Nissan Designed a Mass-Market Electric Car in 1998. Here's Why You've Never Heard of It

Photo: Bradley Kappel
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Car companies are hustling to develop practical, mass-appeal electric cars right now. But in 1998, the Nissan Altra EV was already there. Here’s why this revolutionary vehicle you’ve never heard of didn’t pan out, and what it’s like to drive today.

The Altra was one of a number of electric vehicles born the last time folks thought battery electric vehicles were going mainstream. Anybody remember California preparing to enforce a mandate that 10 percent of new cars for sale in the state would be zero-emissions vehicles by 2003?

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Photo: Nissan

That’s how we ended up with short-lived oddballs like the Honda EV Plus and electrified Chevy S-10s, Ford Rangers, and a Chrysler minivan lugging enormous battery packs as forays into combustion-free propulsion designed for mass appeal.

But the only one most people remember is cigar-shaped General Motors EV1. The sleek and low two-seat EV1 was more accessible too, leased through several Saturn dealers in Arizona, California and Georgia from 1997 through 1999.

Though, of course, GM collected and crushed pretty much all known EV1s in 2003. That car, like the Altra, was too far ahead of its time for its own good. And the high cost of battery packs made it a hopeless business case at any significant scale.

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The Altra was an adaptation of another experiment from 1990s: the ’97 R’nessa. The idea was to converge the qualities of a wagon, SUV, minivan and sedan into one package, before Buick tried the same thing with the Rendezvous, and before we just started calling all things like that “crossovers.”

“We were on a trajectory to produce a EV that was mainstream transportation of the future,” Nissan North America historian and senior manager Dave Bishop said in an interview with Jalopnik. “We were not on a mission to produce an EV sports car. At the end of the day, we’re Nissan and a mass market manufacturer.”

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It’s easy to see the general shape and size as an early impression of something like the immensely popular Rogue or Murano. The styling, though, is all ’90s Nissan–very bland and generic. It doesn’t help that Nissan’s particular artifact here was an equally uninteresting shade of beige.

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“She was no beauty queen,” Bishop said. “That was the early realization about EVs, they had to be recognizable as an EV.”

It’s also bland, generic and beige inside. Opening the door and sitting comfortably behind the plastic steering wheel, I immediately got 1998 Nissan Quest flashbacks. But two Nissan representatives and a photographer easily fit in the Altra, while there was still a generous amount of space behind the rear seats for cargo.

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Consider the paltry cargo space you had in the EV1, which had a little more driving range than the Altra (somewhere between 80 and 120 miles, depending on who you ask), and only then do you capture how revolutionary the concept was back in 1998. And consider that, in 2019, the EPA rates the standard Leaf at 150 miles and it’s still impressive.

But packaging was just one way the Altra was ahead of its time. While pretty much every automaker making a battery electric vehicle has fallen in line with lithium-ion batteries as a standard technology, Nissan was the first to use them in a car like this.

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Nissan initially partnered with Sony to fill up the R’nessa with 12 battery modules under the rear seats and cargo floor, with a 62 kW electric motor making all of 83 horsepower. The benefit of this was a better density and packaging options than the nickel-metal hydride batteries GM was using at the time, or the sodium-sulfur battery Ford toyed with in the Escort Van-based Ecostar in 1992.

Laptops were barely getting lithium-ion batteries in the mid ’90s and here was a whole car powered by them. Forget how forgettable the Altra is to look at, Nissan wanted to showcase the technology under the sheetmetal.

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“In my interviews with the product people in Japan, they chose (the R’nessa) because it was a popular platform, and they wanted to show they could put this technology in something like that,” veteran journalist Ron Cogan said in a phone interview.

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Cogan, founder of Green Car Journal and Greencarjournal.com, is a former Motor Trend reporter who went to Japan in 1997 to drive the Nissan Altra EV on a media program. And as a one-time EV1 lessee, the Nissan’s relative normalcy was a stark contrast to him.

“Underfloor packaging of the batteries wasn’t unique but it was certainly the way to do it,” he said. “Engineers said they could’ve done it with a smaller vehicle and gotten a 200-mile range out of it.”

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But basing it on something like a 1998 Sentra wouldn’t make the Altra the practical package it was. Unlike the EV1, which you sunk into and had a digital dash stare at you from just below the windshield, the Altra just looks like any other Nissan product of its time.

There’s an obtrusively large column shifter and a peculiar starting sequence that I never quite mastered, but the feel behind the wheel is that of a typical Nissan car more than anything else. It’s remarkably easy to see out of, too, because it was made in the days of thin pillars and large glass areas, when practical cars had practical looks and weren’t punished for that.

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Just because the Altra had technology that modern EVs like Teslas use didn’t make it fun to drive then and doesn’t make it fun now, though. The Altra’s driving manners are just as minivan-like as the dashboard. That now-ubiquitous instant torque sensation of an electric motor is there, but like other tall wagon/SUV electric cars, heavy batteries and soft suspension dampen the fun any time you turn the wheel. And having said that, a modern Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid is probably a little more entertaining.

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Also hindering first impressions was the age of the Altra itself. Like all things with rechargeable batteries, the Altra’s have degraded over the decades to maybe about a third of their original capacity.

Matters were made even worse when I showed up on an unusually cold and, at times, snowy day at Nissan’s Franklin, Tenn. offices to drive the car. Even the Leaf I borrowed to get there wasn’t feeling the weather. When it was new, the Altra had a 75 mph top speed.

