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First Coast Gears: Infiniti Aims To Put The Electric Car In The Luxury Arena

5:13 PM, Apr 13, 2012   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As I was filling up my VW Eos this week with a 60/40 mix of premium and regular, the total hit $54. But it was worse for the gentleman next to me: His gas bill was $105 for his Dodge Durango. Ouch.

That's why electric cars have a real chance at inching toward automotive relevancy and what makes Infiniti's all-electric LE Concept one of the most significant cars to come out of the New York International Auto Show.

Nissan is betting big on electrics. With the U.S. assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., scheduled to start building electric Leafs later this year, Nissan says the Tennessee plant could produce up to 150,000 Leafs annually.

Now, it's looking like Nissan may become the first major automaker to get a high-volume electric luxury car to market. A version of the LE Concept is expected in showrooms within the next two years.

The concept looks near production-ready and is close in size to an Infiniti G sedan. Nissan estimates its range will be about 100-miles per charge. Perhaps the real story is the interior, which has a "wow" factor at night, with cool blue lighting throughout.

The theme carries over to the exterior with blue LED lighting that flows around the lower panels.

"The LE Concept exterior is shaped to maximize its aerodynamic efficiency, yet it doesn't scream 'electric vehicle,'" said Infiniti Americas Vice President Ben Poore in a news release.

The batteries are under the passenger compartment floor, giving the LE Concept a low center of gravity while maintaining a full size trunk.

As expected, technology is front and center, with Infiniti Connection: a 24-hour automotive concierge service, navigation and point of interest search service. The center cluster is powered by an Intel Atom processor, while the overall twin display offers all sorts of information, such as an electric calculator that will use onboard and cloud-based data. 

Infiniti says as the network of public charging stations expands, the on-board database of charging locations will be updated. 

On the performance front, the true measure for any electric is torque. The LE has 240 lb-ft. To put that in perspective, a base 2012 BMW 3-series starts with 200 lb-ft.

Infiniti has not announced performance figures, but the LE Concept's engineering team says it's targeting "impressive EV acceleration without sacrificing the range." For an electric car in this league, that likely means a zero-to-60 time below eight seconds.

Perhaps the neatest trick Infiniti is working on is a wireless charging system that could be installed in garages. "All you have to do is park your vehicle over the charging pad with no need to connect cables." said Poore.

To make getting over the charging station easier, the LE Concept has a parking assist that aligns it in the proper position over the wireless charging coil. Then it bookmarks the position with a GPS unit. The next time you pull up to the garage, e-steering, with full forward and backward capability can take over the docking maneuver for you.

Whether we'll see wireless charging in two years is questionable. You'll notice Poore is hedging his bets saying he expects it "to be the first home-based wireless charging system IF adapted for the production version."

Regardless of whether wireless car charging arrives in two years, it's almost certainly coming within five. Wireless charging pads are already being sold for some smartphones. 

Here's the most compelling reason that electric cars may actually have a future: estimates the LE's sister car, the Nissan Leaf, costs about $2.88 to fully charge. The EPA says the Leaf's gas mileage equivalent rating is 99 mpg. 

The Concept LE will likely match or perhaps even top that rating. With gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon, it's nice to know the alternatives to $105 fill ups are growing.

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