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2023 Ariya electric crossover reboots Nissan EVs from the inside out

Electric vehicles have the potential to soothe and simplify, to declutter and maximize space. It’s an opportunity to reinvent the entire vehicle.around a distinctive look and feel, with less drama. 

Put away any impressions you might have about Nissan’s original mass-market electric car, the Leaf, as the 2023 Nissan Ariya seizes on that opportunity. From profile to design details, interface to switchgear, it bears little resemblance to anything in the Nissan lineup, EV or not.

The look on the outside is clean. Radar is hidden beneath a blacked-out front fascia, below neat, slim headlamps, which is partly why Nissan couldn’t locate the charging port at the front end, as in the Leaf. The silhouette is distinctive and a sweet spot between upright and clean yet curvaceous. And thank the designers and stylists profusely that this one keeps the brightwork to a minimum. The matte-copper detailing inside helps conduct it all.

The latest round of EVs all land, almost disconcertingly, in the same overall footprint—yes, within an inch or two of the Volkswagen ID.4 or, for that matter, a Honda CR-V. But they each apportion their space differently. In the Ariya, which Nissan notes packs the space of a Murano in the 183-inch-long footprint of a Rogue, the driving and seating position in front was more elevated than I would have expected from the outside (there’s plenty of space to adjust downward, but you can’t). I’m a long-legged six-foot-six, and in the lowermost adjustment I was brushing the moonroof surround when I made the seatback rather upright as I prefer. 

In back, the position is a little lower and I found it easy to get in and get comfortable. The upper portion of the cabin doesn’t taper in the same way as in some other crossovers such as the Mach-E or EV6—which helps make the back seat feel more spacious, especially for a third person in the middle. 

Cargo space is just superb, with a dual-layer space behind the rear seats—which themselves fold flat to expand its 22.8 cubic feet to 59.7 cubic feet. The liftover height is easy and low. This isn’t an off-roader by any means.

There is, by the way, no frunk whatsoever. By shifting the air conditioning and climate control under the hood, along with other key propulsion components, Nissan freed up cabin space, and it does help enable a vast footwell and short dash.

As I found this week, in a very limited preview drive opportunity on a closed course, the Ariya drives differently than others in this EV-crossover cohort, too—with a combination of a settled ride, great body control, and a supremely quiet interior that’s going to win over families. The Ariya promises a more comfortable, upright layout than the Mustang Mach-E or Kia EV6 while materials are more distinctive than the Ioniq 5. And at first look, its interface appears quicker and more intuitive than that of the Volkswagen ID.4. 

Starting grid: A lot of choice, merging in at $40,000

Ariya buyers will be able to choose from single-motor front-wheel-drive or dual-motor all-wheel-drive versions, both offered with a choice of battery packs—63 kwh or 87 kwh usable capacity—bringing ranges from about 215 miles up to about 300 miles. Nissan hasn’t yet detailed exact specs for the whole lineup, but base models with the small pack and single-motor layout will start around $40,000.

Output numbers vary across all four combinations of motors and battery packs, with total output ranging from 214 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque (base battery, FWD) to 389 hp and 442 lb-ft (large battery, AWD). Performance is right in the middle of the pack for this class of EV—which means quicker than any like-priced gasoline models you’re likely to compare it to. Ariya 0-60 mph times will range from about 4.7 second in dual-motor, big-battery versions to about 7.2 seconds in single-motor form with the smaller battery.

The latter is the version I drove, with less than 30 minutes in motion in the vehicle, on a closed course coned off at Madrid’s Circuito de Jarama to replicate a range of conditions including some tight urban maneuvering, mid-speed lane changes, various types of corners, and the chance to get a bit past 75 mph. Its acceleration felt especially strong from 40 to 70 mph—a zone in which some other base, single-motor EVs in this class are less impressive. While the 0-60 mph acceleration is quicker than the Leaf, the flip side is that it doesn’t feel nearly as punchy and torquey off the line as the Leaf.

That’s due mostly to the motor choice. The Ariya’s Externally Excited Synchronous Motor design—the same front and rear, depending on the version—uses fewer rare-earth elements and precious metals, and it’s more efficient at highway speeds than a permanent magnet design, such as in the Leaf; but Nissan concedes that low-end torque is the tradeoff.

Lessons from Leaf, but that’s where the similarities end

From a technical standpoint, it isn’t an evolution of what underpins the Leaf. Instead it’s a complete rethink. The space-maximizing CMF-EV platform and its long 109.3-inch wheelbase, the entirely different motors and the charge-port location are just one of many choices in the Ariya that depart from Leaf convention, underscoring it’s a clean-slate model reflecting different development priorities and some lessons from the EV pioneer, which will continue to coexist with the Ariya.

Ariya is ready for over-the-air updates. It uses a different motor type. The cells are a prismatic format rather than pouch, and come from a different supplier (CATL). 

And yes, the battery pack is liquid-cooled. 

It takes a long look around to spot the few items that carry over, if it even matters. The Leaf’s ePedal one-pedal driving mode and its B/D shift modes are a couple of the transplants—although even those are tuned differently to emphasize the Ariya’s next-level comfort and poise. You won’t find paddle-shifters, but between the D (regular) and B (more brake regen) modes, plus ePedal—and three different modes that each tune it differently (Standard, Sport, and Eco)—there’s a wide range of responsiveness and reaction you can dial in. The D shift mode offers 0.07g in Standard, 0.08 in Sport, and 0.03 in Eco (“gliding” like an easygoing automatic gasoline vehicle, essentially), while the B mode locked in a predictable 0.12g of regen. Click ePedal on and that locks in a noticeably more aggressive 0.2g of regen—using the brake pads a bit to keep it predictable. 

