Nissan Leaf RC Nismo Concept

Nissan took the wraps off its Leaf Nismo RC Concept at the New York Auto Show more than two years ago. As inferred, the vehicle shares many of its pure-EV components with the production Leaf currently sitting in your dealer's showroom. But don't assume the concept is a placid, family friendly, four-place, front-wheel-drive plug-in for grabbing groceries - the RC (as in "Racing Challenge") is a purpose-built, two-seat, rear-wheel-drive prototype race car tuned for the short track.

The RC Concept is fitted with an 80-kW AC synchronous motor driving the rear wheels and drawing power from a 48-module lithium-ion battery. While the motor and battery are nearly identical to the consumer-friendly Leaf, a sleek full carbon-fiber monocoque body shell and a slew of other enhancements mean the RC is 40-percent lighter, a foot shorter in overall height and nearly seven inches wider than its commuter namesake. Nissan says the RC Concept will hit 62 miles per hour in about 6.8 seconds, top out at 93 mph and run for about 20 minutes under race conditions (it will accept an 80-percent charge in 30 minutes with a quick-charger). Understandably, if a zero-emissions motorsport series comes to fruition, the races would be short and nearly silent.

We caught up with the Leaf Nismo RC concept in Southern California, where we were offered the opportunity to zip it around a tight autocross at the former Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro.

Driving Notes:
  • If the two-door looks diminutive and cramped in the pictures, that's because it is. My six-foot two-inch frame barely wedged into the Bride carbon-fiber bucket seat and my knees were forced to rub firmly against the OMP steering wheel (if the wheel hadn't been removable, I would not have been able to drive). The unfinished interior was hot and stuffy and the restrictive four-point harness only made matters worse. Then again, race cars aren't supposed to be comfortable.
  • Despite tipping the scales at a featherweight 2,068 pounds, the RC is not fast by today's consumer-car standards. Acceleration was moderately brisk (about the same as a Mazda MX-5 Miata), but more impressive was the throttle response that seemed to immediately send torque to the rear wheels. Without any combustion-related delay, driving an EV through the slalom required lightning-fast reflexes as the motor responded instantly.
  • An incredibly low center of gravity, tuned double-wishbone suspension and Bridgestone R-compound racing tires (225/40-18) at all four positions helped the pavement-hugging RC Concept corner with insane grip. I found its steering very linear, impressively accurate and well balanced. The powertrain mass is all placed mid-chassis, meaning the coupe seemed to rotate around an invisible axis at the base of my spine. There was zero understeer, it never felt like it was rolling over its front tires, but the torque from the electric motor was powerful enough to override the grip of the front end if power was applied before they were hooked-up.
  • The brake pedal was stiff, credit unboosted brakes and race-grade pads that needed a bit of heat before they were effective, but the modulation was excellent. I found it more effective to rely on regenerative drag for slowing, rather than wasting inertia by heating the rotors, as maintaining momentum (thus preserving battery energy) was critical in the moderately powered two-seater.
  • Overall, the concept reminded me of a big electric go-kart with a fancy carbon-fiber shell. It handled like a race car, and it was fun to drive, but in its current state it would only be enjoyable on a tight track during a very short race. Nissan hasn't made any official announcement as to where the RC Concept program is heading, but the automaker has hinted at a possible pure-EV racing series down the road. Based on my short jaunt around a bunch of cones, I'd consider that an electrifying step in the right direction.
  • Check out Nissan's video below of Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga driving the RC Concept at the same event.