It's not every day you get to drive around a manufacturer's test facility. Even rarer are the times one of the vehicles you get to 'test', actually drives you. But that's exactly what happened when CarAdvice was invited to experience three of the Nissan Motor Company's most-technologically advanced series-production vehicles.
Arriving at Nissan’s ‘Grandrive’ test facility, located next door to its key Oppama plant - about an hour’s drive south of Yokohama proper - anticipation and expectation is high.
After being privy to numerous presentations about Nissan's latest future-focussed products – which fall under the banner of what the car maker calls 'Intelligent Mobility' – this is our first opportunity to sample them. I say ‘sample’ because we’re allotted a mere five minutes in each of the three cars Nissan has lined up for us. So, what are the cars?
First up is the Nissan Leaf.
On sale in Japan since 2010, and Australia since 2012, Nissan claims it’s sold more than 250,000 units worldwide. Despite those respectable numbers, this is my first drive of the pure-electric, zero-emission vehicle. Yet, as it happens to be in Japan, it feels somewhat fitting.
Jumping in, it feels identical to any other budget-focussed five-door hatchback – apart from the fact it’s not making any noise, of course.
With an 80kW AC synchronous motor and a 48-module compact lithium-ion battery working together to power the front wheels, the little Leaf is impressively quiet at idle, and when on the move.
Acceleration is smooth and linear, and the Leaf is by no means slow. Its steering is light, but response from the electric motor is good, with a switch from normal ‘D’ mode to ‘B’ mode, limiting outright performance, and noticeably increasing the aggressiveness of the brake regeneration system.
Our car’s cloth seats are comfortable, neatly-finished items, while the rest of the cabin is a mix of standard Nissan switchgear, EV-specific buttons, a heated height- but not reach-adjustable steering wheel, a 7.0-inch central touchscreen, and basic dash plastics.
Even after only a short time behind the wheel, I can’t help but find myself wearing what a Nissan New Zealand representative reassuringly informs is called ‘The Leaf Grin’.
Claiming a range of around 200km, it’s not hard to see why EV enthusiasts around the world are fans of the Leaf. It’s quite a nice little egg that provides a quiet, relaxing, and pleasant driving experience. It might be starting to feel a little old in some areas, but overall it's easy to like.
Next up, we get to try out the new Nissan Note e-Power.
Produced right next door to Grandrive, at Nissan’s Oppama plant, the Note e-Power only went on sale in Japan at the beginning of November, priced from 1,772,280 yen (around $20,500).
Combining Nissan’s freshly redesigned compact hatchback with its newest powertrain advancements, the Note e-Power - and the e-Power technology itself - is intended to be a technological stepping stone into owning a full EV.
Employing a concept similar to that seen in range-extender hybrids such as the Holden Volt and BMW i3, the crux of e-Power is that, rather than using a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) to power the driven wheels along with an electric motor, in this application, the ICE is simply used to charge the battery, which in turn – through an inverter – powers the electric motor that turns the driven wheels. This means, instead of having to plug in or ‘recharge’ your car, you can drive your e-Power Note as you would any other petrol-powered compact car.
With the batteries – which Nissan says are 1/20th the size of those used in the Leaf – positioned under the front seats, and the engine, power generator, inverter, and electric motor all integrated into one under-bonnet unit, interior space is kept to a maximum.
Three drive modes are offered in the e-Power Note; ‘Normal’, ‘S’ for Smart, and ‘Eco’. But, regardless of mode, a Leaf-like silent-start-up-and-go quickly evaporates once the petrol engine kicks in to charge the battery – an automatic process triggered when charge is low, or when extra acceleration or power is required. It’s far from deafening or raucous, but, like in a Volt, there is audible engine noise, as well as vibration – two things you won’t find in a pure-EV Leaf.
Inside the Note, there’s a cool, flat-bottom steering wheel, and similar hard dash plastics to the Leaf. But again, the whole car exudes a largely cheap-and-cheerful personality.
The steering is very light, but vision is good. In ‘Eco’ and ‘S’ mode, you can instantly feel the brake regeneration system doing its thing – far more than in ‘Normal’ mode – meaning you only need to lift off the throttle to reduce speed, rather than use the brake pedal.
Using the standard Note’s 58kW/106Nm 1.2-litre three-cylinder as its petrol-engine base, Nissan claims the e-Power unit can generate up to 254Nm of torque between 0-3008rpm, suggesting this is more on par with one of its regular turbocharged 2.0-litre engines.
In the end, basically – which makes sense given its powertrain – the Note e-Power feels halfway between a Leaf and a conventional solely-petrol-powered compact car. It’s nowhere near as quiet or relaxing or smooth as the Leaf, in terms of outright driving experience, but it provides a good option for those not quite ready to go full-electric.
Additionally, in Japan at least, the Note can also be had with a variety of newer safety equipment, including an around-view monitor with Nissan’s moving-object detection system, a ‘Smart Rear-view Mirror’, forward emergency braking (AEB), a lane-departure warning, emergency assist “for pedal misapplication”, and LED headlights.
And, believe it or not, at the start of this month, Nissan actually launched the Note e-Power Nismo (along with the Note Nismo and Note Nismo S). Yup, want your e-Power Note to sport a custom grille, body kit, 16-inch rims with Yokohama tyres, a tricked-up interior, and unique engine and suspension tunes? Nismo has you covered. And nope, we didn’t get to drive it.
Finally, to end our day at Grandrive, we get our chance to spend a brief moment or two with the car responsible for debuting Nissan's headline act, dubbed ‘ProPilot’.