Just as in the Leaf, ePedal affects the feel of the brake pedal somewhat, but without it engaged the smoothness of its brake-blending and pedal feel is excellent.  If you’re driving solo you’ll find ePedal a great driver’s aid for the city; but with any passengers aboard, B is probably the way to go. 

But it’s not quite the same here. Versus the Leaf, Nissan has allowed the Ariya to “creep” in E-Pedal mode when you lift off the brake pedal—at up to 7 mph, which should aid drivability in parking lots and some situations in which a rolling stop is expected. 

As for keeping the passengers happy, e-4orce all-wheel-drive models boast a feature that should really help distinguish the Ariya in the market. Drawing from dynamic sensor and software expertise from Nissan’s all-wheel-drive GT-R supercar, e-4orce in the Ariya uses ultra quick torque adjustments between the dual motors to adjust the fore-and-aft attitude of the car during strong acceleration, braking, or cornering—altogether helping the vehicle feel flatter, even in ordinary ePedal driving. Although we still haven’t felt this demonstrated in an Ariya (they’ll go into production a few months later), Nissan has previewed this wizardry in a development mule—which we were again allowed to experience.

Sporty but not harsh

Nissan says that the Ariya’s suspension is optimized for stability and comfort while suppressing vibrations, and that description is right on the mark from what I observed—although the track’s surface was just too perfect to comment much on ride quality. With a near 50/50 weight distribution in either version of the vehicle, the front-drive version I drove didn’t feel overly nose-heavy and without any of the e-4orce controls it still felt surprisingly nimble in tight corners. In U.S. spec, as driven, the Ariya weighs about 4,300 pounds—right on par with the base Hyundai Ioniq 5, and likely to be close to the base-battery Volkswagen ID.4 (not yet available). 

The steering was an unexpected delight, tracking well on center but well-weighted and even a bit communicative. Sport mode drops the assist by about 20% without making it feel artificially heavy. 

One gripe: Nissan has once again redesigned the shifter. Instead of the Leaf’s Prius-like shifter, you essentially slide a puck fore and aft, with a side button press required for reverse and a separate button for Park. It felt unnecessary and awkward. 

For that minor quibble, there’s a lot to love about the interface, which offers warm tones, pattern inspiration from Japanese woodcarving, and nods to traditional lanterns in ambient lighting; pleasantly grained dash and console surfaces; and haptic buttons that work without latency [side eye to the ID.4]. The ones you need to look down for are clearly outlined with boundaries, and they flick back with a satisfying prompt click. And there’s a sturdy-feeling volume twist knob at the center of the dash. Overall it’s a simple look to the instrument panel, not tech overload but not missing key switchgear.. 

The Ariya also gives you plenty of opportunities to get comfortable. My well-equipped test car included two items that add functionality to top-trim models. The power slide-out tray extends back from the dash and is flexible and sturdy enough to hold a few pounds, providing a picnic table or a laptop stand, and the power-adjustable center console slides fore and after with two buttons alongside, permitting you to adjust its function as an armrest or give those in back some convenience or extra space. 

A sweet spot between buttons and simplicity

Much like the new Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6, the Ariya includes dual 12.3-inch displays—one a touch screen, the other for display only, as a gauge cluster. The touch screen is ready for wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto. It was hard to judge as it didn’t have connected services enabled; but given that, it responded very quickly and felt easy to navigate, with information assembled in either modules or standalone screens as warranted. Nissan visually separates the two screens with a clever curve that puts the gauge screen a bit farther away and easier in the driver’s field of focus, in what senior VP for global product planning Alfonso Albaisa has called a “Salvador Dali melted-clock bend.” What might look a little strange in pictures makes perfect sense in person. 

The version I drove, at roughly $55,000, was essentially a top-of-the-line Platinum+ version in single-motor guise—with the available 20-inch alloy wheels, fine perforated leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats, active sound control, a hands-free rear liftgate, and Bose 10-speaker audio. Counterintuitively, Nissan has revealed specs and prices for the higher-spec and dual-motor all-wheel-drive models that will arrive later, while the front-wheel-drive models—with either of the packs—will arrive sooner. 

For the U.S., that means a late-fall arrival for AWD models versus early fall for FWD versions. Prior to the announcement of the $40,000 models, which will arrive yet this year, the Ariya starts at $47,125, and the e-4orce AWD version starts at $60,125.

Nissan says that with the smaller pack or the larger one, the Ariya will support DC fast-charging (CCS not CHAdeMO, another Leaf departure) at up to 130 kw—a bit lower than the 137 kw claimed at the model’s original reveal. Instead of going for a high peak charge power at a narrow state-of-charge window, Nissan claims to have tuned the Ariya’s thermal system to allow something close to that peak across much of the charge curve. 

I left with no impression whatsoever of available range or charging rates—so we look forward to a follow-up on that—and how e-4orce actually works in the Ariya—toward the end of the summer. In the meantime, Nissan has said that the Ariya’s onboard charger will permit 240V Level 2 charging at 40 amps, with DC fast-charging stops potentially adding 175 miles in about 30 minutes—definitely not in the same range as some other rivals, but hopefully more predictable.

Nissan’s advantage: A decade of mass-market EVs

That said, Nissan has a secret weapon that will help give it an advantage versus most of the other full-line automakers rolling out like-sized crossovers and ambitious EV plans: its dealership network. Over 11 years and around 175,000 U.S. sales, it has a grasp of how to support them effectively, just sell them. 

With the arrival of the Ariya, Nissan will have two different EV value points both starting under today’s average new-vehicle price. But with top e-4orce versions potentially offering an inside-and-out experience that transcends its forebear entirely, we’re glad Nissan has the perspective to build what are shaping up as some intriguing future EVs. 

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