Nissan and Mitsubishi unveil EV cars priced at less than $15,000

Manufacturers hope they will cater to Japan's fast-growing 'kei-car' segment

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Nissan Motor and Mitsubishi Motors have unveiled two new electric mini vehicles, betting consumers will embrace a battery-powered take on the well-loved class of tiny, affordable Japanese cars.

Marking a key push into a less-served part of the EV market that could help spur wider adoption, the chiefs of the car makers took the wraps off Nissan’s Sakura and Mitsubishi’s eK X EV on Friday.

The boxy EVs are set to go on sale in Japan this summer, at a starting price of less than $15,000.

The interior of a Mitsubishi eK X EV. Bloomberg

Small and affordable “kei” mini vehicles are a popular means of transportation in Japan, especially among workers and families living outside major cities, where roads are narrow and public transport is sparse.

In 2020, they made up more than a third of new passenger car registrations in Japan.

“What Nissan and Mitsubishi are doing, this is the way it should be,” said Takeshi Miyao, an analyst at automotive consultancy Carnorama, referring to their alliance that also includes Renault, and which has been strained in recent years.

“This technology is going to be beneficial for the alliance.”

As Japan’s government pushes for the country to go net-zero emissions by 2050, the kei-car segment has been highlighted as one that’s especially difficult to electrify.

Industry officials have warned adding batteries to kei cars could push their prices out of traditional buyers’ reach.

A Nissan Sakura electric vehicle at the Mizushima plant in Kurashiki, Okayama prefecture, Japan. Bloomberg

The cost of buying kei EVs should eventually fall to less than 1.5 million yen ($11,700), according to Mr Miyao. Nissan and Mitsubishi’s joint models get pretty close. After subsidies, both cars start at around 1.8m yen.

While that’s on the expensive side for the category, Japanese car makers have been nudging prices higher in recent years, as they’ve added more features and safety technology.

The vehicles developed by the car makers’ NMKV joint venture are fitted with small 20 kilowatt-hour batteries, giving them “enough cruising range to meet daily needs", Nissan chief executive Makoto Uchida said at an event in Okayama, in Chugoku region.

“I hope many customers will be able to experience the benefits electric vehicles can offer.”

Other car makers — including Honda Motor and Daihatsu Motor, a unit of Toyota Motor — are crafting plans to roll out their own electric mini models within the next few years, which could accelerate Japan’s relatively slow embrace of EVs.

Updated: May 21, 2022, 4:00 AM