Today, I had a chance to do what I was never able to achieve in my meandering career in the automotive business: I could drive a concept car. In the past, I was able to drive pre-production models, mules, even prototypes (the latter very carefully, they are obscenely expensive to replace.) But I never drove a concept car. Concept cars usually are built to go on display at car shows, and “go” can be taken literally: Many don’t even have an engine. The concept car I will be driving is Nissan’s “New Mobility Concept”, something Nissan calls an “ultracompact” car.
The NMC has four wheels, but they stand only 47 inches apart. The car is electric with a nominal range of 62 miles. On a 200 volts circuit, the 7kWh battery charges in 4 hours, or so they say
To call it a “car” could be seen as a bit bold. To liken it to golf carts would do an injustice to the favorite conveyance of putterers. In a golf cart, you can sit two abreast, usually with two more in the second row.
The NMC is for “1.5 people” says Nissan: They sit in tandem, one in front, 0.5 in the back on an uncomfortable seat that looks ver the head. like a camping toilet. The seat in front is high-backed, adjustable and comfortable. There is a roof over the head. There are two safety belts for the driver: a tree-point standard lap & shoulder belt, along with a two-point belt that threads for the top of the car over your shoulder and under your armpit down to the floor, providing for five-point race car style safety. There is an airbag in the steering wheel, I am told.
The NMC has disk brakes front and rear, and features fully independent suspension. When I ask whether it has McPherson struts or a fully-fledged double wishbone suspension, an expert summoned by my chaperone makes a funny face and walks away.
The NMC is a rebadged Twizy, the car made by alliance-partner Renault. Announced in 2009 at the Frankfurt Auto Show, the car went on sale this year in Europe, and quickly turned into the best-selling EV in Germany and France. In Europe, the car is classified as a “heavy quadricycle,” a slower version can be driven without a driver’s license.
When the Twizy was shown at the IAA, Autocar said it had “gullwing doors.” The NMC’s doors (available in the higher trim, the riff-raff remains exposed to the elements) are more like guillotine doors, better known as LSD doors in the U.S. According to Schmitt’s rule, cars displayed with gullwing or LSD doors at car shows will never make it into mass production – let’s hope this is the exception.
I did mention that it is a pure plug-in, right? This is where you plug in.
Professional car reviewers will decry a sea of hard plastic (in this case, a pond) in the dash, and the lack of a manly implement: The stick shift. The NMC has neither manual nor automatic transmission. It has two buttons, one for Drive, the other for Reverse, press both for Neutral.
What’s holding back the NMC’s launch in Japan is the foot-dragging by regulators who haven’t found an appropriate slot. Nissan hopes that a category below kei cars will be found soon. Under a special permit, I drive the NMC today with a yellow kei tag through the streets of downtown Yokohama..
We do that with an escort.
“We” is two members of the Japanese press, and me, lined up like a string of white ducklings behind a blue duck, a Leaf.
The intercoms crackle. San ni ichi – ike! The convoy is underway.
The convoy rolls without me.
I am still in the pits, cranking the key to get the NMC going. But nothing happens.
I quickly learn that I did not pay attention during the familiarization: I need to turn the key and hold it until something happens. I do that, something does happen, and I am on my way.
Probably breaking sundry Yokohama inner-city speed limits, I make chase for the white convoy. The NMC has a top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph), I am told. I ignore the speedometer.
The car has a tendency to understeer in the threshold region, especially in the higher lateral acceleration range. Or maybe it oversteers. Tell you the truth, I can’t tell an oversteer from an overbyte, the NMC steers effortlessly and nimbly weaves around bicycles and cars.
I move my seat backwards a few notches until a muffled sound makes me reverse the operation.“How are we doing back there?” I shout over my shoulder. “Just fine!” I hear. The voice belongs to Chris Keeffe, in his day job spokesperson of Nissan. He volunteered to ride with me as 0.5 person to “keep me company.” He probably wanted to be sure that I won’t make off with the vehicle.
Speaking of sounds: When I take my foot off the “gas,” the NMC does not coast, it stops. It also begins to chirp after a few seconds, as if to signal: “Let’s go!” Foot on the pedal, no more chirp.
Much too early, the NMC ride through downtown Yokohama ends. I want to take the NMC home with me, but Nissan won’t let me. It won’t even disclose price nor start of production. To experience more of the NMC, two options remain:
1.) Join the Yokohama neighborhood watch. Nissan donated a few NMC to the cause, where it excels in patrolling narrow dark alleys. The neighborhood watch recruits senior citizens, so I qualify and sign up. Full report follows if they take me.
2.) Rent one. This is possible as of today. All you need is a valid driver’s license, a trip to Yokohama, and to sign up here..
Disclaimer: Nissan donated a few kilowatts, that’s it.