– Tokyo, Japan 

The first thing I noticed when I put my 6-foot-5 American frame behind the wheel of a Japanese domestic market Nissan Sakura EV is that I could wear a literal top hat in this car. The best-selling EV in Japan is many things – narrow, upright, stylish, perhaps even lovable, but cramped is not one of them. 

Last week, Nissan invited me to Tokyo for the Japan Mobility Show and threw in the opportunity to drive some of its Japanese Domestic Market products as a tasty side dish to the wild concept car mains. The most enticing vehicle on offer was the Sakura, an inexpensive, hugely flexible mini electric car that has Japanese buyers frothy. As of late October, Nissan is said to have sold more than 35,000 Sakuras in Japan, more than even Tesla, which is no easy feat anywhere in the world. It’s also compact, affordable, and reasonable in battery size, which is a far cry from the huge and expensive EVs that keep coming our way.

I was curious to see how the tiny EV acquitted itself on the street, and also to judge whether or not it might model a kind of “minimum viable product” template for drivers in the US – my 99th percentile size serving as a useful stress test for my countrymen. At least for us tall folks, the early returns were quite positive. 

Quick Specs 2024 Nissan Sakura
Motor Single AC Synchronous
Output 63 Horsepower / 144 Pound-Feet
Drive Type Front-Wheel Drive
Battery 20.0-Kilowatt-Hour Lithium-ion
EV Range 112 Miles (WLTC Cycle)
Charge Type 110 Volt / 220 Volt / 100 Kilowatt DC
Base Price $15,500 (at current exchange rates, not adjusted for market)

Gallery: Nissan Sakura EV Photo Gallery

Not-So-Fast Follower

Lest we forget (and this is InsideEVs so I know you all won’t) the Sakura is not the first electrically powered Kei car. That honor belongs to the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which launched in Japan in 2009 and globally in 2010. It was also one of the very few Kei cars to see exported sales to the West. 

The Mitsu may have been the first mass-produced EV and sold around the world, but it certainly didn’t win many hearts and minds in the US. The i-MiEV had only 62 miles of range (though owners do report good efficiency), was slow to charge and to get up to highway speeds, offered shockingly bad interior quality, and still carried an MSRP of around $24,000. But even if Japanese drivers often use Kei cars like these as their only cars – car ownership there is super expensive and space is very limited – there remains a huge hole in the American market for smaller, more affordable EVs like this one.

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To be clear, Nissan has offered exactly zero indication that it would export the Sakura at all, let alone to the US. But if the bar for a Kei-scale is set at i-MiEV height, something like the new Nissan offering would clear it with room to spare.

Zooming Around 

I’ve had multiple bites at the i-MiEV test drive apple over the course of my career and I can tell you that the flavor didn’t get better with age. Whatever that car had going for it in terms of acceleration and relatively lightweight (featherweight for a BEV), was counterbalanced by crashy ride quality and that ultra-slow crawl up to top speed. The Nissan Sakura’s Leaf-derived powertrain may have no more power than did the i-MiEV – both outputs sit at the 63 horsepower that is de rigueur for the Kei class – but every other thing about the driving experience is worlds better. 

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Acceleration is really brisk up to about 20 miles per hour, with all 144 pound-feet of torque from the single-motor setup being delivered instantaneously and only required to move 2,381 pounds (plus me and my 6-ounce can of Boss Coffee). A 0-60 time of about 8 or 9 seconds feels very plausible. But more importantly, it was simple for me to zoom around busses and beat Crown taxis away from stoplights in Tokyo – this is an excellent powertrain for a city car. 

On the other hand, I’m not positive the Nissan is ready for primetime on US freeways. I used to commute to Detroit from my home in Ann Arbor every day, and even though I’d love the cost-per-mile breakdown, I don’t think that the Sakura would offer a lot of confidence maneuvering through traffic at 80 or 85 mph for 80-plus miles. 

For chucking around urban and suburban areas, though, the little Nissan is going to be a hit no matter the zip code. The lightly boosted, very direct steering combined with the strong torque make Sakura a master of the point-and-shoot lane change. And a decent amount of road feel and feedback offer a surprisingly plugged in drive, while levels of noise from the outside world are well managed. The Kei car is probably better to drive than the last cheap four-door subcompact you were in, and by some margin.  

Now That’s Progress 

The Sakura’s battery 20-kilowatt-hour battery pack is just 4 kWh bigger than the old i-MiEV’s, but thanks to a decade of progress the range has jumped dramatically to an estimated 112 miles (on the WLTC cycle). Charging speeds for the 350-volt pack aren’t staggering – Nissan quotes a quick charge time of 40 minutes to go from 0 to 80 percent. But getting useful daily driving range from a small pack still seems smarter to me than getting nearly 400 miles from a resource-hoovering battery the weight of a Honda Civic. Call me a bleeding heart if you must. 

