NOVI, MI – Nissan North America Inc.’s upcoming unnamed electric-range vehicle will be a “real car” to be sold in volume, with a price tag similar to a midsize sedan with an internal-combustion engine, a top official says.

“This has to be and will be a real car,” Larry Dominique, vice president-product planning, says at a media prototype test-drive here. The Nissan EV is 18 months away from its expected late-2010 fleet introduction in the U.S. and Japan

“This has to be everything anybody has come to expect of an internal-combustion- engine car,” he adds. That includes keeping the cost of the vehicle in line, as Nissan’s research shows 80% of consumers want to buy “green” but won’t do so if they have to pay a premium price.

“We’re assuming the price of this car to the consumer will be about the average price of a midsize car in the U.S. today,” Dominique says, noting Nissan’s targeted $25,000-$33,000 price range does not factor in a federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

While he admits Nissan isn’t likely going to make a profit on the EV in the short term, bringing the vehicle to market and initially selling it at a loss is necessary if EVs are to become mainstream.

“You’ve got to make (them) attainable to consumers,” Dominique says. “If you have a Prius-sized car that costs $45,000, who is going to buy it?”

He emphasizes the lifetime costs of owning an electric car are actually less than those incurred with a conventional vehicle. For instance, an EV does not require regular oil changes.

Nissan’s calculations show the cost-per-mile to drive an EV is lower than that of a comparably sized ICE-powered car, even assuming higher-than-average electricity rates.

Competing electric- vehicles due out soon include BMW AG’s subcompact Mini EV and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s A-segment i-MiEV, likely will be too small for most American car buyers. In comparison, Nissan’s EV will be similar in size to the compact Sentra.

“The platform started out as kind of a B/C combined platform but had to be heavily modified because of the batteries and everything else,” he says. “I would say its 80% new from a platform standpoint.”

Nissan’s EV, with a projected 100-mile (161-km) range, is a vehicle a family of four or five could buy and use as one of their primary cars, he adds.

Nissan has been crafting deals with private companies and local governments to set up charging stations in the U.S., ensuring buyers an EV can be used as a primary vehicle by reducing concerns of “range anxiety,” the fear of not having enough battery power to make it to a long-distance destination.

To date, Nissan has inked deals with the states of Tennessee and Oregon, as well as California’s Sonoma County and the metropolitan areas of Tucson and San Diego, to develop and implement infrastructure.

Initially, the upcoming EV will be available to fleet customers in up to 15 markets, and Nissan says it may retail the car next year to individual consumers in areas with sufficient charging stations.

Mass-market introduction of the EV in the U.S. is set for 2012. Nissan still is debating whether to allow consumers to finance its home-charging unit. The box is expected to cost about $500, says Lance Atkins, senior project engineer-Nissan Technical Center North America in Sacramento.

“How can you make it really simple, a 1-stop shop? One way would be to work with electric companies, have them install (the home-charger) for you (and) roll it into the price of the vehicle,” Dominique says. “(But) maybe you want to pay for it separately. Do you really want to finance your charger for three years?”

Nissan will begin production of its EV first at a plant in Japan, which Dominique says generates half of its power from wind turbines.

The auto maker eventually wants to manufacture the EV, and the batteries from its Automotive Energy Supply Corp. joint-venture with NEC Corp., in North America.

Dominique says regionalized production of the car is inevitable, if sales take off as Nissan expects. The auto maker estimates 10% of its global sales could be EVs by 2015.

Nissan has applied for a U.S. Department of Energy grant to make both batteries and related components in the U.S.

In order for EVs to permeate the market here, Dominique says the electric-range propulsion system must work its way into mainstream vehicles, especially in the U.S.

“Our expectation is the initial EV will be an incremental product in (our) portfolio. (But) I don’t want to have 35 cars in my portfolio. Our hope is between the motor technologies improving, battery technologies improving, we can move this up in class of vehicle. I would love to see an electric Altima (midsize sedan and coupe) in the future. That would be ideal for me.”

He also hints at a future sports-car application, noting the Telsa Roadster makes sense given the high torque generated by EVs.

“To build a very expensive, very high-torque, very good acceleration sports car is a great niche market,” Dominique says. “We certainly think electric sports cars have a great opportunity.”

Nissan allows members of the Detroit-area media to drive its new EV system, installed in a second-generation Cube subcompact in a roped-off parking-lot course here.

While noise, vibration and harshness levels of a production EV cannot be adequately judged from the system’s application in the Cube, acceleration is relatively quiet and also quick, which Atkins says takes many test drivers by surprise. Nissan claims the production EV will have a top speed of 90 mph (145 km/h).

While the auto maker is expected to show the new EV in its salable form in the next few months, officials are not specific as to whether it will be unveiled at an auto show or at a separate event.

In anticipation of the unveiling, Nissan is holding back most details of the car. However, a slide presentation shows the EV model as a 5-door hatchback.

Dominique reveals the car’s battery will be a 35-kW lithium-ion with manganese connectors and a laminated cell structure, the latter allowing for improved cooling.

He also says the car will be 99% recyclable. Additionally, the car will have a “unique user interface,” says Dominique, who declines to be more specific.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com