It’s 1990 in California, and smog levels are slowly becoming dangerous. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) pins the blame on automobiles, which emit greenhouse gases all day, every day. You can’t get rid of them, since they are so necessary to get around in America, but what if they produced no emissions?
CARB decides that zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) are the solution, so they create a gradually-toughening sales quota: 2% of new vehicles sold in the state must be emission-free by 1998, 5% by 2001, and 10% by 2003.
These targets were a tad difficult for the car industry, so, in 1996, an agreement was made between CARB and seven major car manufacturers that the 1998 ZEV sales quota was not required, but each manufacturer must make a ZEV available in a “production capacity sufficient to meet market demand in California.” This led to the creation of electric vehicles by General Motors, Honda, Toyota, Ford, and Chrysler; Mazda would instead purchase ZEV credits from Ford.
The GM EV1, most of which were crushed, crushing owners' hearts:
The Honda EV Plus, which later had a hydrogen-powered variant:
The Toyota RAV4 EV, the only one to get a second generation:
The Ford Ranger EV, which tended to overheat:
The Dodge Caravan EPIC, Car of the Year 1996, sans ICE:
The seventh brand was Nissan, who had a different approach than its rivals. While all the competition use lead-acid or nickel-metal hydride batteries, Nissan made the radical decision to utilize lithium-ion batteries. While Honda, Toyota, Dodge, and Ford’s EVs couldn’t hit 100 miles (161 km) on a charge (the EV1 could do 105 (169)), Nissan’s EV could travel up to 120 miles (193 km).
The car was dubbed the Altra, and proudly announced the presence of lithium on the rear window. Lithium batteries were new at the time, and could only be found in the most expensive devices; insiders at the time said that the batteries in the Altra cost somewhere between $50,000 and $70,000 to produce, enough to buy an Infiniti Q45. Just for the battery!
The Altra was based on the Japanese-market R’nessa (pronounced RUH-nessa), chosen because the increased ground clearance and height over other hatchbacks brought extra space under the rear seats and cargo area that could be used to accommodate the
Infiniti Q45 batteries. Altras could only seat four people; the other two EVs with that kind of seating capacity each had a range at least 25 miles (40 km) shorter, making it a class leader in usefulness.
Only 320 were built between 1998 and 2002, when Nissan called them back from their lessees. As with most of its competitors, the Altra was mainly only available to fleets. Possibly the only remaining example (and probably the only functioning example left) is part of Nissan’s heritage fleet, and was driven by Zac Estrada from Jalopnik in 2019. He observed that it rode smoothly, but the steering was by no means sporty. It was also extremely slow, but that was due to battery degradation preventing speeds higher than 42 MPH (68 KPH).
Nissan’s goal was to show that a useful everyday EV was possible, but the technology at the time was still prohibitively expensive. The Altra was followed up by the Leaf, which once again had lithium-ion batteries, though they had become less expensive a decade on. Early models in 2011 started with a 73-mile (117 km) range and a $32,780 MSRP; regular improvements meant that, by 2017, it brought 107 miles (172 km) of range for $30,680.
While I don’t believe that EVs are the future for Earth mobility, I find it amazing how Nissan only created the Altra because it had to, and it was no help while Nissan was sliding towards bankruptcy at the time, but their work still paid off for them a decade later.
(Photos by Bradley Kappel, Mark Looper, Nissan, Dodge, Ford, General Motors, and Toyota)