Curbside Classic: 1998 Nissan R’nessa – Rock Bottom Wagon With A High Floor

As I was saying in my previous post, I’m going to try and only post “CC virgins” this month – stuff we’ve not had a look at before. There is a bunch of JDM models that potentially fit this profile, but they can’t all be cool obscure RWD ‘70s coupés. So here’s a somewhat underwhelming unknown-unknown FWD wagon from the darkest days of Nissan, complete with a rather weird (yet oddly prescient) name.

So what’s this R’nessa all about? Well, when it came out in October 1997, the new Nissan family wagon was planned to take on the likes of the Mitsubishi RVR, Honda Orthia or Toyota Ipsum, i.e. proto- crossover tall wagons, not quite CUV or minivan, in the 2-litre class. But Nissan had a secret agenda with the R’nessa: it would be great for it to also double up as a prototype EV.

Which explains why they designed it, from the B-pillar back, with a double floorpan. In 1998, the Nissan Altra was launched. It was a R’nessa with, in a world first, 12 Sony lithium-ion batteries nestled within the twin floors. These allowed for 120 miles / 190 km of autonomy, necessitating five hours for a full recharge.

Apparently, the Altra failed to make much of an impact: only 200 were made and leased, primarily for Nissan employees and local authorities in California. A few also stayed in Japan, badged as R’nessa EV; only one of the 200 EVs is rumoured to still be roadworthy today, as Nissan recalled nearly all of them back in 2002. It was a pretty costly experiment, but it does mean Nissan has bragging rights for helping bring about Li-ion technology in automobiles.

Making room for the batteries gave the R’nessa’s cabin a relatively high floor. But it also meant there was space to add a few neat party tricks in there: both front seats were independently mounted and could be turned 180 degrees. The rear bench, meanwhile, was mounted on rails and could be reclined extremely far, giving the rear passengers “limousine” amounts of legroom. Or so Nissan claimed.

In reality though, this additional legroom was pretty unusable: the high floor meant the seat was too low. Even the brochure photos show this pretty clearly. Without footwells, rear passengers found long distance travel quite wearing. But for shorter distances, the R’nessa had its uses, and a number found their way to fleet operators, such as airport taxis, hotels and the like.

To keep the floor completely uncluttered, Nissan went back to the ‘60s in designing the controls: parking brake was foot-operated (pretty uncommon in Japanese cars) and the gear change returned to the column. Under the hood lay the tried and trusted 145hp SR 2-litre DOHC 4-cyl. also found in contemporary Silvias and Bluebirds (among many others) – I believe this is what our feature car has here. Optional extras included and AWD drivetrain, which was available with either a turbo 2-litre or a 2.4 litre also seen in the 240SX. All R’nessas were 4-speed automatics, except late model 2WDs, which had CVTs. The 2WD version’s MacPherson front / multilink beam rear suspension was identical to the Cefiro (a.k.a Infiniti I30).

Nissan’s hyperactive PR department proclaimed the carmaker’s high hopes for the “human-centered” R’nessa. They dubbed it a “Multi-Amenity Vehicle” and claimed that the weird name kind of referenced the word “Renaissance,” but also asserted that the initial “R” in R’nessa stood for “Run, Relax and Recreation.” More accurately, if less charitably, that might have been “Ruin, Ridicule and i-Rrelevance,” as Nissan were drowning in a sea of red ink and the R’nessa became just another albatross around the ailing conglomerate’s neck.

It wasn’t a total loss: Nissan used the same platform to make the Presage / Bassara minivans (1998-2003, early model Bassara pictured above), which sold pretty well. One reason was that those did not have the double floor and thus made for much better space utilization, without the quirky (but in practice rather useless) rotating front seats and with a third row that was conspicuously absent from the R’nessa.

Nissan were perhaps drinking their own Kool-Aid with the R’nessa – a common problem at the company in those troubled years. The model failed to reach its lofty goals of 6500 units per month by quite a lot: in just under four years, only about 40,000 units had been made. Nissan’s new management, eager to trim the JDM range, called it quits in mid-2001, even as sales had dwindled to homeopathic quantities.

The other saving grace of the R’nessa was its pioneering use of Li-ion batteries, along with its permanent magnet synchronous motor, regenerative brakes, keyless entry and all that, was definitely cutting edge, ushering the (much) later Leaf. The world just wasn’t ready yet. Oh, and there’s the model’s emblem, too. Very colourful, for once.

It’s true that the R’nessa signified the start of Nissan’s “renaissance” – perhaps more accurately, it symbolized Nissan hitting rock bottom and starting to claw its way back to the spot they occupied as Japan’s perennial number two carmaker. Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, the “R” stood for… Renault?