The Best Way To Learn How To Drive

I’ve only ever been to one manufacturer snow drive event, and that was with Nissan when the first generation Leaf came out. Although it was 10 years ago now, I’ve never stopped telling the story of how impressed I was with the car and its performance on the slippery stuff.

Manufacturers can continuously tell us how well-balanced their sports cars are – or in the case of Nissan and their original Leaf, how well-distributed weight is on an EV – but unless you try it out for yourself you just don’t get what that translates to in the real world, or why it’s important.

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For how much fun I had with Nissan in Hokkaido that time, I recall being a little disappointed that they didn’t bring along other cars in the range to test out the same way. But here we are, a decade later, back in Japan’s northernmost island – and this time with Ron – sampling pretty much Nissan’s entire domestic offering. The point? To have fun.

Ok, that’s probably not the most diplomatic of answers, so I’ve decided to bring Ron in for his take on the snow-laced shenanigans we got up to in Hokkaido.

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Dino: Our story begins at Haneda Airport the night before the snow drive event. Sapporo is about an hour or so flight time from Tokyo, but because of the coronavirus outbreak I had to wear the dreaded JDM mask. I don’t like masks; they make me hot and nauseous, and if you have just eaten a fried chicken stick from 7-11 you have to smell your own garlicky burps for however long your body attempts to digest them. Oh yeah, and they steam up your glasses.

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Ron: I’m not the biggest fan of wearing masks either, as my face is slightly bigger than futsu (average), and the straps really start to dig in to my ears after prolonged use. Luckily for me though, I don’t have to worry about foggy glasses.

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Dino: If you’ve never experienced thrashing a car around a snowy playground, let me just say it’s probably as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. Of course, on top of the absolute hoot of spending a whole day crossed up in a variety of cars, there’s also what you take away from it all.

Ron: This was actually my first time playing in the snow under adult supervision, and honestly, I really didn’t know what to expect on this one-day adventure. I know driving on snow is one of the best ways to get valuable seat time and really grasp vehicle dynamics at a snail’s pace, so to say I was excited would be an understatement.

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Dino: After a short introduction to the day ahead, it was straight into the cars. Our first ride of the day was a Note e-Power.

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Ron: I think all I could do at this point was be amazed at how fast you were hustling the Note around the bends, and simply laugh. With a Z34 Nismo and 50th Anniversary R35 GT-R also to be driven, I assumed that the Note would be a bit of a bore, but man was I wrong.

Dino: Never underestimate the potential a hatchback like the Note hides. Aside from being somewhat light and nimble, the Note we were in was of the e-Power variety – Nissan’s in-series hybrid system that offers EV-like instant torque but none of the range anxiety, as the battery is always being charged by a little motor/generator. Add to this how far snow tire technology has come, and you have a recipe for serious fun in the white stuff. In fact, the Note was more fun than the GT-R in my book, and I’ll explain why further down.

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Ron: Yes, please do explain about how a Note could be more fun than the GT-R! I was so busy getting stuck in knee-deep snow to capture you having fun that I didn’t get a chance behind the wheel of the R35, but I promise I’m not salty in the least bit. After the Note, you jumped into the Z if I remember correctly? The short wheel base and all the power being sent to the rear wheels looked like a recipe for fun. How did you fancy the Z34 Nismo?

Dino: Yeah, from the somewhat docile and chuckable Note to a Z34 Nismo – talk about a jump. In the Note, to induce oversteer it was all about managing momentum and learning to shift weight so as to allow the rear to swing out and aid around turns. With the Z, you also have the benefit of using the power, and with a 6-speed manual you can make optimal use of torque and even engine braking to place and set up the car for the corners.

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Dino: I was so happy to get a few more laps with the Z Nismo, as it was by far the best and most fun car there. You really get into sync with this car and you learn to trust that balance, predicting how it will move around. You just feed in countersteer and juggle the power. I had a grin of satisfaction for days after this drive. In fact, I’m now really envious of development drivers who get to do this sort of thing as a job.

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Ron: That all makes sense, but what about the GT-R? What about Godzilla?

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Dino: Yes, it’s way, way faster. It’s also bigger, heavier, and far more intimidating. And there’s so much mechanical grip and superb weight distribution that I noticed very little difference between having the VDC on or off.

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Ron: That all sounds like good things to me, though. Superb weight balance regardless of its mass, helping push all four tires into the concrete – or in this case snow and ice – for amazing mechanical traction. I’d think that would build a driver’s confidence and proves how capable the GT-R is, even if it’s getting up there in age. What was the problem?

Dino: The problem – and I don’t really know if this is a problem – was the sheer pace you would pile on with the GT-R. There is so much traction and grip that the speed just keeps rising, and then the next corner comes up so quickly that you have an extreme clenching moment. You can get it to move nicely through the faster bends, but you won’t get the same tail-out angles as the Z. The R35 GT-R is a precision speed machine, and a beautifully balanced piece of engineering. It was hard to believe how quickly I was lapping that little track Nissan set up, which is why I had more fun in the Note – the GT-R was too fast, and I always had visions of disaster going through my head.

