The worldwide media was invited, in batches, to the El Torro Air Force base in Southern California to sample Nissan’s latest technology and products – with everything on hand from Nissan and Infiniti passenger vehicles, high performance NISMO variants, concepts, racing machines, off-road vehicles, simulators, commercial vehicles, and even the brand new New York taxi. You could grill senior Nissan execs over breakfast, lunch and dinner, and spend the rest of the day testing vehicles on the road, as well as on the performance, adventure, and commercial vehicle courses.
The event started out with Victor Nacif, GM, Global Product Communications, explaining how Nissan has challenged convention by democratizing performance and innovation with vehicles like the GT-R and Leaf EV – both of which were on hand to sample. So, on to the machines then.
One of the first few cars I drove was also the most impressive. Now, the Leaf in standard trim is a pretty impressive machine. It’s refined, spacious, handles surprisingly well, and generally comes across as a pretty nice car to live with – probably why Nissan has already sold 75,000 units of the car globally. But the Leaf Nismo RC concept is a different animal altogether – it’s a wide, squat and pretty mean looking zero-emissions machine. It may have the underpinnings of a regular Leaf, but this is purpose built, two-seat, rear-wheel drive racecar running on super sticky racing slicks.
As I navigated my way through the small door opening, past the wide sill, and into the tight racing seat, it didn’t feel like any other EV I’d ever driven. After getting strapped in, I thumbed the start button and we were ready to go. No starter motor, no popping of the exhaust, no struggling to awaken a temperamental racing motor – none of that, just pure silence and a signal to pull ahead towards the start line of the performance course. As the lights turned green, I hit the gas and almost left my liver behind as the electric motor enabled this machine to accelerate off the line like nothing I had ever driven before. There was just the slightest chirp from the racing slicks, before we shot towards the first chicane.
The brakes were responsive and easy to modulate – not wooden like you would expect with a pretty active brake energy regeneration system underneath. But what was truly surprising was yet to come. Because the Leaf RC is only millimeters from the tarmac, and because the batteries are in the floor, it has a low center of gravity that gives it the most responsive steering and chassis of any car I’ve ever driven. It was only a short drive, but it was enough to reaffirm my faith in the future of motoring. If this is the future, count me in!
Another car that had a similar impact was the Infiniti Emerg-E concept. This is a stunning concept that debuted at the 2012 Geneva Auto Show, and now looks and feels surprisingly like a production car. Well, don’t celebrate just yet, as it isn’t headed into production for now. What it has done is signal the design direction of the Infiniti brand. Just to give you some background, Infiniti was founded in 1989, and was (essentially) Nissan’s answer to Lexus in the US. The brand has seen reasonable success since, and has remained largely US centric – until now that is. Over the past few years, Infiniti has made huge efforts to project itself as a global manufacturer in its own right. Of course, you now have the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team – more on that in the interview with Jerry Hardcastle on the next page. Infiniti has also become the only automaker to be headquartered in Hong Kong, as they line up an assault of new models that are more European in their approach – i.e. smaller and more efficient.
But back to the Emerge-E. I’m not a huge fan of the gaping front end of most Infiniti’s, but I have to say that the Emerge-E is stunning on the whole – there’s simply no other word for it. On a general styling note, I actually like the wide, curvaceous shoulder lines on most Infiniti’s – as they attempt to position the brand as a more interesting alternative to the German luxury brigade. The Emerg-E is not only stunning on the outside, but it’s also quite futuristic on the inside. From behind the wheel, it’s quite like the Leaf RC – only not quite as extreme. The throttle response is tuned to be more progressive, and it’s a little less surreal as an overall experience for the simple reason that the Emerg-E has a 1.2 litre, three cylinder petrol engine that kicks in as a range extender – which breaks the silence.
In fact, concepts such as these also show you the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes in areas such as NVH (Noise Vibration and Harshness). Elements such as these are largely overlooked by critics and consumers alike, unless a particular vehicle warrants comment (either good or bad). But when you drive a concept that hasn’t been through a full NVH program, you realize just how much work goes into every element of vehicle design and build.
So, the coarse petrol engine aside, the Emerg-E is an incredible machine as well. The steering is well weighted, the brake feel is good, the handling is incredible, and the power is addictive. And so, I repeat, if these machines are the future of mobility, there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Of course, we also got the chance to sample more mainstream models from the Infiniti stable, and what I can tell you is that they’re extremely refined, capable and comfortable machines. If you take the comparison just of the Nissan 370Z and Infiniti Q60 IPL Coupe, which share the same chassis and drivetrain, I would pick the Nissan because it’s a more focused drivers car whereas the Q60 is tuned more for comfort. This trait – of providing driving enjoyment and being fun cars at their core – is what endears me to most Nissans. And one among them is the uniquely styled Juke.
