Prototype Drive: Dual-Motor Nissan Leaf with GT-R–Like AWD Moves
A near-production powertrain from a concept car proves itself on pavement.
At CES 2020, Nissan's near-production-ready Ariya SUV concept glittered under the lights. Fifteen miles to the northeast, on a specially prepared course at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, sat a squat little prototype Leaf with the Ariya's proposed powertrain—and we got to drive it.
Nissan calls the powertrain e-4ORCE, a name that barely makes sense as English (if at all) even if the concept behind it is plenty interesting. The prototype we drove was essentially a Leaf Plus with two motors, so power-wise everything is slightly more than doubled, with total system output sitting at 304 horsepower and 502 lb-ft of torque.
But Nissan didn't just lob a second motor into the back. It put some thought into how it could leverage that second motor to make the car better to drive, and for that the company drew on its experience with four-wheel-drive and electronic chassis control in cars like the GT-R.
Nissan laid out a closed course to demonstrate the system's advantages. First we ran the course in a standard front-wheel-drive Leaf Plus, then in the AWD prototype with the additional software enhancements of e-4ORCE switched on and off. The first thing obvious to us was the difference in acceleration, or more specifically acceleration response. We all know that electric motors can deliver 100 percent of their torque from a standstill, and an EV's control software has to ramp up the power judiciously to avoid turning the tires to butter. With all wheels driven, the e-4ORCE system can feed in the power more aggressively. We didn't get the four-wheel burnouts we were hoping for, but compared to the ordinary Leaf Plus, the all-wheel-drive system is noticeably snappier to respond and quite a bit quicker. Nissan says accelerator response is better than "competing" all-wheel-drive EVs, which we take to mean the Tesla Model 3.
The second trick up e-4ORCE's sleeve is the ability to leverage the motors to reduce pitch in stop-and-go driving. By carefully dividing the onset of both power and regenerative braking between the two motors, the engineers can limit pitch and dive, which makes for a more comfortable and less carsickness-inducing ride, especially for passengers. The effect isn't as pronounced as Nissan wanted us to believe, but it does definitely reduce head toss, always a challenge with one-pedal driving.
Part and parcel of e-4ORCE is a trick that isn't exclusive to EVs. While the e-4ORCE system can, and does, alter power front-to-rear, it also does a little side-to-side torque vectoring using the brakes. Our test course included a short, 37-mph slalom that ramped up to 43 mph, and with the additional pitch, roll, and vectoring controls switched off, the prototype exhibited more of the grip-n-go feel we expect from an all-wheel-drive car. With the e-4ORCE enhancements switched on, the brake-grabbing action was much more noticeable than any such system we've tried, to the point of being almost abrupt—but it worked. With the system enabled, the car carved the corners quickly and neatly and with less understeer.
The last section was a wet skidpad, where we were invited to drive onto the wet pavement at about 20 mph, then nail the throttle and try to hold our line. The difference was exactly what you'd expect: The two-wheel-drive Leaf drifted outward as we built speed, to the point that we had to lift to avoid cone annihilation, while the prototype with e-4ORCE enabled held its line to much higher speeds. What Nissan probably doesn't want us to tell you is that we had a lot more fun in the all-wheel-drive car with e-4ORCE switched off, where all that torque allowed us to get our drift on. Note to selves: When the production car comes out, let's test it in Detroit in the winter.
The engineer for the system told us that while there is some tweaking to be done, this is pretty much a complete production-ready system; all it needs is a car. That car is the Ariya—a concept, sure, but note that it has door handles, side mirrors, and something approximating bumpers, and that means it is pretty much Nissan's all-electric SUV. Nissan won't comment on timing, but we imagine the Ariya won't be too late to the Mach-E/Model Y party.
We can't say our limited drive was the most thrilling thing we've done this week—we were in las Vegas, after all—but we're pleased Nissan is thinking hard about the performance potential of two-motor setups.