Orange County, CA — At the typical car launch, journalists get a crack at one new model, sometimes two, rarely three and never more. But Nissan 360 is not your typical car launch; instead, it’s a global event that offers the chance to drive the manufacturer’s product from around the world.
By my count, there were at least 64 different vehicles available for test drives from two of the company’s three brands, Infiniti and Nissan. Their third brand, the recently re-launched Datsun, was represented by the new Go, but this was, sadly, not available to drive. I also wasn’t allowed to test another display model, the Infiniti Red Bull RB9, despite my best efforts.
Those disappointments aside, there was plenty of opportunity to try out all sorts of rides, from race cars to city buses and nearly everything in between. In fact, there were so many different and cool vehicles on hand at the El Toro airfield—the well-selected home base for Nissan 360—expert time management was needed during the two-day event.
The layout for the event was simple in its complexity: Certain vehicles were earmarked for test drives on the roads surrounding El Toro, while others were restricted to one of two handling courses. There was also a mock city street course for commercial vehicles, an off-road course for, well, off-road vehicles and another two courses, way off in the distance, for two types of vehicles that needed more room to operate.
These vehicles resided at opposite ends of the spectrum as far as the driving enthusiast was concerned: In one corner, we had the Nissan GT-R, the Nissan Juke-R and the Nissan GT-R GT3 race car; in the other corner, we had an autonomous version of the Nissan Leaf. Yes, you’re right, that’s as wide a range of vehicles as you’re likely to find under one corporate umbrella,
Knowing that time was of the essence, I made a beeline for one of the most desired models in the whole place—the Nissan Leaf NISMO RC. While this race car employs the all-electric drivetrain from the road-going Leaf, it’s been lightened and tightened to generate more excitement. In fact, from its more aerodynamic exterior to its stripped down interior, this Leaf does look ready to race—it’s got the awkward access, six-point harness and removable steering wheel to prove it.
This was my first run along the autocross course, so there was no time for track familiarization, it was simply a matter of fire it up, select drive, punch the go pedal and see what happened. And what happened was a real turn of speed: the Leaf NISMO RC took off like shot from a pistol fitted with a silencer. The only sound heard was from the slick tires kicking up the dust and gravel that ricocheted off the car’s bodywork.
While this Leaf is reasonably quick—its 0-100 km/h time is reported to be in the high six-second range—it’s the quickness of the steering that impressed the most. Carving the tight corners of the autocross course, the steering was sensationally direct, like a two-stroke kart without all the sawing at the wheel.
Later in the day, I got a crack at the Infiniti Emerg-E, the luxury division’s prototype all-electric GT car. While there is, no doubt, some shared technology between the Energ-E and the Leaf, the drive experience was different. This is mainly down to the fact that the motivation behind the Infiniti (or, rather, the two electric motors mounted in the middle) adds up to 402 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque which kicks in at, you guessed it, 0 rpm. This makes the Emerg-E a real firecracker without the fire, as it were.
Not only is the car quick, but with most of the mass of the powertrain (motors, batteries) set low in the middle of the vehicle, it handles nicely as well. One quick lap was all that I was afforded in the Emerg-E, but this was enough to know that there’s the basis for a very compelling electrified production GT car in there.
For truly visceral thrills, though, nothing yet has come along to replace the good, old-fashioned, fossil fuel-powered, internal combustion engine. The noise, the vibrations, the smell and the vague notion that you’re doing something a little bit outside the law—these are the sensations that come from driving a really fast car such as the Nissan GT-R and Nissan Juke-R.
Fortunately, the fine people at Nissan through to bring both to El Toro, along with a GT3 version of the GT-R. Although these three were all at the high-performance track, attendees could only pick two to experience. I chose to drive the GT-R and the Juke-R rather than go for a ride in the GT3 car, which was piloted by drivers from the Nissan GT Academy. (A great passenger, I am not.)
First up was the 2014 Nissan GT-R, the Track Edition, which is lighter than the regular GT-R and includes a racier suspension system and better brake cooling. I believe these additions would make the GT-R an even more compelling proposition, but I can’t honestly report this to be true. With just one lap of the sandy track, most of my time was spent learning the layout and sliding through the turns, so I’ll need to line up a return engagement down the road.
But having acquired some sense of the track with the GT-R, this opened the door to assess the Juke-R, which followed on the docket. Of all the cars at Nissan 360, the Juke-R is the one I wanted to drive the most and it did not disappoint. Of course, the thing is fast—it uses the 565-horsepower engine from the GT-R. (Surprisingly, the Juke-R weighs more than the GT-R Track Edition by some 60 kg.)
But as with the Leaf NISMO RC, the aspect of the Juke-R that was most impressive was the way it handled. For a relatively tall vehicle with a small wheelbase, the little Nissan had incredible grip at speed and transitioned from right- to left-handers with real verve. Above all else, though, the Juke-R is so appealing because it’s such a crazy notion and it was developed by a group of people, working in the shadows at Nissan UK, who clearly love fast cars.
At the very opposite end of the spectrum, there was the autonomous driving demonstration—if anything, this display was the most awe-inspiring aspect of the entre event.
There were two demonstration areas: In the first, we rode along in the self-driving Nissan Leaf as it navigated through a city driving scenario. The car stayed in the middle of its lane the entire time, stopped at stop signs, proceeded through intersections at the appropriate time and made safe passing manoeuvres—all under its own steam.
On the second course, a highway driving scenario was simulated and, once again, the autonomous Leaf performed flawlessly. It even demonstrated a safe emergency stop on the side of the highway when the engineer pressed a button marked with a red cross, indicating a health-related situation that required urgent attention.
But the demonstration that left me slack-jawed in amazement took place in a mock parking lot. The engineer pressed a single button on the key fob and the Leaf automatically passed by lanes with no space available until it spotted someone about to leave the lot. It turned down the appropriate lane, waited for the other car to drive away and then pulled into the empty space, perfectly placed, equidistant from the car to the left and the car to the right.
With this technology, your car could drop you off and then search for a parking space on its own—a compelling idea when you think about how busy shopping malls can get. Then, with the press of a button, your car can come and pick you up again, so no more losing track of where you parked your car. Brilliant.
The autonomous driving display really brought the Nissan 360 event full circle for me, pun intended. It was a brilliantly conceived event, one that provided keen insight into what the carmaker is doing with its three brand and its various technologies. Not every vehicle present was a home run, some were barely base hits, but there were plenty of winners out there.