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It’s not the speediest car on the planet, but the prototype in these pictures is part of the race to create a viable, zero-emission car. This Nissan Cube is a step on the way to the company’s goal of an all-new, purpose-designed, zero-emission, five-seat electrically powered car in 2010. It’s an impressive stepping stone too, and utterly simple to drive. Twist the key, a green “ready” light appears on the dash, move the gear lever into “D”, sink the accelerator and proceed.

Two things strike you immediately: the strong and seamless acceleration, and the startling absence of noise. You hear almost nothing apart from the whoosh of the air-conditioning fan and, at speed, the distant hiss of the tyres. If you’ve never driven an electric or hybrid car before, it’s a little surreal and does much to make this car feel like the transport of the future.

But this isn’t how it will look. The Japanese-market Cube, soon to be replaced by a new version bound for the UK, is merely a carrier of Nissan’s electric drivetrain. The real thing will look very different, with aerodynamics intended to signal that this is a different kind of car. But the prototype provides some indication of what the real thing, which will be more powerful, will be like to drive. With 107 horsepower it accelerates very strongly to 40mph — the result of an electric motor’s ability to generate maximum torque instantly — but it needs 13 seconds to reach 60mph and is all-out at 85mph.

However, the 2010 car will offer significantly better performance. Project engineer Satoshi Komiya claims a potential 0-60mph time of about five seconds, which is seriously fast, thanks to improved battery energy density and lighter weight. Nissan is aiming for a range of no more than 100 miles — the prototype achieves only 75 — underlining the limitations of current battery technology. It confines electric cars to an urban life, where the powerful acceleration at lower speeds will be an advantage.

On Nissan’s smooth Oppama test track the Cube feels quite wieldy, the mass of batteries in its belly doubtless aiding stability. The limitations of battery weight (660lb or 300kg in this case), cost (30 per cent of the car’s price), range (whether 75 or 100 miles), recharge time (6-8 hours, although an 80 per cent charge takes 30-60 minutes), not to mention the fact that carbon emissions are merely transferred to the power station and the inadequate generating capacity for large numbers of battery cars, will remain when the showroom version appears in 2010.

That’s when the electric Nissan will go on sale in the United States and Israel; European sales, probably starting with Portugal, will begin in 2011. It will be much the same size as this Cube and at least as dramatically styled but considerably more aerodynamic. The driveline will be much the same, featuring a lithium-ion battery pack and an electric motor under the bonnet driving the front wheels.

Developing a network of recharging points has become part of Nissan’s mission. The company is working to persuade various countries to introduce the necessary infrastructure and tax incentives, so that Nissan-compatible recharging stations will be plentiful by 2010/11, plus financial incentives for users. These may include battery leasing arrangements, which at least partly compensate for the relatively high initial price, also offset by low running costs.

Quantifying the carbon footprint is difficult, says Nissan’s vice-president of advanced technology, Minoru Shinohara, but even if the electricity is entirely generated by fossil fuels he expects carbon reductions of between 20 and 25 per cent compared with an equivalent, conventionally engined car. Nissan’s responsibility, he says, ends with the elimination of emissions at the exhaust-pipe, and how the electricity is generated lies beyond the company’s scope. It’s a solipsistic view that not all car-makers share.

For all that, the Nissan prototype is in a different league to some of the miserable electric city cars we have seen so far. Time will tell whether it’s good enough to succeed in the real world.
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