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The Nissan Sakura EV.Kunal D’souza/The Globe and Mail

Electric cars are expensive. There’s no getting around that fact right now in Canada.

There are a few relatively affordable ones, such as the Hyundai Kona EV, and the Toyota bZ4x, but “affordable” in the EV space means less than $55,000, a convenient number that allows the cars to qualify for the federal Incentives for Zero-Emission Vehicles (iZEV) program. At that price, many Canadians who might want to consider an electric vehicle ultimately end up buying a gas car.

There aren’t many used car deals to be had on EVs, either; most have only been on sale for a few years. Some even less. Older first-generation Nissan Leafs (2011-2016) can be had for less than $10,000, but you’d be lucky to get 100 kilometres of range out of one of those “deals.” And good luck with range in the winter.

But what if I told you there’s an EV that has 180 kilometres of range, can fit four comfortably, charges quickly and is currently on sale for less than $20,000. Would you be interested?

The Nissan Sakura is a new battery-electric kei car and was awarded Japan’s Car of the Year. Kei cars are a class of small vehicles that would appear diminutive by North American standards. They are restricted to certain dimensions, engine sizes and power outputs. Owners of kei cars enjoy tax and insurance benefits. As a result, kei cars make up more than one-third of the Japanese domestic car market.

Nissan doesn’t have plans to bring the Sakura to Canada right now. “The Nissan Sakura has been designed for the specific needs of the Japanese market and is not compliant to North American regulations. In addition, its range would not meet Canadian standards,” a spokesperson for Nissan said in an e-mail.

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The Sakura features a digital gauge cluster for the driver and a nine-inch infotainment system with Navigation and Apple Car Play.Kunal D’souza/The Globe and Mail

On a recent trip to Tokyo, I had an opportunity to drive the Sakura. It’s essentially a cute little box on wheels, which is the best possible shape for a spacious interior. It fits four adults, and offers impressive leg and knee room, even in the rear. My six-foot frame had no issues in any of the seats and I had headroom to spare.

It’s a narrow car, so you’ll be sitting a bit closer together than you’re used to, but it was far from cramped or claustrophobic.

There’s a digital gauge cluster for the driver and a nine-inch infotainment system with Navigation and Apple Car Play. The front seats are covered in a nice couch-like fabric, and they are inviting and comfortable. The driving position is good and you even get tech like Nissan’s ProPilot driver assistance features and automatic parking.

The door panels feel flimsy and there is some cheap plastic used on the dashboard, but these things are typical of an inexpensive car.

The Sakura is equipped with a 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery under the floor, and a 20-kilowatt motor turning the front wheels. Total range is estimated at 180 kilometres based on the global WLTC test standard, and it’s capable of fast-charging at up to 30 kilowatts. Nissan claims that it will take 40 minutes to recharge from when the battery warning light comes on to 80 per cent using a fast charger, or eight hours to charge fully with an optional three-kilowatt home charger.

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It’s a narrow car, so you’ll be sitting a bit closer together than you’re used to, but it was far from cramped or claustrophobic.Kunal D’souza/The Globe and Mail

A smaller battery pack, like the one in the Sakura, comes with advantages: It’s lighter. The entire car weighs 1,080 kilograms or about the same as a new Mazda Miata. To compare, the battery alone in a GMC Hummer EV weighs 1,400 kilograms and the total vehicle weighs 4,700). The Sakura only produces 63 horsepower (the kei-car max) but it doesn’t really need more. And with 144 lb-ft of torque, it’s actually quite zippy in the city. Lightweight also means it’s efficient, rated at just 12.4-kilowatt-hours per 100 kilometres.

It tops out at 130 kilometres an hour, so it’s definitely highway capable, but you might have a hard time seeing around all the Rams and F-150s. The Sakura certainly isn’t for everyone, and there are lots of other options to satisfy bigger budgets, but as a city runabout, it’s just about perfect. It’s comfortable and rides well, and is really easy to park. It’s also just good fun to drive, despite the limited horsepower. The Sakura is a very real and practical automobile. And with little 14-inch wheels and skinny tires, even the running costs will be low.

While a kei car on Canadian roads might seem unlikely, the Mitsubishi i-Miev was sold here not very long ago. It was a tiny electric car and also the world’s first mass-produced EV. The i-Miev was based on the kei cars in Japan and is roughly the same size as the Nissan Sakura. So, there could actually be a case for Nissan to bring the Sakura here. After all, they did sell the Micra in Canada, and not in the United States. Canadians have a bigger appetite for small cars, and they work well in cities like Toronto where importing old kei cars and kei trucks is possible. Canada’s classic car import rule states that any car more than 15 years old can be imported into the country. They are no longer regulated by the Motor vehicle safety act at that time.

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The trunk on the Nissan Sakura EV.Kunal D’souza/The Globe and Mail

The i-Miev didn’t sell in big numbers; only 781 were sold in Canada from 2011-2017 when the car was ultimately discontinued in Canada and the United States, but remained in production until 2021 in other markets. I-Miev sales took a nosedive as newer and more advanced EVs like the BMW i3 and Nissan Leaf came to market. Both were more powerful and offered greater range.

Affordable cars have mostly been small, but since the rise of the crossover, many subcompact vehicles have been replaced with more expensive, larger, heavier and less-efficient vehicles. Unless Canadians learn to embrace the smaller vehicle once again and give up our obsession with big cars, an affordable EV might not be a reality. In order to hit government targets of 100-per-cent zero-emission light-duty vehicle sales by 2040, we are going to have to consider smaller, cheaper EVs like the Sakura.

The Nissan Sakura retails for a starting price of 1.78 million yen, including a clean energy vehicle subsidy, which works out to $16,303. That would make it the second cheapest car you can get in Canada today. Only the Mitsubishi Mirage costs less.

Recently Honda and GM announced they are pulling out of a collaboration to make cheap EVs. Apparently, it was too hard. Have they seen the Sakura?

Tech specs

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Currently, the vehicle is 'not compliant to North American regulations.'Kunal D’souza/The Globe and Mail

  • Base price/as tested: 1.78-million Japanese yen (about $16,000) / 2.94-million yen (about $27,000)
  • Motor: 20-kilowatt AC synchronous electric motor that produces 63 horsepower and 144 lb-ft of torque
  • Transmission/drive: Direct, one-speed, front-wheel drive
  • Energy consumption: 12.4 kilowatt-hours per 100 kilometres
  • Alternatives: None

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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