Spring is in the air, and over in Europe it seems to be the season for driving SUVs on racetracks. Barely a week after we sampled the Aston Martin DBX 707 at the Silverstone Circuit in England, we can offer the equally incongruous experience of piloting the forthcoming Nissan Ariya EV exclusively on the 2.4-mile Circuito del Jarama near Madrid.
Nissan took an early lead in mainstream electrification. Nearly 600,000 Leaf hatchbacks have been sold worldwide since 2010, and for most of that time the vehicle was the most successful EV in the world. Yet the speed at which that record was stolen by the Tesla Model 3 shows how demand is shifting from affordable EVs to quicker and more exciting models. The Ariya has considerably more of both qualities than its hatchback kin.
Sitting on the CMF-EV platform that Nissan developed as part of its alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi, the Ariya is powered by either one or two externally excited synchronous eight-pole motors. Front-wheel-drive versions will use a single motor that produces either 214 or 238 horsepower, while the dual-motor version boosts that total to 389 horses and features Nissan’s clever e-4ORCE all-wheel-drive setup. This gives the ability to both vary the front-to-rear torque split and adjust the output and regeneration of each motor to counter dive and squat motions.
Further choice comes from two battery sizes, these having either 63 or 87 kWh of usable capacity. We don’t have EPA numbers for any of the available powertrains yet, but in Europe Nissan says the front-drive 63-kWh Ariya has a WLTP range of 250 miles. We’re told that the larger pack is targeting 300 miles on the tougher EPA standard. All setups will support DC fast-charging at speeds of up to 130 kW, thankfully using the universal CCS plug instead of the increasingly rare CHAdeMO interface that the Leaf uses.
Regardless of powertrain, the Ariya’s design is certainly distinctive. A 182.9-inch overall length puts it pretty much in the heart of the compact SUV segment, just 0.2 inch shorter than the Toyota RAV4. But it looks bigger in person, thanks to both the height of its front end and the body’s cab-forward packaging, which puts the base of the windshield pretty much directly over the front-axle line. Narrow LED headlights and the expansive grille panel give plenty of front-end presence, while the falling roofline has been incorporated without grievous injury to cabin space. It’s certainly more interesting to look at than the Leaf.
The Ariya feels similarly different inside, too, with a spacious and well-finished cabin that manages to feel elegantly minimalist rather than lacking in equipment. Twin 12.3-inch display screens for instrumentation and infotainment run together, with most physical switchgear being for the audio and cruise functions and integrated into the face of the steering wheel. Heating and ventilation controls come via touch-sensitive buttons integrated into the simulated wood of the dashboard, but these have a haptic resistance that makes them more satisfying to operate than a pure touchscreen interface. Similar controls for the dynamic mode selector and e-Pedal function are below the gear selector on the center console, together with a switch that opens and closes a motorized storage compartment under the dash. Rear-seat accommodations feel less roomy than up front, but they’re still adult-friendly.
Despite the racetrack location, the car we drove was a basic front-wheel-drive model with the smaller battery pack. Nissan attempted to replicate various real-world locations with a variety of cone-marked gates and slalom. Fortunately, there was enough distance between these fabricated obstructions to allow the car to stretch its legs.
Straight-line performance feels solid rather than scintillating, with Nissan’s official 7.2-second 60-mph estimate being rather leisurely for a modern EV; the AWD version is claimed to hit that mark in a far more interesting 4.9 seconds. Even in its most basic guise the Ariya had enough urge to keep its traction-control algorithm busy around Jarama’s tighter corners. The suspension feels predictably soft under heavy loadings, with plenty of tire squealing as speeds increase. But this pliancy likely will translate to a decent ride on the street. Nissan engineers say there are no plans to offer the Ariya with adaptive dampers, and Sport mode doesn’t make any obvious difference to the way the car feels beyond increasing the accelerator’s top-end sensitivity.
Yet other details did impress. The Ariya deftly blends its friction and regenerative braking abilities, and although the e-Pedal function doesn’t provide true one-pedal operation—brake pressure is still needed to come to a full stop—its level of retardation is adequate without feeling overly aggressive. The steering also is linear and nicely weighted.
In short, this was a very limited first impression in a rather unconventional environment, yet it left us thinking that the Ariya should cope well with the sterner challenges of the real world. Pricing for standard-range models has not been announced, but those with the larger battery will start at $47,125 and rise to $60,125, with deliveries set to begin this fall.
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