4. Nissan

Back in 2007, when Nissan was a distant third among Japanese car makers, Minoru Shinohara, who runs the company's technology division, told me that Nissan would largely skip over hybrids and start producing all-electric commuter cars in 2011 or 2012. It sounded intriguing, but he was a lab exec, after all. Were the higher-ups listening?

Apparently so. Renault Nissan announced a push into electric cars a few months later. Perhaps the most surprising part, however, is that Nissan has kept on track. The Leaf will make its debut later this year at a price, $32,800, which will make it comparable or cheaper than equivalent gas-powered cars after tax credits.

More electric cars -- all equipped with the lithium polymer battery developed in conjunction with NEC -- will spill out in 2011 and 2012. The Leaf brought much-needed credibility to electric cars.

Along the way, Nissan has also been a boon to charging station and electric car service providers: it has alliances with nearly all the major players (Better Place, Ecotality, eTec, etc.). Arguably, Ford -- which is coming out with all-electrics, plug-in hybrids, and a series of energy-efficient EcoBoost engines -- belongs here instead, but Nissan has in many ways been the biggest champion of electric vehicles.

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