I asked the editor of EV World if he'd be interested in contributions from the West Coast, he suggested I write a review of Nissan's Altra EV. Cool, I thought. Here's my chance to see just how well an EV could work in my real-world routine.I gave Mark Perry at Nissan a calland asked if they'd loan me an Altra for a week. It took some time to work out schedules, but eventually Nissan agreed.

Like any first-time EV commuter, my chief concern was range. I drive 35-mile-each-way. I was told 70-80 miles on a full charge was a pretty sure bet, with substantially longer range possible for an experienced driver under certain conditions (the brochure claims a 120-mile range.) This set my mind at ease, because of the Magnacharge unit at the CALSTART Pasadena, CA, headquarters where I lease my office space. I figured I could get a full charge at the office to cover the round trip, and with an overnight trickle charge from the portable 110-volt unit at home, I would have a little extra juice for security.

That's just how it worked out. In fact, the whole week was pretty smooth sailing. The Altra proved itself to be absolutely viable for commuting to the Pasadena office from my home in the San Fernando Valley, including a formidable grade along the Interstate 210 Foothill Freeway that connects the two communities. Acceleration was there when needed. Cruising at 60-65 was doable (though acceleration much above that was pretty flat), and hills were not a problem. Braking and handling were crisp and responsive. I felt secure about my charge level, knowing that the Magnacharge awaited me at my destination.

Altra is an interesting car. Nissan considers it to have a hybrid of sedan, minivan, and SUV characteristics, and I can see what they are talking about. You have ample back seat room as in some vans, a sense of vertical height and visibility a la SUVs, and overall size and driving characteristics of a sedan. The ample hatchback storage space is a plus, too. Maybe that makes it kind of a station wagon, a word we don't here much of any more, but a type that has always had a place in my heart.

Whatever you want to call it, I found Altra it to be well thought out, and fully enjoyable. Instrumentation was clear and logical. Air conditioning was very adequate in outdoor temperatures that ran into the 90s (though I used the AC sparingly, knowing it's a real battery drainer.) Charging was simple and fully automated, both with the portable and hard-wired units. Seating was well designed and comfortable, though the interior has a slightly minimalist feel in detailing compared with many cars. But with plenty of legroom and headroom, it had a comfortable and relaxed feeling. Nissan placed individual seats in the back rather than a bench seat to save weight, they said.

While I found Altra quite striking in its metallic green paint at expositions, my silver one didn't attract any attention from other drivers, even though it is a new body package for the U.S. market. I thought I saw a few people in the rear-view mirror seeming to react to the "electric" markings on the hatch back.

The unique technical feature of the Altra is its lithium-ion battery pack. Altra is the only production EV currently using this power source, which Nissan considers to be a third generation battery (lead acid and nickel-metal-hydride being first and second, respectively). The Nissan representative said they are committed to lithium ion for its high power density and belief that battery costs will decline. The smaller size of lithium ion batteries is a definitely a plus. One recent change they have made is to switch from Sony batteries to lower cost ones made by the Shin Kobe division of Hitachi. The Hitachi batteries use manganese in a key component, a less expensive material than the cobalt Sony uses.

Other main features of the car that are similar to other OEM EVs: permanent magnet motor, regenerative braking, low rolling resistance tires, programmable air conditioning, ABS brakes.

Nissan currently has 30 Altras in service in California, mostly performing mid-size car duties for power utility fleets. The company plans to deliver another 103 to the U.S. in 2000.

Some Real-World Altra Experiences

I did run into a few minor challenges along the way, as is to be expected when using an EV. The first was dealing with the portable 110-volt charger. While a portable 220-volt Magnacharge was available from Nissan for me to take home for this test period, I opted to use the standard 110-volt Magnacharge that comes with the vehicle. It is neatly tucked into the side of the cargo area, held in place with some easy-to-remove hand-screws.

My first task was to read the owners manual and charger instructions, and found a troubling discrepancy. One set of instructions said to never use the portable charger with an extension cord. The other said it was OK to do so if the cord had the proper rating. This admonition had me out to the hardware store in no time, After I returned, I plugged the heavy-duty extension cord into a socket inside my home, and ran it through the mail slot in my front door. I then connected it to the charger, which I placed on the driveway, and then inserted the inductive paddle into the charging receptacle on Altra's nose.

The charging process was fully automated. After a few seconds, LED lights flashed, the cooling fan went on, and all systems were go. Keeping in mind that one manual said not to use an extension cord, I checked for signs of heat or trouble several times before I felt it was safe to leave the charger running overnight.

The next morning I awoke to find that everything was intact, and that after about nine hours of charging, I added perhaps three bars on the charging gauge out of the possible seventeen or so. Not too much, but expected for the capability of a 110-volt system.

That brought me to the weekend. By Sunday, I was running low, and needed a charge to get me back to Pasadena, I drove over to the Northridge Mall, about a mile away from home, and left it there for a few hours, connected to one of the Magnachargers they have in the two "EV-only" spaces. The walk back home and the return walk to the mall five hours later didn't hurt, but if I acquired an EV, I would certainly want a 220-volt unit at home.

In general, I did not find that the Altra's charging gauge was consistent and accurate enough to indicate exactly how much charge was left, but it does the job of letting you know when you should start thinking about "filling it up." Just like a gasoline gauge, I guess. The manual acknowledges that accuracy suffers somewhat when less than a full charge is applied. This is not a real problem.

Another surprise hit me in the second half of the week. Lulled into a sort of comfort zone, I glanced at the charge gauge about halfway to Pasadena. I found that I only had three bars left. Fear set in, and so did range-extension driving mode. I did not want to run out of power on the freeway or anywhere else. I immediately shut off the fan and radio. Fortunately, I was just about to hit the down grade that takes you by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (compared to their trouble with Mars-bound spacecraft, my problem was not such a big deal, really) and into Pasadena. I reduced my speed, and sort of cruised/coasted for several miles. With three bars still showing, I began to regain hope.

I got off the freeway earlier than usual so I could keep going at lower speed. I cruised several miles through early-morning Pasadena on Walnut Street, where I made what seemed like ten green lights in a row (the battery gods were with me). When I rolled into the CALSTART lot, I still had two bars left. That taught me that you can really extend range by simply adjusting driving habits.

To my surprise, I found a shiny red GM EV1 plugged into the single inductive charger available at CALSTART. My first encounter with charger etiquette. I knew I would need only about four or five hours of charging, so I wasn't too concerned. I talked to the EV1 driver, and we worked it out. I later saw a sticker on a Magnacharger that dealt with this issue, stating that if a car is 80% charged (this is indicated on the charger's readout panel) it is OK for a newcomer to disconnect the paddle from the standing car, and plug it into his or her own vehicle. Interesting.

In summary, the challenges of driving the Altra were minimal, and the satisfaction of using an EV for a week was substantial. Plus, I went up a few bars on the "cool dad" gauge with my kids, who loved being dropped off to school in what they called "the car of the future."

Nissa Altra (left) sharing Magnacharger with GM EV1.



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