Just recently, I was at Nissan 360, which is basically the Woodstock of Nissan vehicles, if you replace the music and drugs and free love with lots of cars and food trucks and free pens. Free pens are no substitute for free love, but I did get to drive a lot of interesting things.
The only problem is that there were so many things going on, the amount of time I got to spend with any of the cars was pretty minimal. When I could drive them, it was only on a 0.7 mile loop around the ex-Marine base where the event was held.
Still, they did have some interesting stuff, so I'm going to just give a quick paragraph or few about what I drove, because, as you know, nothing I do matters unless I can share it with you, dear Jalops. Because I love you, and I don't care who knows it.
So let's get started:
I've made no secret of my love for Japanese Kei van-like vehicles, and this little pink box did nothing to cool my ardor. I had a blast in this little thing, and it drives in an entertaining, easy manner. It's actually a rebadged Suzuki MR Wagon, and it's got the usual Kei specs of a 660cc engine making around 50 HP or so, mated to a CVT. Not impressive, but it's light, nimble, and the use of space is fantastic.
My favorite Kei vans are mid-engined, but I can overlook the front-mounted engine with no problem because the hood is nice and stumpy and pretty much every inch of the interior is usable by humans. It's well finished, has a pretty sleek dash with flat-panel touch-sensitive buttons that appear from nowhere, and has a bench seat up front. A (split) bench goddamn seat, like a Ford Falcon or something.
I think I realized why I like these so much — they're the opposite of all the 'aspirational' bullshit that's the norm for commuter cars now. Everyone that buys a Corolla or whatever boring beige sedan as a commuter car because they don't give a shit about cars should be buying these instead. They use less gas, they use the available space better, they're more flexible and comfortable than a Corolla.
They're not performance machines, but who gives a shit? They're good at what they do. A Corolla isn't a performance machine either, but it's styled and detailed and positioned to mimic cars like BMWs and the like. Which is silly. If people want basic, enjoyable, usable, flexible transportation, these little vans beat the crap out of conventional small 3-box sedans.
Verdict: Fun and useful basic transport.
This was my first in-the-metal look at Nissan's new developing market car, the reborn Datsun. Their first model, the Go, is designed for Indian markets. It's designed to be cheap, but not the cheapest, since Nissan learned the lesson of status that gave the Nano such fits.
It's a good design, a four door hatch with a good amount of room and just enough style to be interesting in the crowded Indian little family hatch market. There's some interesting cost-cutting going on, from expected things like one wiper to more novel choices, like no nav/audio system at all, with an integrated smartphone dock that lets the computer in your pocket handle those jobs.
The material quality and overall feel are obviously not US-grade, but it's not terrible, either. It's an interesting little car.
Verdict: Stylish, cheap, useable. I think these will be a hit in India's growing mid-range market.
NP200 Diesel Pickup
Another class of car I'm a sucker for, the diesel, manual, small pickup. I really liked this thing. It reminded me a lot of the Mahindra Genio pickup I reviewed when I was in India: basic, great utility, cheap, unpretentious. The styling of the Nissan is probably more palatable to Americans than the Mahindra, and once we kill that stupid Chicken Tax I'd love to see some trucks like this one make it to the land that gave the world rock and roll and the Snuggie.
Verdict: I liked this little truck, and I hope one day little manual diesel trucks like this are sold in the US.
Bird's Eye View Camera System
I'm not sure if other manufacturers are doing this or not, but Nissan's system that uses four cameras to generate an overhead view of your car or SUV's surroundings is pretty damn impressive.
It's using some pretty unholy black math-magic with probably fourier transformations or Mode 7 tricks to re-map front, rear, and side-facing cameras into a pretty damn good comprehensive overhead view of what's around the car. I played with it a bit on the off-road course and was impressed.
Verdict: Cool math video trickery, probably useful off-road or for impressing your geeky dates.
The Back Seat of the New NYC Cab
Lots of room, multiple USB ports, a big clear roof. You New Yorkers should be just fine in these. I know we all love the old Panther platform, but this is a way better use of space than the Crown Vic.
Also interesting is the fake cabbie's license they used. For some reason, they're using the name "David Klahr," who is a noted psychologist. Klahr's research has "focused on the analysis of complex cognitive processes in such diverse areas as voting behavior, college admissions, consumer choice, peer review, problem solving and scientific reasoning." I don't yet know if this was intentional for some reason, but I'll try and find out.
Verdict: Cash Cab should still work fine in one of these.
Japan gets vans in a way I think we don't — they have a real gift. The Elgrand is a semi-luxury mid-sized minivan I remember seeing all over Tokyo. These have a great sort of diesel speed train-sort of look about them.
It's luxurious, big and fancy enough for American standards, and has way more character than the clinically bland Nissan Quest they sell here. The Elgrand is sort of overdone, styling-wise, but it all works in a strange Big Shot sort of way that gives the van some presence.
Oh, and I should mention this: it's the only modern minivan I've been in with factory shag freaking carpet.
Verdict: A much more engaging minivan option we should have in the US instead of boring mommybarges.
Full-Size 30-Passenger Bus
Oh yeah. This was a real treat. This bus was the real deal, a Chinese-market charter/passenger bus. It was the only truly rear-engined vehicle offered by Nissan as well, and that's a pretty big clue as to what it felt like to drive: a giant, smoother VW Microbus.
The view out the massive windshield is fantastic, as it's a cab-over so there's no hood or any obstructions at all. It was a manual, which was even more fun, with very a very short, low first gear and a very useful second. The engine is so far behind you you can't hear it at all, and the overall feeling when driving is pleasingly like floating.
The turning circle is incredible for such a large vehicle, too. I had a blast driving this. Here's a challenge for car designers: give me a car with some real performance that maintains the unobstructed view and magic-carpet floating feeling of a full-sized bus. Something like a cab-over 911. It'd be amazing.
Verdict: Buses are a blast.
Remote Controls for Concept Cars
I've never seen one of these before up close, so I thought you should see it, too. Neat, huh? There was also an interesting set of controls behind the license plate as well.
Verdict: I was tempted to pocket it, but resisted. You're welcome, Nissan.
Nissan Cedric Tokyo Cab
I loved that Nissan brought one of these out to drive — it even had the standard-equipment full seat doilies and everything. It's pretty much Japan's Crown Vic or maybe Chevy Caprice Classic, and I'm stunned they're still making these things exactly like they were 30 years ago.
It's not exactly a thrilling car to drive, but it's such an icon I had a great time in it. Plus, it has a lever to open the back left passenger door via some hydraulically-actuated system, which was a lot of fun to play with.
Verdict: A classic!
Big Electric Box Truck
In keeping with Nissan's 'we-only-have-one-electric-drivetrain' policy, this large box truck uses the stock Leaf 107 HP drivetrain, but with more batteries and the worst, most cramped pedal placement I've even encountered.
The truck didn't feel sluggish at all, though, admittedly, it was empty. Still, an electric drivetrain seems like a very smart choice for delivery vehicles like these that go on set routes and spend a lot of time in traffic or sitting and loading/unloading. As long as the range is even remotely good, there's no reason there shouldn't be a ton of electric urban delivery vehicles.
Also, the inside of that box would probably be a very expensive apartment in Tokyo or NYC.
Verdict: We'll see some version of these around cities very soon.