The brand’s first series-production foray into autonomous driving technology, ProPilot – launching in the super-cool-looking Nissan Serena people mover – follows on from ideas first seen in the Nissan IDS concept, revealed at the 2015 Tokyo motor show (likely as a preview of the next-generation Leaf).
On sale in Japan since August, ProPilot is only available on flagship ‘Highway Star’ variants of the Serena, with the technology not even optional on any others at this stage.
A representative from Nissan Japan told CarAdvice, there were two main reasons why the Serena was selected as the launch vehicle for ProPilot. One, the Serena is one of the most popular vehicles in Japan, and by putting ProPilot into such a popular model, Nissan hopes more people will get to use the technology. And two, the Serena is a car built for families. And, while families like to go for road-trip holidays, once the vacation location has been reached, the person driving is often tired and not as happy as the other passengers. But, with ProPilot on board, Nissan aims to increase overall safety, as well as reduce driver fatigue.
So, what is it and how does it work? Well, don’t get too excited. ProPilot is effectively a blend of adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist or active-steering technology – various iterations of which can currently be found locally from brands such as Mazda, Subaru, and Volkswagen, not to mention highly-advanced versions from the likes of Mercedes-Benz and, of course, Tesla.
It works by teaming a single, windscreen-mounted, front-facing camera – which has been developed to recognise both preceding vehicles and lane markings – with a control unit, as well as the throttle, brakes, and electric power steering, and it keeps the driver informed as to what level of control the car has via a digital dash-top display.
To engage ProPilot, you first need to push a small, steering wheel-mounted ‘Pilot’ button, which turns the system on and puts it in a stand-by mode. In stand-by mode, the dash-top display shows white horizontal bars representing the desired distance to the vehicle ahead, white vertical lines representing the lane the car is to stay within, and a grey steering wheel representing if, and when, the car itself will steer when required if the driver doesn’t.
Once a desired speed is set – done via the ‘Set’ button on the steering wheel – all features become ‘active’, with their respective displays turning green once the car takes over control. It’s at this point, you can experiment with taking your feet off the pedals and your hands off the wheel – safely, of course.
From here, you can use the usual ‘Resume (+)’ and ‘Set (-)’ buttons to adjust vehicle speed, with a separate button used to select the preferred gap to the vehicle ahead.
If the system ‘loses’ the car in front or the lane markings, for whatever reason, the steering wheel display will return from being green to being grey, and the driver is once again solely responsible for steering the vehicle. If the car ahead slows, ProPilot will ensure the selected gap is maintained, slowing itself automatically.
If a complete stop of less than three seconds is required, ProPilot will automatically resume once the preceding car takes off. However, if a stop of three seconds or more is required, the driver must either push the ‘Resume’ button themselves, or tap the accelerator pedal to get ProPilot back up and going – the latter being not required by a number of other modern adaptive cruise control systems.
Following another Serena around our short test loop, the system works very well. But, bear in mind, the intention is very much for the driver to always be in control – particularly so with steering – with ProPilot acting as more of a safety net, rather than a teaser for future full-autonomy (as Tesla’s ‘AutoPilot’ is more close to being).
This point is made clear by the way the system takes a small moment to ‘realise’ the driver has failed to input steering lock coming into a corner, or even mid-bend, before taking control of the steering. Half a step behind the latest semi-autonomous technology on offer from the likes of Mercedes-Benz or Tesla, once in control, ProPilot’s automated steering inputs are positive and progressive.
Keep your hands off the wheel for too long, though, and – as the system monitors the amount of torque imparted onto the wheel – you will get a warning message telling you to put your hands back on the wheel. Currently too, cracking your indicator on, to change lanes for example, also disengages the steering assistance side of ProPilot.
That said, Nissan is targeting 2018 for multi-lane autonomous driving technology that allows for automatic lane changes, and 2020 for fully-autonomous urban-road driving, including negotiating intersections.
ProPilot might not be at the very cutting edge of autonomous driving tech at this stage of the game, but it’s a solid first step to having more of these sorts of potentially life-saving technologies finding their way into various models from various car makers and at various price points.
As an aside, after getting to spend a little time with the seven-seat Serena, it’s definitely a high-quality people mover that drives well and would look great on Aussie roads, all while oozing plenty of Japanese van-cool.
Sadly, while the opportunity for us to experience these three aspects of Nissan’s wider ‘Intelligent Mobility’ strategy was both short (about 15 minutes in total) and indeed rare, it’s an opportunity most Australians won’t get at all - or at least, not for a number of years.
Nissan Australia has registered a little over 600 Nissan Leafs since the model launched locally back in June of 2012, but there are, as yet, no concrete plans for the updated version we drove – headlined by an extended range – to lob here in the short term.
The Note too, currently isn’t a model Nissan Australia is considering for our market, which means e-Power will need to debut with other models before Aussies get to sample the technology on local roads. And, as cool and handsome as the seven-seat Serena is, it also isn’t bound for our shores. Again, this means ProPilot will only come to Australia on board another model.
Fortunately, opportunity may lie in the news that the popular Qashqai is the next model to receive the semi-autonomous technology – albeit in Europe in 2017 – ahead of more than 10 other models planned to receive ProPilot in the years to come.
So, believe the hype, and the future looks bright for both Nissan and the planet. Will autonomous cars mean the end of the cars we love, and love to drive? Possibly. But possibly not. Two key higher-ups have already stressed to CarAdvice that the move toward more intelligent mobility – shall we say – does not necessarily mean an end to either the sports car or the light commercial vehicle. We shall see…
Is vehicle autonomy the only way forward or will there always be a place for drivers who enjoy driving? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.