TOKYO - The Japanese government's push for more environmentally friendly cars hasn't been lost on Japan's No. 2 automaker, which is hoping to charge past the competiton with the first production version lithium-ion powered electric vehicle (EV).

Dubbed the R'nessa in Japan, where it also will be sold with a gasoline engine, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s stylish 4-passenger wagon/minivan will make its way to the U.S. as the Altra EV beginning in 1998. It will debut at the '98 Los Angeles Auto Show.

The Altra EV is significant because it is the first production EV to use lithium-ion batteries (normally found in high-end laptops, cell phones and video cameras), which Nissan says extend the vehicle's driving range to 120 miles (193 km) - the longest range of any EV currently available in the U.S.

While the Altra EV shares the same body panels as the gasoline-powered R'nessa, engineers say they caught development of the platform at an early enough stage that the Altra EV is slightly lighter and more advanced than most EVs.

Power for the Japanese-designed, U.S.-cliniced Altra EV is via a water-cooled, synchronous motor that produces 83 hp at 13,000 rpm. Even with 800 lbs. (363 kg) of battery housed in an aluminum battery carrier that bolts to the center of the vehicle, Nissan says the Altra can carry four passengers and 221 lbs. (100 kg) of payload. Nissan claims 0-50 mph (0-80 km/h) times of less than 12 seconds and a governed top speed of 75 mph (120 km/h).

A few laps in the Altra EV around the Nissan test track in Tochigi, Japan, say those numbers aren't far off, but whether it can meet its touted single-charge range couldn't be measured during our short time in the vehicle.

Lithium-ion batteries - 12 Sony Corp.- supplied modules of 96 cells - help provide the vehicle's impressive power with less weight than either lead acid or nickel-metal hydride and without the "memory effect" of nickel-cadmium when it's time to recharge.

Such benefits, however, carry a hefty price. Just how much, Nissan won't say. The automaker hasn't set a price for the vehicle, but executives promise it will be "competitive" with EVs already on the market. If so, Nissan will surely lose thousands of dollars on every one it sells.

Consider that a monthly lease payment on a Nissan Prairie-Joy EV in Japan is $2,500, a price Nissan executives admit wouldn't fly in the U.S. Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s EV Plus, powered by nickel metal hydride batteries, leases for about $2,400 a month. This might explain why Nissan plans a slow rollout beginning with just 30 Altra EVs in early 1998 to utility companies (all equipped with data loggers so Nissan engineers can monitor their performance), 90 to fleet users in 1999 and then retail customers in California for model year 2000.

Like General Motors Corp.'s EV1, the Altra EV likely will be lease-only. By that time, prices on lithium-ion powerpacks could fall to a range more competitive with other batteries, thus reducing Nissan's losses.

"We are not at the point of offering vehicles to the public," says John Schutz, head of Nissan's U.S. regulatory affairs. "We will have heavy subsidies on these cars."

The Altra EV initially will be sold in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco and, perhaps, later in the Northeast. Engineers will be testing an Altra EV in Michigan this winter to see how it performs. But with no major air quality problems there, and less-than-ideal operating temperatures for EVs, it's doubtful consumers in the Midwest or Northeast will see EVs anytime soon.

"It is a little premature to look beyond California," says Mr. Schutz. "We could wind up where the only logical place to have EVs is in Los Angeles."

Among the nifty gadgets on the Altra EV is a remote control that can turn on the air conditioning before getting into the car. The remote also offers a digital readout of the vehicle's charging status and warns of any charging problems. The Altra EV uses the 220-volt Hughes inductive chargingsystem and takes five hours to charge, something that can be done 1,200 times (a bout 10 years) before the batteries need replacing, Nissan says. Lead-acid batteries have a life of about three years.

As for the suspension, the Altra uses a modified Maxima sedan front and rear to handle the increased weight. A 4-wheel antilock regenerative braking system uses discs up front and drums in the rear. Nissan claims that in city driving up to 20% of the vehicle's total energy capacity comes from regenerative braking. The Altra's rack-and-pinion steering is powered by an electric motor and only uses power when called for. While effective, some may dislike the amount of steering effort required to get the vehicle turned in.

The Altra EV is certainly one of the more impressive in its class for range on a single charge, cargo and people capacity, and general good looks. Nissan also earns sizable kudos for making such an expensive investment. It's a step in the right direction, but whether it is the correct one is something even Nissan executives can't really yet answer.