Nissan makes everything a Nismo — but why?

TOKYO — The Nissan Leaf is the world’s best-selling electric car. It may also be the world’s least entertaining car, a buzzy, buzz-killing appliance for transporting oneself, one’s passengers, and one’s sanctimony from point A to point B. The updated and slightly more potent 2018 Leaf is expected to be about 15 percent quicker off the line, but a run to 60 mph will still take nearly 9 seconds, slower than almost any contemporary vehicle that does not have the Smart brand unfortunately emblazoned upon it. Also 2.5 seconds slower than the double-the-range Chevrolet Bolt.

But Nissan is out to change that, or at least change perceptions. Or something. Just unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show is the Leaf Nismo Concept. Nismo, as you may recall, is the brand’s in-house go-fast subsidiary, responsible for their noisy motorsports practice, as well as for tuned versions of vehicles like the 300Z and GT-R. The modifications on these special editions have been mainly superficial, featuring delightfully garish red, white, and black trim bits, inside and out, along with bolt-on suspension, exhaust, and engine control tuning, resulting in very modest (to non-existent) power upgrades.

The new Leaf Nismo follows this template with blacked- and redded-out aero add-ons, some stiffer springs and such, high-performance tires, and “a custom-tuned computer that delivers instant acceleration at all speeds.” Electric cars, as we well know, make perfect sense as performance vehicles (in some limited applications) given their potential for gobs of power and instant-on torque. But why Nismo a Leaf?

It consists of mainly aesthetic add-ons to bland commuter appliances and may presage an endlessly superficial gesture, wherein if everything is a Nismo, nothing is a Nismo.

“This car is intended just for the Japanese domestic market,” says Ivan Espinosa, vice president of product planning for Nissan. “And in Japan, the brand equity of Nismo is super-high, and customers are willing to buy into that, to be a part of that, even without any great performance boost. Whether we will do that globally seems less likely. It’s very specific to Japan.”

Even more intriguing, or just weird, is the decision to give the same sportif Nismo treatment to another of Nissan’s domestic top sellers, the Serena. If you’re not familiar with this moniker outside of the world of tennis or failed Depression-era French-American art films, let us educate you. The Serena is a narrow, vertical, and slightly swoopy eight-passenger minivan that resembles Macklemore’s haircut. Again, the Nismo version features an upgraded suspension, engine control module and exhaust, along with some primary colored paint and trim.

As we are all for sporty minivans — from the Dodge Caravan Turbo to the Renault Espace V10 F1 Concept — we applaud this move. Again, it is specific to the Japan market. But we had initially come to Tokyo hoping that Nissan would be showing a new Z car. This was the rumor, and it fit a believable narrative, since the previous generation 370Z is now about 370 years old. Sadly, Nissan has distanced itself from releasing a new Z, just as it has, in many ways, distanced itself a bit from updating its traditional performance heritage in general.

This leads us to wonder if the Nismo’ing of these quotidian vehicles is a teasing portent of something larger in the works for Nissan’s enthusiast future. Or, conversely, since it consists of mainly aesthetic add-ons to bland commuter appliances, if it is the presaging of an endlessly superficial gesture, wherein if everything is a Nismo, nothing is a Nismo. Turns out, it may be a placeholder for something in our alternative energy/autonomous future.

“Nissan is still about performance. It’s in the DNA of our brand. It has been there and it will continue to be there for a long time,” says Espinosa. “But the market is changing, consumer expectations are changing, and technology is changing. So performance may be changing, too. It’s obvious that Nismo should be translated to the vehicles in our current and future lineup. So the objective is to think of how Nismo could fit into Nissan Intelligent Mobility.”

He mentions the potent electric powertrain of the IMx concept as one possible point of premonition. “All of that power and especially torque. If we could apply that, that would work very well for performance.”

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