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Nissan (NASNY) never really joined the first wave of attacks in the battle to build America’s next-generation car.

While some automakers in recent years rolled out multiple alternative-fuel, environmentally friendly cars and SUVs, Nissan offered consumers in only some states the Altima Hybrid, a gas-electric vehicle.

With its North American headquarters in Franklin, Tenn., Nissan took a different route. Company executives never were sold on the theory that emissions-reducing hybrids are a long-term solution to pollution issues, believing instead they are an intermittent option.

So while most automakers rolled out one hybrid after another, Nissan was working behind the scenes on something different — an electric vehicle that uses no gas and produces no emissions. In business lingo, such strategy is known as placing a big bet.

In Nissan’s case, it was a very big bet in that the company was conspicuously absent from the hybrid category.

When a production model of the Nissan Leaf EV, expected to go on sale in late 2010, made its way through Tennessee last week as part of the company’s zero-emissions show-and-tell tour across North America, I went out for a look.

I already knew the car was said to deliver zero emissions and operate on a fully electric engine. What I didn’t know is that Nissan has created a truly unique vehicle in styling, as well.

Among the biggest problems designers have had with the car is both creating sound, so drivers and pedestrians know the silent engine is running, and reducing sound, since wind whooshing by is more noticeable when the engine is quiet. Indications so far suggest Nissan is doing it right with the Leaf EV.

That does not mean the car will be an instant hit. After all, batteries have limitations, and most motorists don’t like limits. But that’s why 11 cities across the country are getting the charging stations — to see how reasonable and effective an all-electric vehicle can be for everyday use. If people find they can get where they want, the all-electric vehicle may be here to stay.

Nissan certainly is betting on it.

If the strategy pays off, investors who joined in the company's big bet will also share in the returns.

Disclosure: no positions

Source: Nissan's Big Bet: The Electric Vehicle