I drove Nissan's electric Ariya SUV — it proves that 13 years after the Leaf, the automaker can compete with Tesla

  • Nissan's first electric vehicle since the Leaf hatchback has arrived.

  • The Ariya SUV is stylish, capable, and has a few tricks up its sleeve.

  • It shows that the EV trailblazer still has what it takes to compete with the best EVs out there.

Long before Tesla became a household name, Nissan was the electric-vehicle pioneer making headlines.

It released the Leaf, a vaguely egg-shaped hatchback with 73 miles of range, way back in 2010, when Tesla was still a tiny startup making electric sports cars with borrowed chassis. The products that propelled Tesla to worldwide success were all years away.

Twitter was in its infancy. Elon Musk was a mere hundred millionaire. It was a simpler time.

The blue 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+ SUV is seen from the rear, with trees in the background.
The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

Despite the Leaf's success and some improvements over the years, more than a decade without a new electric model has left the one-time trailblazer lagging behind in the EV race. The 2023 Ariya SUV is Nissan's next act.

Delivering loads more comfort, style, and capability than the aging Leaf, the Ariya proves that even after a hiatus Nissan is ready to go toe-to-toe with today's top EVs.

The basics

The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

The Ariya landed in the US earlier this year with a starting retail price of $43,190. There are several trims to choose from, two battery sizes, and a hard-to-pronounce all-wheel-drive option called "e-4ORCE."

Nissan lent me a front-wheel-drive Ariya Empower+, which came out to $59,495, including a destination fee and some fancy extras like carpeted floor mats, a $350 two-tone paint job, and eye-catching wheels for $1,900.

Its biggest rivals are other compact electric SUVs like the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Tesla Model Y, Hyundai Ioniq 5, and Volkswagen ID.4, all of which have been around for years.

What stands out: A comfy interior, good range, and straightforward controls

The interior of the 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+ electric SUV, as seen from the back seat looking toward the windshield.
The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

There's a lot to like about the Ariya, even if it isn't the flashiest or most cutting-edge EV out there.

It's spacious, good-looking, has decent driving range, and is easy to get the hang of — in contrast to some more techy competitors. (Looking at you and your touchscreen-operated windshield wipers, Tesla.)

Without a gas engine taking up valuable real estate, EVs can offer lots more packaging flexibility than gas vehicles, which Nissan took full advantage of here. As a result, the Ariya affords a surprising amount of room to stretch out in front and in back.

White leather seats in the 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+ electric SUV.
The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

There's no bulky tunnel running down the middle of the vehicle. Rather, there's a wide-open space by the driver's right knee, which lends a sense of openness you don't get in every EV. Plus my test car's wood trim, stylish leather seats, panoramic sunroof, and champagne-colored accents gave it an upscale feel and helped justify the $60,000 price tag.

My tester had the optional adjustable center console, which electronically scoots forward and backward using buttons facing the driver. It's a bit gimmicky, but it can help maximize space up front and put the gear shifter in just the right spot.

The gear selector of the 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+, with faux-wood trim surrounding.
The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

The quirks don't stop there. The open/close buttons on the center console offer access to a secret compartment that electronically unfurls from underneath the dashboard.

The main touchscreen is crisp and responsive to taps, but nothing special. The digital gauge cluster facing the driver is straightforward, easily customizable, and doesn't bombard you with too much information, which I appreciated. And the Ariya manages to provide a clean, minimalist aesthetic without getting rid of every single button.

The digital gauge cluster of the 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+ SUV.
The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

Below the touchscreen and on the center console you'll find capacitive switches (the kind you tap rather than click) embedded elegantly into the wood trim. The persistent problem with these types of buttons is they're often too small and subtle to find at a glance while driving.

Nissan solves this issue by supersizing them. It's kind of like an EV for kindergartners, or the elderly.

What it's like to drive

The Ariya drives a lot like other mainstream EVs in that it's smooth and nearly silent. It's got a little kick for tight highway merges, but its 238 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque don't leave much to write home about. The all-wheel-drive version, which adds a second motor, should have a bit more pep in its step.

Range is a high point. The model I sampled is EPA-rated for a robust 289 miles, and the Venture+ version returns 304 miles for just over $47,000. It's a no-brainer to get that one rather than the base model, which promises a mere 216 miles.

The white and grey center console of the 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+ SUV.
The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

Long road trips will be easy as cake thanks to Nissan's wonderful ProPilot 2.0 system, which uses an array of sensors to accelerate, steer, brake, and even change lanes for you on the highway.  Moreover, it allows for hands-free driving on stretches of road that Nissan has mapped out and changes lanes for you. I found it relieved some of the monotony of bumper-to-bumper New York traffic.

Just like in Ford and GM's similarly-equipped vehicles, a driver-monitoring camera mounted to the steering column watches to make sure you don't start scrolling Instagram while ProPilot 2.0 is active.

The infotainment screen of the 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+ SUV.
The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

Hands-free driving isn't available across the board, but Nissan doesn't skimp on standard safety features. The base Ariya comes equipped with lane-keeping, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.

What falls short: Some of the things people love about EVs

I'll keep this section short, because I really enjoyed the Ariya overall. But buyers might miss some of the things people love about electric cars, like a sprawling, feature-packed touchscreen, super-quick acceleration, and a front trunk. The Ariya doesn't offer one-pedal driving, a popular feature that lets drivers come to a stop by simply lifting their foot off of the accelerator.

A close up of a rear white-leather seat in the 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+ electric SUV.
The 2023 Nissan Ariya Empower+Tim Levin/Insider

Nissan says the Ariya can charge from 20%-80% in 40 minutes using a sufficiently powerful fast charger. That's not too shabby. But the best offerings from Hyundai and Kia can do 10%-80% in just 18 minutes.

Don't call it a comeback

The Ariya is a little late to the party. But its stylish looks, no-fuss operation, and solid range make it an appealing and approachable choice in the growing EV market.

Do you love your EV? Never giving up gas? We want to hear your opinions on electric cars. Contact this reporter at tlevin@insider.com

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