Before e-Power Makes It Here, Nissan First Has to Send It to the Gym

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Whether the buying public likes it or not, there’s a tsunami of electrified powertrains headed for U.S. shores. Automakers the world over hope to beat their rivals in the race to a “fully electrified” lineup, which just means there’ll be — at a minimum — a hybrid variant in each model line.

It’s far less sexy than headlines make it sound. Still, if you’re into technology and saving money at the pumps (not necessarily at the dealer), it’s hot stuff. Nissan’s taking an unconventional route in this race, forgoing a conventional hybrid setup for an inexpensive stopgap solution all its own.

The system, called e-Power, is already a hit in Japan. But before it makes its way into high-end Nissan products (read: Infiniti), it first needs to upsize the system for American-sized vehicles travelling at American-sized speeds. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

e-Power combine an electric motor and a conventional gasoline engine, but, unlike a normal hybrid, the two powerplants do not take turns handling propulsion duties. The continuously running ICE (operating at a fixed rpm) continuously feeds a small battery via a generator, which in turns powers the electric motor that drives the wheels. Propulsion always comes from the electric motor, but the battery’s juice always comes from an ICE. (A small amount of energy is recaptured via regenerative braking.)

Image: Nissan

Launched in Japan in late 2016, the little Nissan Note e-Power hatchback utilizes a 1.2-liter four-cylinder running at a constant 2,500 rpm for its electricity generation. The automaker claims 70 percent of Note buyers in that market choose e-Power, making the vehicle line quite a profitable one. Nissan has since added e-Power to a midsize minivan.

Unfortunately, flitting around the crowded urban streets of Japan is a very different situation than intercity travel in Europe or the United States. For the vehicle to be ultra efficient, the engine needs to operate at an optimum speed. However, sustained high-speed cruising would deplete the battery faster than the engine/generator could replenish it.

This is what Nissan’s trying to figure out as it contemplates launching e-Power in Europe — and whatever lessons learned on the continent will surely be applied to the U.S., where Nissan promises e-Power availability in the near future. Its Infiniti division plans to go “electrified” by 2021, and it’s much easier to hide additional powertrain costs in a pricier vehicle’s sticker.

Ponz Pandikuthira, Nissan’s vice-president of product planning, told Automotive News Europe that “Japanese driving rewards e-Power,” but the equation falls apart outside the city. Still, the system’s efficiency still tops that of diesel propulsion by 10 to 15 percent, he said. Because of the  system’s benefits, it seems Nissan plans to do whatever’s necessary to adapt it to Western roads.

“EPower is far less expensive to execute than a plug-in hybrid because you don’t have the extra costs and 400 kg of the battery weight,” Pandikuthira said, calling e-Power “a great bridge technology.”

Testing is ongoing at Nissan’s UK R&D facility with a Nissan Altima outfitted with a 2.4-liter engine/generator, he added.

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