Car review: Nissan Ariya EV turns over a new Leaf with silky style

FARMINGTON HILLS, Michigan — Like the Kardashians on a budget, Nissan is a value brand with a taste for high fashion. Go to a Nissan dealership to buy a $25K Sentra loaded with standard goodies — auto high beams, adaptive cruise control, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto — but be sure to wander over to the $45K Murano Platinum SUV and ogle its sculpted grille and quilted albino leather seats.

The brand’s new electric vehicle, the Ariya, is of the latter stylish persuasion.

Draped in bronze, my $45K tester should be strutting down a posh Paris runway, not an uneven Detroit street. Its lines are toned, sculpted. A blackened roof floats above its copper physique. Chic. Check out the shard-like spokes on the 19-inch wheels, also dipped in bronze. Like Mrs. Payne negotiating grated city streets in high heels, I’m careful I don’t stumble into a Michigan pothole.

Step inside and Nissan wants to whisk you away to a club lounge. The unique cabin evokes a five-piece furniture set: four leather seats around a table. The console moves with the touch of a button so that different body types (I’m tall, my wife a foot shorter) can adjust the furniture to best operate the automatic shifter. There’s even a drawer in the dash for storage.

Haptic-controlled, colored climate controls are set into the lush wood of the tabletop — er, dash. The landscape is interrupted by a single knob — for volume.

It took me back to my 2014 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year, the Cadillac CTS, that tried similar bleeding-edge e-controls. They were controversial and ultimately abandoned — but the Ariya advances the art with a light touch to activate. Not so the console buttons.

Located aft of the shifter, Drive Mode, Self-Park and e-Step selectors all require a deliberate push to engage. Nissan assumes you won’t be accessing them often — and it wants you to look at them, not casually punch at them as you might climate control.

As for the blocky shifter, it’s the only raised item on the console face. Like a TV controller sitting on a side table, it makes the device go. This simple elegance sits under the most conventional feature in Ariya’s cockpit — a single screen that contains twin 12.3-inch instrument and infotainment displays familiar to other EVs like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 or BMW iX.

Ariya’s flowing architecture is distinctive. In the age of EVs, drivetrains are all similar. Same lithium ion battery, same electric motors, same instant torque. Smooth? Yes. Quiet? Yes, but how do you create brand separation?

That’s a challenge for BMW, whose silky-smooth inline-6 cylinder engines separated it from the proles. But with an e-motor making a Nissan as smooth as a Bimmer (uh-oh), the Bavarian brand has resorted to piping into the cabin wild electronic sounds to set it apart. Think hard rock guitar versus a Japanese flute.

For Nissan, the serene EV experience is the whole point. As is the exterior — a much more pleasing symphony of lines compared to Bimmer’s in-your-face kidney grille. Ariya’s serenity dovetails with the exterior’s smooth, soaring lines and the interior’s comfortable furniture.

I put my foot into the Ariya through Oakland County’s lake country, but this isn’t a vehicle that wants to be flogged. It’s a warmblood horse aimed at the dressage competition, not a thoroughbred vying for the Kentucky Derby crown.

To this end, Ariya is technically proficient, performing its duties with poise. Cruising a crowded parking lot for a space, I pressed the SELF-PARK button for perpendicular parking. An arrow pointed at an open space as I passed. I stopped the car, put it in reverse and Ariya did the rest. Unlike competitors, however, Ariya won’t extract itself from the space — either perpendicular or parallel.

More comprehensive is Ariya’s self-driving ambition.

So nerdy is Nissan about this sci-fi stuff that it debuted an ad campaign touting its semi-autonomous moves along with the launch of Rogue One, the Star Wars prequel. But Rogue’s adaptive cruise system was a novice compared to Ariya’s semi-autonomous Skywalker.

Cruising along I-696, I toggled adaptive cruise and a green wheel appeared. After a few miles that changed to a blue wheel — the symbol of hands-free driving as I’ve grown used to with my Tesla Model 3’s Autopilot. While Tesla requires torque on the wheel so the system knows you’re present, the Nissan only needs a touch. As a result, the car is easy to self-drive for miles.

My brief time in the Ariya around Metro Detroit didn’t offer me the chance to see how routinely I can access the Blue Wheel mode — but I’ll do a more comprehensive road trip in the future.

A longer road trip will also allow me the chance to explore Nissan’s trip navigation software. Presently, Tesla is miles ahead of the industry with its dedicated charger network and parallel navigation system. Other automakers — Ford, for example — have been making strides in integrating their navigation systems with third-party networks from Electrify America, EVgo and Shell

I asked Ariya to navigate to, say, Charlevoix, Michigan (a common Payne family destination), and the system only responded with a direct route devoid of chargers. Ariya apparently assumes you’ll plan a route using a phone app. That won’t impress cross-shoppers with the Ford Mustang Mach-E or Tesla Model Y.

Speaking of cross-shoppers, Nissan realistically assumes that Ariya’s competitive set is other EVs like Mach-E and VW ID.4 and Kia EV-6 and so on. My $51K Engage AWD tester comes in 10 grand north of a loaded Nissan Roque Platinum. A comparable AWD Ariya Platinum will sticker for $20K north of its Rogue peer.

This is quite a change from Nissan’s initial strategy when it pioneered the EV market 13 years ago with the nerdy-looking Leaf. Even with healthy government incentives, Leaf hasn’t caught on with budget-minded customers. With Ariya, Nissan seems determined to erase memories of Leaf with its more dashing Ariya sibling.

These are two vehicles that shop at different clothing stores — Leaf at Walmart and Ariiya at Nordstrom. Ariya has even rejected Leaf’s signature center-hood charging port for a right-side charger door.

For all the noise about governments mandating EV-only sales in just seven years, Ariya and its EV peers are aimed at premium niche buyers who appreciate its grace — and excellent taste in furniture. And those buyers will also have a Pathfinder or Murano in the garage for long-distance family adventures.

2023 Nissan Ariya

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, front- and all-wheel-drive five-passenger SUV

Price: $44,485, including $1,295 destination fee ($45,180 Engage FWD as tested)

Powerplant: 63-87 kWh lithium-ion battery with single or dual electric motors

Power: 214-238 horsepower, 221 pound-feet torque (FWD); 389 horsepower, 442 pound-feet torque (AWD)

Transmission: Single-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9-7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 115 mph

Weight: 4,700 pounds est. (FWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 98-103 MPGe; range, 214-304 miles (214 miles as tested)

Report card

Highs: Easy on the eyes; high-tech, fashionable interior

Lows: Navigate-to-chargers a work in progress; haptic touch controls not for everyone

Overall: 3 stars