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Dino: Ron, since the Note e-Power 4WD was the first car you got to drive, I’ll let you explain the purpose of this exercise.

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Ron: The purpose was to show how effective the Note’s electric 4WD system is in a real-world scenario. We were first asked to drive up the middle of the hill in FWD mode, and then stop. Then, we’d need to resume our climb, but now the front wheels were spinning with absolutely no traction.

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Dino: And then you hit the 4WD button?

Ron: Yes, that’s when the magic happens. Flick a switch and the small electric motor that drives the rear wheels activates, and off you go without any drama.

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Dino: It was then back to some fun, and I believe this was the expression on your face after you drove the Skyline.

Ron: Affirmative. It may not be anything like Project Rough, but it was still good fun trying to slide the Skyline around while everyone watched, took pictures, and laughed. This was work, right?

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Dino: It certainly looked easier than it actually was. I think the issue was that half of surface we were attempting to hold a constant slide on was snow – where you can actually get some level of forward (or sideways in this case) momentum – and the other half was ice.

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Ron: That’s true, and the vast majority of the snow was trucked in, due to far less than average snow fall this year, hence the powdery-ice combination. I tried using some foot braking and prediction for when the snow and ice transition was about to happen, but it was still incredibly difficult to make complete donuts.

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Dino: Did you just run over a deer, or was this the look of impending danger?

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Ron: That my friend was the look of ‘what the hell am I about to attempt in this Nissan Caravan?’. You on the other hand seemed almost as keen to drive the Caravan as you were the Z.

Dino: I had been thinking about the Caravan from the moment Nissan’s invitation arrived. Diesel engine, a 4WD system that you can turn off, and a solid rear axle equalled the wildest ride ever, bouncing up and down on leaf springs as this big box on wheels was getting crossed up. The open diff meant little-to-no control, but I’m pretty sure I managed to string a few decent laps together.

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Ron: From Caravan donuts to the slalom course, and first up was Leaf. How did this experience compare to the one 10 years ago?

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Dino: The new Leaf Plus we were piloting was much the same. An extremely low center of gravity allowed it to flick left and right in an impressively fast and natural way. It was lock-to-lock down the little slalom course; I felt I was an FD driver for a second or two.

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Ron: The DayZ was surprisingly capable sliding down the slalom course too, but the sound of its CVT transmission at high RPM kind of dominated the experience.

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Dino: The biggest surprise of the day was finally getting behind the wheel of the Skyline 400R. With 400hp under your right foot this was just as fun as the Z, and probably easier to throw around thanks to its longer wheel base and heavier mass. I’ve been trying to get a press car for a long time, but they are always booked out, and now I know why. The 400R definitely deserves its own feature, and a chat about that  VR30DDTT powering it.

Ron: You guys may have noticed a lack of stills from me, and that was not due to being too busy sliding Nissan’s lineup or learning more from Dino. Seeing that Nissan was going to have a photographer on hand, we decided that it would be better if my time was spent filming our experience.

Dino: Yeah, we hope you enjoy the video part to this story. It would be cool if we got to do more of this vlogging stuff.

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Dino: As an afternoon treat, we got to take two cars out for a country drive, having a good hour with each. I decided to go for the Note e-Power Nismo, as it’s the first EV-enhanced car that Nissan’s performance and motorsport division has played around with.

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Ron: I’m still not 100% on board with the Nismo name tag being used to drum up sales, but the Note e-Power Nismo was a rather exciting car to drive around. The regeneration braking was quite weird at first, but you quickly grow to love the ‘one pedal’ experience. Especially if you are looking for more of an efficient daily commuter.

Dino: Yes, the car was so interesting and impressive that we decided against featuring it on this occasion, rather opting to borrow one for a week and actually show it some corners.

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Dino: Plus, we ended up stumbling across something quite interesting.

Ron: It was a huge coincidence that we were discussing the friendly nature of people in Hokkaido when we spotted a group of local RC aircraft enthusiasts flying their creations. We let curiosity run its course and struck up a conversation with one of the gentlemen present, who was more than willing to show us his prized possession.

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Dino: It’s amazing what a lack of stress, and plenty of open space and non-polluted air can do to people. This guy was a legend; he grabbed a pair of gigantic batteries and in a matter of minutes had his lightweight plane high in the air.

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Ron: He also proceeded to do some pretty remarkable maneuvers, and didn’t stop until every last drop of energy had been drained out of the batteries.

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Dino: It may have been a short trip, but the fun and learning that you take away from an event like this is priceless. It gives you great insight into what a well-engineered car should feel like. You understand how power and torque should be used, and how weight and momentum can be used to your advantage. But most of all, you feel like a driving god when you nail a perfect drift around a corner.

Thanks to Nissan for inviting a pair of Speedhunting car nuts along to experience it all.

Dino Dalle Carbonare
Instagram: speedhunters_dino
dino@speedhunters.com

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