With electric vehicles having become more and more a part of the automotive landscape, it’s getting difficult to avoid the conversations and discussions about them. I’ve come away liking every EV that I’ve ever sampled, but as a fan of good old fashioned mechanical horsepower, I do find myself sitting in the middle of two very different ideals.
But I’m not here to get into a debate, I’m here to tell you about an unexpected surprise.
A few months back Nissan invited me to sample the Leaf Nismo RC, where the ‘RC’ part stands for ‘Race Competition’.
There’s no need to differentiate this car from the normal production Leaf with a name, as you instantly know what it is.
I’m a big fan of everyday cars being given the motorsport treatment, and the new-gen Leaf has undergone an extensive transformation in its transition from road car to racer.
It’s lower and much wider with pumped fenders front and rear, an appearance dictated by pure function. The entire body is made up of three main carbon fiber cowls that can be quickly lifted away.
In fact, everything you point your eyes at seems to be carbon. That extends to the underlying carbon fiber monocoque structure.
The Leaf Nismo RC tips the scales at 1,220kg (2,690lb) – which is light – but when you factor in a battery pack plus two electric motors, you realize that the tub must weigh next to nothing. Combined, the two motors generate 322hp (161hp at each axle).
Due to the nature of EV cars, the weight of these main components can usually be laid out for optimal balance and weight distribution, and here it’s taken to the extreme. The suspension geometry is a treat to look at – a simple double wishbone arrangement actuating adjustable in-board race dampers through a billet pivot and push rods. I was getting all excited looking at the billet aluminum suspension mounts that bolt right onto the carbon structure.
Peel off the cowl and the rear setup is beautifully put on show. Where the rear seats would be in a conventional Leaf, the battery pack sits in the Nismo RC variant. Cradled in between the rear suspension setup is the rear motor and the inverter, plus all the other miscellaneous EV bits and pieces I understand nothing about.
Electric propulsion or not, this is a fully-fledged race car. In all honesty, it’s far more beautifully engineered and put together than I had imagined it would be. This has definitely cost Nissan a pretty penny.
Continuing with the aero package, you can see how the fins of the rear diffuser section extend deep under the car, working with that adjustable rear wing to keep the car planted at higher speeds.
The mirrors are thing of beauty, with no homologation requirements to confirm to. They boast a streamlined shape that helps cut down on drag.
RAYS supplies Nissan with a lot of wheels, both for production models and motorsport use. The Leaf runs a special race version of the Volk Racing TE037 Dura, 18-inch front and rear and wrapped in 235/40ZR18 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires.
Brembo 6-pot front and 4-pot rear calipers mated to 2-piece floating discs make up the braking package, which soon enough recalibrated my understanding of physics.
In case you are wondering, this is the second Nismo RC version of the Leaf – Nissan turned its first-gen Leaf into a RWD race car back in 2011. I drove that car in 2013 during the Nissan 360 event in Southern California, and remember being blown away by its on rails-like handling and instant acceleration. Amazingly, it did it with exactly half the power of this new Leaf Nismo RC.
Given the high speed of progress in the EV world, I knew I was in for a bit of a surprise.
Before I get into the driving part, I should mention that the battery that powers the two motors in the Leaf Nismo RC is from the regular road-going Leaf+, as is the inverter. This will make sense in a second.
In order to showcase the car to media, Nissan set up a short coned-off course in the parking lot of the Oiso Prince Hotel, a popular venue for a lot of car events just a short drive out of Tokyo.
I was briefed on the course layout, but coned courses always worry me as they can at times be beyond confusing.
Thankfully, Nissan had a lot of cones and had laid them down so closely together that we were pretty much driving down an orange path. Foolproof, just the way I like it.
I’ve always been one for minimalism and simplicity in race cars, and this is pretty much the epitome of that. You literally descend into the carbon monocoque, reaching over the massive sills that shout ‘this chassis will be the most torsionally rigid thing you will ever drive!’
There’s no clutter; from the switches and adjuster knobs to the LCD data logger screen, everything you need to look at is right there in front of you on the steering wheel.
The central LCD screen, which is usually your rear-view monitor, can be made to display other things – instructions even.
The only other controls you need to worry about are the beautifully weighted AP racing pedals, and the little brake bias adjuster in the center console.
It’s all in the details, right? Check out the suede-like covering and cool color-coded stitching on the inside of the doors to highlight the collaboration between Nismo and Kasai – the race outfit that helped build the cars (there are more than this one here). It’s a nice touch that just elevates the whole cabin.
Here I am hiding my agony in total style.
For how well the Leaf Nismo RC is engineered and put together, it does definitely not cater to the slightly larger gentleman. I could barely get myself in there, and I ended up with my legs a millimeter away from the steering wheel and my knees right up against the dummy dash that the steering rack pops out from. I also heard some nasty sounds as my generously sized rear end tested the structure of the Bride bucket seat.
But I was fine. Once you have an opportunity like this, the pain disappears in the background and you just concentrate on the task at hand.
First thought: Damn that acceleration is instant, or should I say, the pedal feel is. 322hp might not sound like anything special these days, but along with that figure you have 640Nm of torque on tap from 0rpm. That makes for thought-fast acceleration – you think it and the car accelerates. 0-100 km/h takes 3.4-seconds, which is just shy of what an R35 GT-R can muster, but it’s not the numbers that are so important here – it’s the whole package.
The immediate reactions of a race car, the instant feedback and that communication you get through every single control is nothing short of intoxicating. The Leaf Nismo RC turns sharp without a hint of body roll; it just darts around as you guide it. What you thought were the limits of a car can quickly be pushed, as you just know you can. I pretty much stayed on the power through the s-bends and jumped on the brakes hard, the Brembos slowing me down in what must have been the space of a cone.
The second lap I pushed even more, knowing there is was far more mechanical grip than the power could every hope to overcome. It was like riding a rollercoaster, and I was grinning the whole way.
Many people criticize electric cars for being soulless evil things trying to take away the fun from enthusiasts, but after a few high-paced minutes in the Leaf Nismo RC I was assured that there is no loss of fun. Even the sound is cool. Sure, it will never match a wailing V12 at 10,000rpm, but that’s something totally different anyway. Fun can definitely be had with EVs.
Now Nissan, quit with the overly conservative bullsh*t and drop dual 300hp motors and a bigger battery into this thing. Electric 4WD drifts anyone?
Dino Dalle Carbonare
Photos by Nissan