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A range of around 100 miles for an EV is terrible for marketing in this country, in 2023, without question. Yet I know that there are people like me, who work from home and drive less than 10 miles a day on average, more than able to make that sort of operational envelope work without much effort.

Setting The Scale 

For reference, I think it’s useful to compare the Sakura to a minimally viable product, on sale in the U.S., in the ICE world: the unloved Mitsubishi Mirage. If you’re considering vehicles with four doors, aimed at “normal” drivers, with a very low price point, the Mirage is really all we have. 

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At just under five and a half feet tall (65.2 inches) the Sakura is well under the maximum allowable height for Japanese Kei car regs, but still almost six inches taller than the Mirage (hence the profligate headroom). The Nissan is also much narrower than the Mitsubishi, a slender 58.1 inches vs. 65.6, and shorter overall in length at 133.7 inches vs. 151.4. The added length and width give the Mirage vastly better storage capacity with the seats up, at 17.1 cubic feet compared with a minuscule 3.8 for the Kei car. 

The trick here is that, especially with no engine bay to complicate the packaging, almost every scrap of space has been dedicated to human occupants. The rear seat room is downright generous. I was able to “sit behind myself” with room to spare, something that people of my height aren’t always able to say of small SUVs, to say nothing of Kei cars. And, despite the narrow width of the cabin, the lack of a middle seat on the rear bench means two adults can sit side by side without becoming intimately acquainted. 

In the front seats, especially behind the steering wheel, it’s not my long legs so much as my belly (I’m working on it) that’s the problem. The wheel is just a tad bit low and close for comfort – some of our more generously sized American countrymen might not love the fit here. Still, I’d say that folks around the 90th percentile for height and weight would fit comfortably. 

Nissan doesn’t quote a maximum cargo capacity, but the rear seats seem to fold nearly flat, offering a lot of flexibility for carrying stuff, especially with the very tall roof. 

Surprisingly Premium 

The existence of Kei cars like Sakura is predicated on their value proposition, but that doesn’t mean they have to be featureless rolling boxes. In the case of the Nissan, while the narrow, upright silhouette isn’t breaking and new ground, a bevy of color options (15 in the top trim), rad four-spoke “effect” wheels, and a cool LED signature make the car feel special. And the story gets even better inside. 

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I will admit that I’m a sucker for car companies that make inexpensive interior components with unexpected materials, colors, and finishes. The Sakura lives comfortably in this space; imagine a cabin born by coupling Ford Maverick and BMW i3 DNA, and you get the idea. 

The seats in my tester were upholstered in a neatly woven fabric, with tufted cushions, and in a golden-gray color that offers a fresh contrast to the dark instrument panel and door cards. Those doors and dash are wrapped in a dark grey textile that is, frankly, pretty elegant, and offset by metallic bronze accents that class up the whole affair. 

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There’s no center armrest at all, and very little in-cabin storage for things like water bottles or handbags. And the old Honda Fit-style cupholder on the IP probably isn’t deep enough for the big drinks we love to take with us everywhere in this country. But with some small storage redesigns for the American market, I think many car buyers would see Sakura’s cabin as a near-premium space. 

The Value Question

In the end, the success of a Sakura-like EV in the US market would come down to price. A base version of the vehicle costs the equivalent of $15,500 at today’s exchange rates, but Nissan would have to invest massively in a car like this to make it safe and legal for our roads. 

While you can still get one, the Chevrolet Bolt EV starts at an MSRP of $26,500. Nissan’s own Leaf hits $28,140 today and Tesla has slashed base Model 3 prices to just $35,990 – and tax credits can lower those stickers considerably.  

At a small but useful size and with half the range or less of those models I just named, I think that Nissan would have to squeeze a minimalist EV a grand or so under the $20,000 mark to jumpstart buyer interest. Using technology off of the corporate shelf, amortized across a mature EV range, and some product planning magic, I think that Nissan (or companies like Volkswagen, BMW/Mini, and even Mercedes) could get there. 

Honestly, I hope they do. We know from a hundred years of selling gas-burning cars that small, hyper-efficient transportation is never going to be the dominant mode in America. But as a piece of the fast-developing EV puzzle, I think an MVP like Sakura makes a lot of sense to a lot of drivers.

2024 Nissan Sakura

Motor Single AC Synchronous
Output 63 Horsepower / 144 Pound-Feet
Drive Type Front-Wheel Drive
Battery 20.0-Kilowatt-Hour Lithium-ion
EV Range 112 Miles (WLTC Cycle)
Charge Type 110 Volt / 220 Volt / 100 Kilowatt DC
Charge Time TBD / 8 Hours / 40 minutes (From 0% to 80%)
Weight 2,381 Pounds
Seating Capacity 4
Cargo Volume 3.8 Cubic-Feet
Base Price $15,500 (at current exchange rates, not adjusted for market)
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