The most fun car that I drove on the streets outside of the Air Force base was the Juke Nismo. Now, Nismo is the motorsport division of Nissan, which means that they’ve been responsible for producing some of the legendary Skyline racers from Nissan’s past. And if the Nismo displays at recent motor shows are any indication, then Nismo is poised to play a much broader role in future. They will now have a range of road cars for the global market, sort of like M for BMW or AMG for Mercedes.
The Juke has been a huge success for Nissan, thanks to its quirky (but friendly) styling. The Juke Nismo is an even edgier variant, so I just had to get my hands on it. It’s a compact crossover that holds you firmly in place, courtesy of hip hugging sport seats. You sit facing an alcantara wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, and, strangely, you can even see the top of the headlights along the bonnet from the drivers seat – all of which just adds to the character and individuality of this machine, both traits that are generally lacking in todays cars. The Juke Nismo has a high-revving 1.6 litre, four cylinder petrol motor that produces just under 190 horsepower and propels this machine to 100km/h in just over 7 seconds. It also has a 6-speed manual gearbox that operates with rifle-bolt precision, and the whole experience of driving it down the road just feels special. The Juke lunges forward surprisingly urgently, and you can tell that Nismo’s worked its magic on the suspension because you can throw this Nissan at on-ramps and sharp curves with complete abandon.
It turns in completely flat, grips till the g-forces properly register, and then powers out without a hint of torque steer. Now, the Nissan Qashqai is rumoured to be on its way to India. It’s another relatively new compact crossover from Nissan that has seen much success. And while it’s also very capable and extremely well made, it’s not quite as quirky as the Juke. Well, I suppose that mainstream is the order of the day – but I would absolutely love to drive the Juke Nismo around everyday on our city streets.
Another machine that there’s no hope of me piloting everyday is the Juke R. Now I don’t know what Nissan engineers were smoking when they came up with the idea of putting the drivetrain of the mighty GT-R into a vehicle the size and shape of the Juke – but, whatever it is, I want some! Believe it or not, the Juke R has the twin-turbo V6 of the GT-R that produces over 550 horsepower. And if you want one, it’ll cost you well over half a million dollars. But here’s why. You see, the Juke R and GT-R had their own high performance track at El Toro. And, shockingly enough, the Juke actually made Godzilla feel tame. Its short wheelbase meant that it darted into corners with more vigour. It’s four-wheel drive and semi-slick rubber meant that it gripped just as well. But it’s higher center of gravity meant that it moved around a little more, and was, therefore, more entertaining.
More entertaining than a GT-R – it’s sheer lunacy. And really that sums up this event quite well. Amidst all the serious presentations, and corporate speak, what struck you was the fact that you were in the middle of an air base with the sole purpose of jumping out of a Juke R and into a Nissan mini-bus, or Cedric taxi, or Titan pick-up towing four times its own mass, or e-NT400 truck concept, which shares its drivetrain with the Leaf, and I could go on and on…
I came away with some sense of the complexity, depth of engineering, and vision of an automaker like Nissan, which has to look at the past, present, and future all at the same time. What can I say other than the fact that I’ve never driven such a wide range of vehicles in two days – thank you Nissan!
Nissan could well be developing the most innovative racing car on the planet at the moment. So, we sat down with Jerry Hardcastle, Vice President, Global Chief Marketability Engineer and Head of Global Motorsports, Nissan Motor Company, to find out.
You can tell by his title that this is a man who wears many hats – and has done so for the past 24 years at Nissan. In that time, Jerry has served as an engine designer, trim and HVAC design and test engineer, project manager, vehicle evaluation and test engineer, and probably a couple of other titles that he couldn’t immediately think of. Two years ago, he went from being vice president for vehicle design and development at Nissan Technical Center in Europe to chief marketability engineer and head of global motorsport. Now that’s quite a mouthful, so we sat down with him to discuss all things Nissan, Infinity, Red Bull Racing, ZEOD RC, and a lot more.
Would you say that this is one of the most exciting times to be in motorsport?
