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Nissan Altra EV Blazed the Way for Lithium-Ion Power

by Ron CoganMarch 18, 2019
The Nissan Altra EV introduced the first use of advanced lithium-ion automotive batteries in 2008, setting a new direction for modern EVs.
Green Car Time Machine.

The Nissan LEAF benefits from early electrics like the circa-1998 Nissan Altra EV, the first model to use lithium-ion batteries. The Altra EV was one of many electrics explored during Nissan’s decades-long electric vehicle development program, including the Future Electric Vehicle (FEV), FEV II, Prairie Joy EV, Nissan Hypermini, Altra EV, and of course the LEAF. To lend insight into the early years of Nissan’s electric vehicle development, we present the following article from the Green Car Journal archives, as it was originally published in June 1998.

Excerpted from June 1998 Issue: The Nissan Altra EV, an electrified iteration of the all-new R’nessa minivan, an internal combustion model sold only in Japan, created quite a stir at its official North American debut at this year’s 1998 Greater L.A Auto Show.

The reason? It’s the first time any production electric vehicle has used lithium-ion batteries, scaled-up versions of the batteries found in the highest-end notebook computers and video cameras. Just as lithium-ion allows these portable devices to operate longer on battery power, this advanced battery technology also provides an EV with a longer single charge driving range – 120 miles in the case of this minivan.

Sony lithium-ion battery module.

Greater EV Range Possible

It could have been more. Nissan chose to go with a minivan because of its universal appeal and functionality. However, there was a desire on the part of some Nissan executives to go with a smaller, lighter EV because the Li-ion batteries could have provided a stunning 200 mile single-charge driving range in a smaller platform. Instead, the automaker chose a platform that weighs in at just over 100 pounds more than Honda’s EV Plus.

The Altra EV’s Li-ion battery pack consists of 12 modules of eight cells connected in series, or a total of 96 cells, each measuring 2.6″ in diameter and 16″ in length. A Hughes-type inductive charging system, the same as GM’s EV1, is used on the Altra EV. A full charge from empty takes about five hours.

The decision to integrate Sony Li-ion batteries represents substantial vision on the part of Nissan, and also, it seems, an ability to absorb significant short term losses. While Nissan sources will not officially comment on the actual cost of the Li-ion battery pack, insiders say that early versions cost somewhere between $50,000 to $70,000 each. Obviously, these costs will drop dramatically and quickly as the technology advances and greater numbers of these batteries are produced. In the meantime, high costs for early EVs used in limited demonstrations are to be expected.

Nissan Altra EV in front of building.

Driving the Nissan Altra EV

Power is provided by a 83 horsepower permanent magnet synchronous motor and a 32-bit high-speed RISC motor controller processor. The motor features a compact design that weighs just 85 pounds. This electric powertrain achieves a high overall energy efficiency lf approximately 90 percent under ordinary driving conditions.

Green Car Journal editors had the opportunity to put the Altra EV through its paces at the automaker’s Tochigi test track in Japan. This test drive proved the Altra EV to be quite a capable performer, with good acceleration and handling characteristics. In fact, no apparent shortcomings were detected other than some slight gear whine, not a surprising occurrence since this vehicle’s operation is otherwise silent, with no internal combustion engine or exhaust noise to mask normal mechanical sounds.

Inside, an innovative, titanium-colored digital instrument panel displays performance and charge status that was easy to read during our test drive. Comfortable seating for four is provided with front and mid-section bucket seats. A good amount of cargo area is provided at the rear.

This four-place seating configuration, rather than the six- or seven-place seating found in conventional minivans, is simply a concession to the need to keep total gross vehicle weight within certain limits to ensure optimum driving range. Everything, from vehicle weight to aerodynamics to rolling resistance, is crucial in electric vehicles that carry a very finite amount of energy onboard. This is an especially important consideration since the Altra EV carries an 800 pound battery pack mounted beneath the floorboard.

Power diagram for Nissan Altra EV electric minivan.

Nissan Altra EV Coming to U.S.

Nissan is bringing 30 Altra EVs to the U.S. for testing this year, mostly within its own employee fleet and in the fleets of several electric utilities. Nissan sources tell Green Car Journal that delivery of the first 15 Altra EVs from Japan is slightly behind schedule, but they are expected imminently. After the initial 30 examples arrive, an additional 90 Altra EVs are scheduled to be brought to the U.S. for placement with fleets by 2000.

Of course, the Altra EV represents but one highly visible part of this automaker’s electric vehicle program. By all accounts there’s also a hybrid electric variant coming, possibly based on the efficient Nissan Avenir developmental hybrid platform that Green Car Journal editors had the opportunity to test drive at the automaker’s Tochigi track in late 1997.

While this hybrid vehicle was clearly still in the development stage – much of the interior was devoted to battery placement and instrumentation – it was far enough along to prove the viability of Nissan’s hybrid work.

Tadao Takei, Nissan’s executive vice president, has been quoted as predicting a January 1999 launch of a Nissan hybrid EV in Japan. This follows the late-1998 launch of Toyota’s Prius hybrid EV in the Japanese market. Takei expressed doubt that Nissan would reach the current 3,000 unit-per-month production of the Prius, which was recently ramped up to meet unexpectedly high demand for the Toyota hybrid.

Still, the fact that Nissan is moving forward with a hybrid launch signals an important commitment to what promises to be an exciting and growing segment of the auto industry.

Technical Specifications


Type: Neodymium permanent magnet DC electric motor

Dimensions: 8.11 inches diameter x 12.01 inches length

Power: 83 hp (162 kW)

Maximum Torque: 17 ft-lbs

Maximum RPM: 13,000

Transmission: Transaxle type with 2-stage planetary gear set

Controller: 216-400 volt input range, Vector controller

Drive Configuration: Front-mounted motor, front-wheel drive


Type: Lithium-ion

Capacity (AH/Hour): 94/3

Nominal Voltage (V/Set): 345

Number of modules: 12


Charger Type: Inductive

Charging Time: 5 hours


Body Type: Unibody construction

Front Suspension: MacPherson strut with coil springs and stabilizer bar

Rear Suspension: Rear multi-link beam with coil springs


Steering Type: Power-assisted electric oil pump

Turning Circle (ft.): 36.2

Turns (lock-to-lock): 4.11


Brake System Type: Electric assist regenerative antilock braking

Front: Ventilated disc brakes

Rear: Drum rear brakes

Input Voltage: 12

Motor Type: DC brush


Wheels: 5-spoke aluminum alloy

Size: 15-inch

Tire Type: Low rolling friction all-season radial

Tire Size: 205/65R15


Overall Length: 191.7 inches

Overall Width: 69.5 inches

Overall Height: 66.8 inches

Wheelbase: 110.2 inches

Tread Width (front/rear): 60.4/59.8 inches

Min. Ground Clearance: 5.51 inches

Coefficient of Drag (Cd): 0.36


Seating Capacity: 4

Curb Weight: 3,749Ibs.

Weight Distribution: 56/44 front/rear

GVWR: 4.579 .lbs.

Cargo Capacity: 221 1bs.

Maximum Payload: 820 1bs.


Hwy/City: 304/342 watt hours/mile


Vehicle Range: 120 miles

Maximum Speed: 75 mph (governed)