Imagine the ultimate sushi buffet, skilfully prepared by master chefs with decades of experience and a deep passion for their culinary craft. This 2013 event was the automotive equivalent, with 80-year-old Japanese “celebrity chef” Nissan setting up a month-long “super sushi bar” at El Toro, the former US Marine Corps airbase in southern California. This is the third time that Nissan did a “360” product extravaganza, with the first in 2004 (San Francisco) and the second in 2008 (Portugal).
Nissan’s unique vehicular buffet in California was mind-boggling in its variety, with everything from the basic to the exotic, from old-school to new-age, from the gentle to the mental. The sizes ranged from XS (kei minicars) to XL (30-seater minibus). There were left-hand-drive vehicles, right-hand-drive vehicles, and even a “no-hands-drive” vehicle in the form of Nissan’s autonomous-driving prototype based on the Leaf electric car. There was even a “motor show” of concept cars in the atrium, where they outshone the lonely Datsun Go on display.
Nissan’s special “buffet” was served on a massive tarmac table with six different driving courses. They even arranged “takeaways” – 30-minute urban drives through picturesque Irvine, and 45-minute rural drives on a freeway leading to a mountainside switchback.
This was Nissan’s own Disney World, with admission to the temporary amusement park by invitation only. The two-day “pass” was this petrolhead’s international passport to Nissan nirvana, and it also took me to Infiniti and beyond. Too bad the time available to test-drive the many different vehicles wasn’t infinite, and made even more finite by briefings, conferences, queues, and pit stops for coffee, lunch and toilet breaks.
It was impossible to enjoy the whole “buffet” in the 48 hours I had. It would have been possible with 84 hours, but I probably had to “speed-eat” and suffer some indigestion (of information).
At the opening reception on the first evening in Pelican Hill Resort, Nissan served an orgasmic smorgasbord of vehicular appetisers – most of them older than 40-year-old me and far lovelier, too.
One of the loveliest that night was the 1971 Datsun 240Z – “my” Fairlady was 42 years young, very yellow and more than a little mellow. Another pretty ’lady present was the 1961 Datsun 1200 Roadster, which was accompanied by her “mother”, the 1935 Datsun 14 Roadster with a heart-shaped grille, behind which beats a heart-stopping 15 horsepower from a 722cc engine.
Nissan also displayed two trucks from the 1960s and the very first model in its upmarket division Infiniti, the 1992 Q45 – three decades apart in technology and worlds apart in philosophy. Just a bit closer were the 1947 Tama Electric Car E4S-47 and the 1999 Hypermini – two Nissan “Leaflets” that preceded the Leaf, the world’s most popular electric vehicle (EV) and also the only EV to ever win the European Car of the Year award (in 2011).
Standing in stark contrast to the electric cars were two energetic Nissan racecars – the 1967 R380-II sport prototype (proudly painted in Japan’s national colours) that set two speed records, and the 1997 R390 GT1 that represented the automaker at Le Mans for the first time, with its best result being a third-place finish in 1998.
Inspired by all that adrenalin-fuelled heritage, I picked the Nismo-tuned 370Z for my first test-drive the next morning at El Toro, on its makeshift Performance Course. It was a short 1.1km, divided into two zigzag patterns linked by a hairpin, so it was more macarena than gymkhana, with joyous movement of my arms and hands (to work the steering wheel and close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox), while my hips were “swinging” to the beat within the supportive sports seat. The US-spec, 3.7-litre V6 provides 350bhp (tuned up from 332bhp) to play with, plus stiffened suspension and beefy brakes. It was shiok.
More comical than shiok were the oversized “bento boxes” from downtown Tokyo – Moco and Dayz. Compact, cheap and cheerful, these kei-class minicars are meant for Japan’s domestic market, but they have export-standard equipment – the Dayz, for instance, boasts touchscreen climate control and a four-camera, all-round parking monitor. The Moco is older and less sophisticated than the Dayz, but it’s spacious for its size and zippy in the city.