I would say that it’s an exciting time to be in motorsport, but it’s also a very exciting time to be in powertrain development overall – not just in motorsport, but also for road cars. We’ve got electric powertrains, we’ve got gasoline, we’ve got downsized turbo, and downsized supercharged. We’ve got all levels of hybridization, alternative fuels such as ethanol, and all manner of things going on. So, it’s a great time to be an engineer for sure. Maybe not a great time to be a businessman though, because choosing the right technology is difficult – but for developing the technology, it’s a fantastic time.
Talk us through the revolutionary Deltawing. How did that come about – how was it conceptualized?
The Deltawing, in its original form, was conceptualized outside of Nissan by Don Panoz and All-American Racing. Ben Bolby created the Deltawing, but they couldn’t find the powertrain for it. Nissan’s involvement in the Deltawing was really as a powertrain supplier, and we helped to do the marketing. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that project didn’t continue, but we were struck by the narrow track design philosophy, and the way the car operated. We thought that there were opportunities for that narrow track design. So, that’s where it transformed itself into the ZEOD RC. The ‘Zero Emission On Demand’ is really to promote our capability, and enhance our capability, in electric driven cars. And clearly ZEOD RC will only drive on electric for a limited amount of time (depending on the battery), but it will be able to do it – that’s one of the conditions for developing the racing car. So, we’re looking forward to taking that car to Le Mans next year – to Garage 56. And we’re about to embark on the first part of the test program. The vehicle will be tested in the coming weeks. The first time it runs, it’ll run as a pure electric vehicle, and we’re anticipating it’ll run very quickly. And we know from our experience with the Deltawing that it’ll be good on the track.
How did the Deltawing evolve into the ZEOD RC?
Well, it’s a completely different team of people, and it’s a completely different design. We were unable to have a straight transfer of one technology to the other for business and contractual reasons, so basically we’ve recreated the team to build ZEOD RC in its narrow track format.
Are the technical specifications for the 2014 Le Mans runner finalized as yet?
No, not at all. One of the issues that we’ve got is how to manage the energy – how often can we run with zero emission, how quickly can we charge it up, how far can we run with zero emission, all of that is still to be developed. We’ve got ideas. The first thing is to run the car in pure electric mode, because that will give us an idea of how much energy we need to generate – either with an additional power unit, or how much we can recover from braking and other methods. So, that’s very much still to be agreed and discussed.
Garage 56 in 2014. How do you see the future going from 2014 and beyond?
Well, obviously, when you put a car like this in that garage, you’re supposed to challenge the rules. Deltawing challenged the rules, and it got an entry into American Le Mans Series, but it didn’t get an entry into any others. So, beyond 2014 really relies on a discussion between Nissan, the other manufacturers, the ACO, and the FIA, as to how it could be raced in the future. And you know that’s a big discussion. Of course, you wouldn’t enter into that discussion until after Garage 56. We’re allowed to go to Garage 56 because people are interested in what we’re looking at, but you can’t make a conclusion until people have seen how quickly it goes and how sustainable the whole project is.
Looking at F1 regulations for next year, essentially those cars are full on hybrids from here on out, is there a chance of additional involvement in Formula 1?
Well, we’re the technical partner of Infiniti Red Bull Racing, so we’re continuously looking for opportunities where we can take technology, process, or methodology, and even people from Red Bull into Infiniti – and the same the other way. We’ve actually got an Infiniti engineer working in the Red Bull team full time. And we’ve got various technical projects in the works, which we’ll announce over the coming weeks and months. And, as you rightly say, the new power unit provides opportunity. Renault are doing the engine, and currently they’re doing the rest of the power unit as well, so the alliance of Infinity, Renault, and Red Bull gives us great opportunity to work together.
You call it a two-way technical relationship, how does the technology transfer back to the road cars?
Well, you just look at their skill in aerodynamics – that’s one example. I mean we won’t have the same shape as a Formula 1 car, but the computational dynamics, and the way its engineered, could teach us a lot about what we could do with road cars. If we were to apply carbon fiber to a road car, then clearly we can go to Red Bull for assistance. And they will learn about energy management, so we’ve exchanged technical information about energy recovery from the brakes, and we’ll continue to exchange what we’re doing on road cars, while they’ll exchange what they’re doing on the racecars. We’ve helped them already with some materials and coatings – so, although it’s not part-for-part, the technology transfer is the important thing.
Coming back to the ZEOD RC, have you come up against some interests that want to maintain the status quo?
No, I mean look at those brands that are there now, they’ve challenged in the past. When Audi came, they were the challenger – they brought diesel – now Toyota are challenging Audi. Porsche are about to come as well. When you enter a series like this, you expect to be challenging each other, that’s why we do it – it’s the competition.