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Nissan Ariya electric SUV brings brand's stakes upmarket

After establishing the global EV market with Leaf, this 300-mile-range electric SUV elevates Nissan's intentions and goes after the Tesla Model Y.

Nissan Ariya is about the size of the company's Rogue SUV.

Nissan

"The story is a bit complex," Nissan's senior vice president of design, Alfonso Albaisa, told me of the creation of the Nissan Ariya, the company's upcoming, all-electric SUV that made its international debut Tuesday. While building on the know-how that came since the introduction of the Leaf a decade ago, the Ariya (whose name is pronounced like the musical solo) elevates the emission- and stress-free motoring concept to a new level.

Ariya's numbers at least are straightforward, and impressive. When released, this SUV will offer two battery packs: 63 or 87 kilowatt-hours. The smallest is equivalent to the current top-spec battery available in the Leaf Plus, while the larger pack will offer an estimated 300 miles on a charge. Yes, Nissan tells me that's on the US EPA cycle, meaning roughly 75 more miles than today's Leaf.

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The Ariya will also offer optional all-wheel drive and promises engaging handling, with a 50:50 weight distribution and a low center of gravity thanks to its skateboard-like battery pack, an arrangement Nissan fancifully calls Magic Carpet. It's that flat surface, full of possibility, that led the design team to do something radically different. "Ariya was our opportunity to express a purity, because the magic carpet in a sense is a blank slate," Albaisa said.

That purity references a core element of Japanese culture that Albaisa wanted to return to the fore in the Ariya: "How can we bring back this cutting-edge side of Japan, the hyper-clean modernism, the undeniable difference but at the same time natural? This is one of the key aspects I believe of Nissan history, that we can innovate with things that don't shock."

There is plenty of innovation to be found built atop that Magic Carpet, starting with the usually boring topic of climate controls. Since there's no engine block here or any of the associated plumbing, Nissan was able to totally rethink the dash, creating a slender, hidden panel for climate functions. The haptic controls, which vibrate when you touch them, completely disappear behind a mock woodgrain panel when the car shuts off.

And then there's the digital ribbon -- what Albaisa calls a "Salvador Dali kind of bent screen" -- that merges gauge cluster and central infotainment displays. These are physically connected, meaning if the passenger finds a restaurant they like, for example,  they can literally fling it over to the driver to start navigation. And, with ProPilot Assist 2.0 onboard, the driver can enjoy the view a bit more with their hands off the wheel.

This open, comfortable interior is wrapped by an exterior that is damn-near indistinguishable from the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show concept of the same name. It's a striking thing, especially in the hero color you see here, a two-tone copper and black combination that delivers the aspirational aura Nissan wants you to feel.

Nissan Ariya

The Ariya's interior is dark, but clean and striking.

Nissan

The shape is significantly different than the Leaf, with more advanced aerodynamics needed to make up for a significantly larger (similar to a Rogue) and taller machine. Part of that is the dramatic, integrated rear wing that ducts air down over the rear of the car. The front and rear details are connected by a dramatic, sweeping side profile, which Albaisa says is like "sheets on a clothesline."

The net result is an SUV with a familiar silhouette and with striking details inside and out, a look that Albaisa says is loaded with significance. "We have a lot of pressure in Nissan design because we are full of kind of historical cars that have great meaning, and the way they lived was not just under mechanical greatness, but they lived in a bit of a cultural breakthrough," he said.

Albaisa references the iconic 240Z as the thing that democratized the European-style sports car in the '70s, the implication being that the Ariya will have a similar impact at bringing a premium electric SUV to the masses. Of course, a lot of that success will depend on the price, and with Nissan saying the Ariya will start at "around" $40,000 -- about $10,000 less than Tesla's Model Y -- that definitely seems like a good start. Look for more details soon ahead of a late-2021 release.