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Twenty years of battery degradation and freezing temperatures pretty much capped the speed at 42 mph and kept a dashboard light with a picture of a turtle on it almost constantly illuminated, indicating reduced power. All of that should’ve been fine on a 45 mph road near Nissan’s offices, but I proved to be a local nuisance behind the wheel of the Altra–made clear when a semi truck driver honked at me and then flipped me off as he passed me. Just another slow-ass Nissan driver, he must have assumed.

“At the time it was so early in the EV field, what was remarkable about it was how normal it was,” Cogan said. “There was gear whine, which was normal at the time because you had no internal combustion engine to mask that. Now EVs have been able to mask that sound.”

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My experience echoed Cogan’s, although the Altra’s age certainly shows mostly in terms of basic vehicle dynamics in the 2010s. The suspension is soft, the whole car feels heavy and, in with the wheel in my hands, it really wasn’t that far off from the last Murano I drove. The difference is that journalists like myself have become a little immune to the novelties of an electric vehicle.

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There are more than a million other cars on American roads right now that operate in the same basic way the Altra does. Except this Altra has been doing it for more than 20 years. That’s the truly remarkable thing.

“Pushing the tech on the battery development side was important,” Bishop said. “It’s the driver to the future success of the EV, just like refining the internal combustion engine from its smelly, smokey roots. We hung our hat on that.”

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Many don’t remember the Altra because no one ever heard of it in the first place. Nissan only produced about 200 of them and called them back from lessees in 2002 with hardly a whimper.

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I remembered this Nissan because it was a particular vehicle (alongside the Honda EV Plus) my environmental mother was obsessed with at the 1998 Los Angeles Auto Show. It was around this time she sat in various Saturn showrooms around Southern California contemplating replacing her Saab with an EV1. But like many early adopters who wanted to do something similarly offbeat, Nissan would turn them down. Most Altras made went to Nissan employees for evaluation, while several were also leased by utility companies and local municipalities.

The Altra wasn’t intended to be marketed to the public. Cost played a big role in that.

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“Nissan would not talk about the battery costs,” Cogan said. “One estimate was between $50,000 and $70,000 per pack.”

Not that that was unusual in the early days of full EVs, but when plug-in vehicles need hefty government incentives for the most part to attract interest, one can imagine the sticker shock customers would’ve received if the Altra showed up on Nissan lots across the country.

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“All automakers were looking for the holy grail of battery tech and it wasn’t there. Batteries killed the electric car,” Cogan said. “Trying to build and lease it was not a strong business case.”

Nissan Hypermini at Lane Motor Museum
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The Altra, along with the super-small Hypermini, was Nissan’s first genuine foray into making a consumer-oriented electric vehicle. Despite Nissan’s financial pressures in the ’90s that resulted in numerous niche cars going extinct, the electric vehicle program persisted. While California’s first electric vehicle mandate ended up being scuttled due to political pressures, Nissan’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed when it became part of the Renault-Nissan alliance in 1999, culminating in the first-generation Leaf in 2010.

Still, the decade-long gap between the Altra and Leaf is noticeable. And that so few ended up in the hands of private drivers meant there was no EV1-like public outcry when Nissan asked for them back.

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The one I drove was given to various Nissan employees while its U.S. headquarters was in Southern California. When the company relocated to Tennessee in 2006, the Altra was part of a number of vehicles in its heritage location relocated. As far as anyone knows at the company, it’s the only Altra that’s still drivable.

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And “drivable” is a generous term for the state of this Altra, along with the pair of Hyperminis Nissan has stashed away at its Tennessee headquarters and in the basement of the nearby Lane Motor Museum. Time and neglect has not been kind to the Altra’s battery pack and it can only be powered up by a comically obsolete charging paddle that has gone the way of a factory tape deck. Bishop says something will have to be done to preserve it for the future.

“Battery degradation affects range as opposed to performance, like if it had a 10 gallon gas tank and five years later it has an eight gallon gas tank,” he said. “The motor itself shouldn’t be a problem. We’d take out the battery pack and put in a modern lithium or whatever the new technology is. What we have to do is find out how to charge it.”

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Get past its unremarkable looks and let it sink in that the Altra marked a turning point for electric cars as we know them today. Passengers sit on the batteries that are relatively compact in design, while being able to sit in comfort as they quietly move down a main road.

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Its 85 MPGe rating from the EPA may not sound impressive to the current Leaf’s 112, but the Altra would still beat the likes of the Jaguar I-Pace or some versions of the Tesla Model X. And with the wagon-like body and higher driving position, it appeals to the heart of what the new car market has evolved into, even if modern electric cars are skewed towards the luxury end of the market.

“It’s critical that EV that are out there are affordable to the masses,” Cogan said. You look at the Audi, which is pricey. Like the Jaguar, like every Tesla. It’s very important to have vehicles that are affordable range. It’s a commitment the automakers have to make.”

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Nevertheless, Nissan persists. The Altra represents Nissan’s thinking from two decade ago of making a mainstream electric vehicle and it may finally come to fruition with the 2019 Leaf Plus and more significant 215-mile EPA rating. There’s enough reason to believe a Rogue EV isn’t that far away from reality, given the popularity of that vehicle and that body style.

Ready or not, electric crossovers are having their moment in 2019. This wagon/minivan/SUV thing stuffed full of laptop batteries from the 1990s helped show the way.

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