In Japan and other markets around the world the Nissan Note is a fairly conventional light hatch, not unlike a Honda Jazz with a tall body and huge emphasis on interior space.
The latest addition to the range, the Note e-Power now packs some interesting technology under the bonnet with a series hybrid powertrain in place of a regular petrol engine.
That means that motive force is provided by an electric motor, but charge for that motor doesn’t come from a wall socket, instead an efficient 1.2 litre three-cylinder petrol engine works as an on-the-go generator charging the battery instead of driving the car.
Nissan views it as a gateway to full EVs, so to see what the series hybrid system is like TMR travelled to Japan to experience the Note e-Power at Nissan’s Grandrive proving ground in Japan.
Vehicle Style: Hybrid Light Hatch
Price: approx $22,540 (in Japan)
Engine/trans: 80kW/254Nm electric motor 58kW/103Nm1.2 litre 3cyl (generator)
Fuel Economy Claimed: 2.7 l/100km
Nissan is justifiably proud of its Leaf electric hatch, which is the world’s number-one selling EV having tallied over 250,000 sales since appearing in late 2010. But electric vehicles have a small drawback in their limited cruising range and the time it takes to replenish a flat battery.
But what if you could be assured of fast recharge times everywhere you go? Just a few minutes here and there - the same as a petrol powered vehicle. That’s where the Note e-Power comes in, as it isn’t an EV in the strictest sense of the term, but it is powered by an electric motor that carries a petrol-powered generator with it everywhere it goes to maintain charge instead of needing to be plugged in.
Unlike a parallel hybrid (the kind Toyota and Honda sell) where the petrol engine works in concert with the electric motor to drive the front wheels, the Note e-Power has no connection between engine and drive wheels, so it offers the same high-torque zip that electric cars do so well.
The Note e-Power that I experienced was the top-spec Medalist model, packing in features like leather seat trim, satellite navigation, and LED headlights, making it a highly specced light hatch.
The interior is designed to maximise space too, with a high roof and MPV-like profile giving the Note a large, airy feel inside. Even though width isn’t too generous, headroom and legroom in either front or back are plentiful.
Nissan has put the e-Power battery beneath the front seats, so there’s no loss of luggage space, and the only real give-away that anything is different about this car is the stubby little gearshifter, the same as you’d find in a Leaf.
Instrumentation is almost entirely conventional too; to the right of a traditional analog speedometer with trip computer info in the middle is a large LCD display for access to vehicle status info like when the petrol engine is running, if power is being sent to or from the battery, or if regenerative braking is topping up charge.
ON THE ROAD
Exposure to electric vehicles may not be widespread, which Nissan clearly understands, so to enforce the fun-to-drive message of electric cars, and the strong torque delivery they’re capable of, the e-Power system is a perfect first step.
As with a conventional car all that’s required is to get in, place your foot on the brake, and press the start button. For just a few seconds the petrol engine starts up as a quick systems check, then returns to standby mode.
Push the accelerator and the Note moves off swiftly and silently - Nissan claims the interior of a Note e-Power is as quiet as a car two-segments larger, in other words something like an Altima or Camry.
The lack of petrol engine noise, and the rise and fall of engine revs is why, and when the electric charge starts to wane the petrol engine seamlessly starts up, revs at a fixed point (or optimal efficiency) then after less than a minute shuts back down and returns to a silent state.
You only just hear it - and with the radio on and a car full of passengers you probably wouldn’t notice it at all. Battery size is only quite small, so every couple of kilometres the petrol engine will chip in to maintain a useful level of charge.
The Note e-Power is a little different to something like the BMW i3 Range Extender, an electric vehicle that can be plugged in overnight, as there’s no wall plug for the e-Power gaining power only from the on-board generator.
Should you wish to quicken your pace in the Note e-Power simply give the accelerator a prod, the petrol engine may kick in if the battery needs an extra boost, or it may not depending on the situation.
In rolling tests from around 50km/h up to 100km/h the Note e-Power accelerated with the kind of urgency that felt more like a hot hatch than an eco one.
Charge cycles are only very short, with the petrol engine usually only active for a few seconds at a time, but they occur quite frequently which is a little surpising until you remember that the Note’s battery pack is rated at a rather small 1.5 kilowatt hours.
That means electric-only driving range is just a handful of kilometres at a time, but with complete freedom from a wall plug, refilling the Note e-Power takes only minutes with petrol as opposed to the overnight top-up time for a battery powered Leaf.
Under the bonnet, a three-cylinder 1.2 litre engine takes care of battery charging duties. It’s rated at 58kW and 103Nm, but as it doesn’t propel the car at all that’s of little significance. Instead the 80kW electric motor with a 254Nm output is the more crucial set of figures.
The Note e-Power’s aim is reduce fuel consumption. It has an official Japanese-cycle fuel consumption figure (which is a little more generous than the Australian cycle) of 2.7l/100km, compared with 3.8 l/100km for a conventional 1.2 litre petrol-driven Note which offers less power and torque.
With three driving modes - Normal, Smart and Eco - the Note goes from feeling much like a regular hatch coasting along when the throttle is lifted in Normal mode, to feeling much more like a traditional EV in Smart mode thanks to the power harvesting that pulls the car to a stop as if you were riding the brakes.
Opt for Eco mode and power output is reduced slightly as is assistance from the climate control to stretch out the available cruising range, which in our time with the car, freshly filled with fuel and driven on a reasonable imitation of a mixed drive varied between 620 and 690km (predicted via the trip computer) depending on the drive mode.
The Note e-Power is an interesting case study. No it may not have the zero-emissions credentials of a Leaf, but it produces more torque and uses less fuel than a comparable petrol Note.
Pricing might be a potential sticking point. In Japan a base model e-Power is the equivalent of $20,400 where as the purely petrol model starts from $16,040 - that’s a big step-up in the low-cost light car class, though it’s still far more accessible than a slightly larger Leaf from $46,990.
Australian buyers aren’t to get their hopes up for this car though, with a strong indication that the Note e-Power won’t be making its way here. Potentially though future Nissan models are expected to adopt this technology and it could be one of those that eventually brings e-Power tech to Australia’s roads - though what model might be first remains to be seen.
As a gateway to full EV mobility in a country that lacks sufficient infrastructure, the e-Power system is a clever introduction to the feel and experience of electric vehicle ownership, while still bettering the fuel use of Toyota’s ‘regular’ hybrid offerings - something Nissan Australia needs (in the right package of course) to rush to Aussie shores sooner, rather than later.
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