The day I drove the Nismo Leaf RC electric racing car
Nissan New Zealand rolled out a few surprises at the launch of its high-performance Nismo brand in May.
There was the very expensive and specialised GT-R Nismo road car, the GT-R GT3 racing car of Clark Proctor and the Nissan-sponsored R35 GT-R drift machine of Darren Kelly.
And then there was this thing: the Leaf Nismo RC, a very rare "racing" version of everybody's automotive eco-hero, the Leaf hatchback.
Perhaps even more surprising was that in a quiet moment I was ushered to a closed-off area of the Hampton Downs circuit by keeper of the Leaf, Mr Proctor, and let loose. I'd love to show you a picture of Proctor with the car, but he adopted a threatening pose and said: "Don't you photograph me with this thing. I'm a petrolhead."
Indeed. Although he did pilot the Leaf up the driveway at the Leadfoot Festival earlier this year, which was the main reason for the vehicle's trip to NZ. It's hung around for promotional duties, but as you read this it'll be on its way back to head office in Japan.
Nismo built just six examples of the RC back in 2011, mainly to throw a glamorous light on its Leaf electric vehicle (EV) and possibly because somebody thought it would be funny. Although it is a racing car by design (it's certainly not road legal), it doesn't qualify for any particular series. But it has appeared on-track around the world at many festivals and automotive events over the past six years.
The Leaf RC does illustrate that racing cars are about a lot more than just a powerful engine, because it has a standard Leaf road-car (2011-model of course) electric motor and lithium battery pack. But it's mounted in the back, driving the rear wheels, and despite the Leafy lights front and rear, the entire body structure and carbon-fibre chassis is unique to this car.
Is it quick? No. Is it quicker than a standard Leaf? Of course. It's 40 per cent lighter than the road car (around 940kg) and can hit 100kmh in 6.8 seconds.
You have to insert yourself over an enormous carbon-fibre sill and into the low-slung cabin with no regard for grace, and of course the car is fully kitted out with racing seats and harnesses.
But starting the RC is not race-car complicated: you flick a switch and it simply sits there, silently ready to go. I can safely boast I never missed a gear change around Hampton Downs, because the RC only has one. Gear that is.
More to the point, it feels like a racing car when you get out on the track. The steering provides a direct line to the texture of the tarmac, there's a constant tension between g-force and the grippy rubber and you can't help but focus intently on car and track.
Proctor's warning about the RC's handling might have had something to do with that: "Don't turn in too aggressively, because the rear will snap into oversteer."
It's surely the world's loudest EV. There's absolutely no sound-deadening and the deafening soundtrack of the electric motor right behind your brain is accompanied by a rush of wind noise and the spray of circuit-rubber on the carbon underside. Who'd have thought a Leaf could offer so much drama?
It's not at its best on a long, fast circuit: top speed is just 150kmh.
But it the RC does have the right stuff for a tight track or hillclimb. Its duties at Leadfoot were of a demonstration than competitive nature, but with Proctor at the wheel the Nissan people reckon it was running at a time that would put it in top-10 territory.
It was certainly spectacular to see and hear: the sci-fi whine of the electric motoring was punctuated by crashes and scrapes as the low-slung Leaf bottomed out up Steve Millen's driveway.
Range anxiety is always the thing with EVs though, right?
With a full battery the Nismo RC will run for about 20 minutes at race speed, but you can pump 80 per cent back in on a DC fast charger in less than half an hour. Admittedly, that's quite a long pit stop.
The great shame is that it's not road-registered. Because one of the great annoyances when you're driving an electric car is rolling up to a DC fast-charging station and finding a nerd (that's my trademark collective term) of Leafs queued up at the electric bowser. Happens a lot; would love to arrive in this thing.