Nissan IMs Concept is a self-driven Detroit moonshot

Traditional Japanese aesthetics and a James Bond vibe are folded into this futuristic electric EV codenamed "Moonraker."

On some level, even humble economy cars are industrial works of art. Perhaps because of that fact, it's not surprising that when we think of new car designs -- especially concept cars -- we envision their appearance as being the result of someone who set pen to paper, hand to clay or pixel to screen. And while all of those processes still happen, nearly all of today's car designs have their genesis in a very different process: customer research. Take this Nissan IMs Concept that just debuted at Monday's 2019 Detroit Auto Show. Its sexy fastback form, its 22-inch wheels and its clever lighting all look sufficiently organic that it seems as if it were born of a single mind. 

The truth is, the Nissan IMs electric show car is the result of exhaustive research. The Japanese automaker surveyed thousands of people to see the way automobiles are being used, how their habits are changing and where technology will enable car design to go in the future. The IMs Concept isn't just an artistic vision, in other words. It's rolling thesis. In this case, that thesis is a Level Four autonomous sedan with a raised ride height and seating position, the latter realized in a novel reconfigurable cabin that's loaded with futuristic tech.

So, how does one get from reams of questionnaires and discussions about marketplace "white space" to a sleek, pillarless four-door sedan with 483 horsepower, 590 pound-feet of torque and a 115-kWh battery good for 380 miles of range? Back in late September, I got the chance to find out: Nissan gave me a deep dive into the genesis of this concept car, including the chance to sit in on a number of presentations and have an early look at a full-scale mockup in Nissan's design studio in Atsugi, Japan.

Certainly, there's an agenda at work here: Nissan's Leaf was the first modern EV to hit the market, and the company has been pushing its Intelligent Mobility platform, which has put ProPilot Assist Level 2 partial automation driving tech in the hands of more drivers than perhaps any other brand. It's no coincidence that the IMs' buildout hinges upon both electric drive and even higher levels of automation promised for the not-too-distant future.

To that end, the automaker started by surveying motorists and owners of other Nissan products about unmet needs, and it looked at how car preferences are evolving over time, in part by examining the company's back catalog of research. That same sort of research previously led to the creation of the Leaf EV itself, along with left-of-center models like the love-it-or-hate-it Juke, a model that was massively successful worldwide.

In this case, an ideal customer profile was created, and that help set the framework for the IMs Concept. That theoretical ideal customer, known as the "Sharp Optimist," is a fictional man named Hugo, about 50 years old, who is a successful and well-read person keen to discreetly show off his status. Hugo buys a lot of new technology, trusts autonomous products and wants to minimize his environmental footprint. Nissan posits that Hugo may presently own something like an Audi A7, but to my ears, Hugo also sounds an awful lot like a typical Tesla customer.

The IMs features dynamic pulsing exterior lights that glow blue while the car is in self-driving mode.


No matter how closely you hew to Nissan's theoretical ideal customer's age, hobbies or income level, to my eyes, I'm betting many of you will find the IMs Concept attractive. The company calls the IMs an "elevated sport sedan," with the idea that Hugo and friends enjoy the commanding view afforded by an SUV, but they don't necessarily want that vehicular genre's typically boxy (and now common) form.

Some automakers have tried lifted sedans before, including Volvo's short-lived S60 Cross Country and Subaru's lumbering Legacy SUS and Outback Sedan, but whereas those production models felt like regular sedans with some SUV costume jewelry tacked on, the IMs looks more holistically executed. Though to my eyes, it also doesn't feel as brand-new an idea as Nissan seems to think it is.

If the idea that this so-called "neo sedan" was born out of market research comes across as cold, know that it doesn't feel that way in person, nor does this seem like a rote exercise on behalf of the designers. Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice president for global design, calls the IMs a "sleek bullet space capsule, and indeed, throughout its gestation, the IMs was internally codenamed "Moonraker" in honor of the 1979 James Bond film, and the aim was to capture some of that film's interstellar feel and general 007 suaveness.

The IMs spans 190 inches long -- about 2 inches shorter than a 2019 Maxima -- yet it rides on a much longer 114-inch wheelbase (nearly half a foot longer than the Max). That, along with an adaptive air suspension, helps provide a cushier ride and more interior space.

Piilarless doors reveal a reconfigurable interior including a rear "Emperor's chair."


While the exterior is sharp, it's the IMs' inside that feels the most futuristic. Drawing inspiration from Japan's avant-garde hotels, there are show car touches everywhere you look, including a dashboard that features a latticework-like visible substructure produced by 3D printing. The geometric supports (which surely would be a royal pain to keep clean in the real world) are echoed in patterns found on the glass roof, yoke-style steering wheel and pedals, among other places.

The cabin theme was said to be inspired by Kumiko, a traditional Japanese art form that uses wood slats to create intricate designs without nails. Nissan's chief designer, Alfonso Albaisa, tells me that these elements, along with the entire interior's aesthetic, is informed by the Japanese concept of 'Ma' (間) which roughly translates to "the space between things" -- basically, negative space. In this case, the gaps in the geometric forms help define how we feel about the cabin as much as the structures themselves.

A deployable wheel emerges for manual driving. Note the 3D-printed lattice-like dashboard endcaps.


The IMs' interior's configuration is also dictated by the car's Level Four hardware. There's a standard manual mode wherein the driver can use the aforementioned wheel and pedals, as well as a novel dual-layer gauge cluster, to pilot the car. When the vehicle is set in fully autonomous mode, the steering wheel goes flush to the dashboard, and the cabin can be reconfigured in a delta-like pattern, with the front seats turning inward to encourage communication.

In this setup, the second row center seat becomes the best in the house, with the center "Premier Seat" or the "Emperor's Chair" turning into something of a lounge chair, complete with a fold-out ottoman for relaxation. The seats themselves aren't stitched in the usual leather, they're covered in a futuristic -- dare I say, '70s spacey -- fabric with gold threads.

In a bit of flight-of-fantasy tech, Nissan says the IMs also includes an augmented reality avatar to assist with things like navigation directions, and it features some of the "Invisible to Visible" technology that Nissan recently highlighted at CES.

The IMs may be a sedan, but it's mixed with an SUV-like ride height and seating position.

Steven Pham/Roadshow

For the moment, Nissan isn't saying that the IMs has any sort of production future, and officials demurred when I asked if an execution like this could form the basis for a future Maxima replacement (after all, traditional sedan sales have been cratering as buyers flock to crossovers). That said, Albaisa did confirm plans to offer a production version of the IMX electric SUV concept, which was shown at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show. The production IMX will be one of eight new EVs that Nissan will debut by 2022.

If anything, the IMs Concept's size and upscale ambition may hew a little too closely to that of Nissan's Infiniti brand, but that doesn't seem to bother Albaisa and Company. Perhaps there's enough "Ma" between Nissan's current range and the company's premium division in order to bring something like this to showrooms, but sadly, doing so feels like a bit of a moonshot to me.