Instead of taking to urban streets, we tackled El Toro’s surprisingly curvy “World Drive” course, where these sub-660cc runabouts were like Hello Kitty stuffed toys playing in a lion cubs’ den – the Moco went slightly loco, and the Dayz was wheeling around in a daze. Even so, the Tamagotchi hamsters in their little 3-cylinder engines didn’t complain much.
Another “bento box” on wheels that I enjoyed was the quirky Cube. This third-generation designer hatchback targets Gen Y with its asymmetrical rear window, fridge-style tailgate, funky “casual lounge” cabin and youthful exterior colours that include Bali Blue and Bitter Chocolate. Even a plain-vanilla Gen X person such as myself found the Cube to be cute and charming – it’s certainly more noteworthy than the Note.
The second day started well for me, because I jumped into the Nismo-modified Juke and accelerated away without delay. The five-door had been given the “Tokyo Auto Salon” treatment by Nissan’s motorsport arm, and it felt like a proper hot hatch when I drove it – punchy, frisky, and bassy in the engine room.
The oddball was a ball of fire, but my enthusiasm for the Juke Nismo was quickly extinguished (with emphasis on “quickly”) when I tried the Juke-R. It’s a nuked Juke, with 485bhp of powerful microwave energy supplied by the GT-R, the undisputed samurai of supercars. They even crammed most of the GT-R’s cockpit into the crossover, together with a pair of OMP race buckets and a roll cage certified by FIA. This twin-turbo 3.8-litre V6, four-wheel-drive ultra-Juke is no joke.
It went like a black baby bat out of hell, gripped the circuit with tenacious 20-inch claws (didn’t let go) and sounded like a miniature GT-R with a dry throat. During my two laps on El Toro’s 2.4km High-Performance Course, I barely tickled this pocket monster, which was violent yet obedient, like an unnatural union between Godzilla and Doraemon.
Putting this unholy matrimony in perspective was my follow-up drive in a GT-R. It was as great as ever, offering extreme performance that’s also extremely user-friendly. And unlike the Juke-R, the GT-R remains a practical four-seater with acceptable boot space, decent amenities and (relatively) comfortable cruising capability. Domesticated Godzilla only loses out to its mutant cousin in front headroom – it could barely contain my helmeted noggin, whereas the Juke-R had space to spare overhead.
Soon after crossing the fiery path of the crazed crossover, I was crossing dusty paths on El Toro’s Adventure Course in different 4×4 Nissans. The route was just 800 metres in length but felt like a journey of discovery, with various obstacles for the off-roaders to negotiate. My mission, with guidance from an on-board instructor, was to unearth the “tough” talents of the Frontier, Titan, Patrol, Armada and Xterra.
The only one that’s been on Singapore soil is the Frontier pickup, better known on our island and in the Asian region as the Navara. It’s small potatoes compared to the meaty Titan, Nissan’s 5.6-litre V8 truck that can tow up to 4300kg, safely (that’s a lot of fruits and vegetables from Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre). Titanic, too, are the Armada and Patrol, the latter also patrolling Beverly Hills disguised in a suit as the Infiniti QX80. The Xterra is like Nissan’s Freelander, but chunkier.
All five vehicles were chunks of fun as they ably demonstrated their “adventurous” features such as full-time four-wheel-drive, ample ground clearance, electronic lockable differentials and “waterproof” wading ability. If the US Marines ever reoccupy their old base of El Toro, they should keep these vehicles around as general-purpose “Humvees”, including an armed Patrol or two.
Having reached the last section of Nissan’s vehicular buffet, with less than half an hour to go before the “waiters” and “restaurant managers” start preparing for the next wave of “diners”, I asked to drive the Cedric taxi. But my cabbie fantasy couldn’t be fulfilled, because the test cab was already parked away from the Commercial Vehicle driving course.
No “dessert” for me, then, but after my two-day binge on Nissan’s finest “sushi”, I didn’t need “mochigashi” anyway. I was sated, and elated.