Nissan’s head of design Alfonso Albaisa has seen it all.
A longtime veteran of Nissan (7201.T), Albaisa is a Cuban-American who lives full-time in Tokyo, overseeing a team of 700 designers across the globe.
He’s had his hand in every important Nissan or Infiniti product in recent memory – from the Nissan Titan full-size pickup, the otherworldly Nissan GT-R sports car, and of course the Nissan Leaf, the company’s first electric vehicle.
With the new Nissan Ariya electric vehicle (EV), Albaisa believes the Japanese automaker is breaking new ground — with a new platform, features, and visual identity.
“It symbolizes the next step for us,” Albaisa said in an interview with Yahoo Finance from the floor of the New York Auto show. “In my 34-year experience, it was unique in the sense that, at the very beginning, engineers were asking, ‘Where do you want major components?’ And that’s the promise of the new world, where you can literally move things around on this kind of ‘magic carpet’ platform.”
The “magic carpet” that Albaisa is referring to is the skateboard-like platform, known as the CMF-EV platform, that Nissan is using for its newer EVs. The “skateboard” here is the flat chassis underneath, with the batteries laid out low in rows between the axles, giving the platform a low center of gravity. With electric motors at each axle, the car gives occupants a larger open space in the cabin, as well as more storage in the trunk.
“We figured out that by moving major components into the front of the car that we had this amazing open space, and naturally, because we’re a Japanese car company, you get these notions of Zen,” Albaisa says. “At the same time, we were dreaming of this Japanese futurism.”
I had the chance to drive the Nissan Ariya, one of the first journalists to do so in the U.S., on the streets of Manhattan.
I really was impressed by the fit and finish of the materials inside the cabin. Nissan traditionally builds cars cars that most people can afford to buy rather than luxury or aspirational cars.
But the Ariya has the type of fit and finishes seen in a luxury car, such as soft touch materials and leather seating surfaces. But what I found to be the star — a piece of what appears to be dark open-pore wood integrated with climate controls with light-up, capacitive haptic switches that vibrate when touched.
Albaisa said this reflects the company’s broader design ethos. “So, how to express technology with a warmth? Because Japanese modernism has a warmth,” Albaisa said. “The wood, when you turn the car on, all the lights come through the wood, which is already nice, but then they become functional. So the wood becomes alive.”
As for the car’s performance, in my short time with the Ariya it drove smoothly, with instant torque when needed, a hallmark of electric powertrains, but also a surprising quietness in the cabin which I found, again, to be something found in a premium car.
Albaisa believes even mid-level cars should have the refinement, and if possible the materials, of higher-end cars. It’s all about what designers and engineers are willing to compromise on in the name of an overall vision.
“You mentioned this kind of more premium environment,” Albaisa says in response to my thoughts on the cabin. “I think even in a minimalist environment … the way each thing plays a role in the totality, it was very carefully curated.”
The Nissan Ariya starts at $45,950 in base Venture+ trim, with top level Platinum+ trim starting at $58,950. Sales in the U.S. will start in the fall, with Nissan now taking customer reservations.
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