Dancing on ice with the Nissan Ariya

Can electric cars cope with cold weather? I headed to frozen Finland to find out

Finland is known as the Land of 1,000 Lakes although, glancing out of the window of our Nissan Ariya, it’s not immediately apparent why.

All around in either direction everything is white – from the treetops and road to the fields on either side. There’s not a lake to be seen. Then a glance at the sat nav reveals that those fields are bodies of water, hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow and ice.

It’s an interesting choice of location for an EV driving event. But Nissan seems confident that it’s a good place to let us loose in the Ariya – its much-awaited follow-up to the groundbreaking Leaf.

The Ariya is a very different prospect to the Leaf. It’s a large, premium-tinged SUV with striking styling and some clever technology on board. We’re here partly to see how this family EV copes with the sub-zero temperatures and partly to learn how Nissan’s e-4orce four-wheel-drive system is taking full advantage of an all-electric powertrain.

Our first challenge is to get from Helsinki airport to our base on the shores of Lake Kuorevesi, some 150 miles away. Most of that is straightforward motorway slog which doesn’t do much to showcase the drivetrain but does highlight the Ariya’s ability to cover long distances with remarkable refinement.

Sitting in the quirky cabin with its blue suede dashboard and paper lantern-inspired lighting, you’re aware that this is the most high-quality car Nissan has built. It offers unique style, impressive space, comfort and composure even on some pretty poor surfaces. What’s more, over three hours of driving at 70mph with the outside temperature below freezing, there’s never even a twinge of doubt over the 87kWh battery’s range.

Turning off the motorway for our last few miles, we get our first taste of what the next two days have in store. We strike out onto roads buried beneath a thick layer of snow, cutting between handsome wooden homes painted in vivid reds and yellows. There’s an eerie, heavy silence to our surroundings that’s barely disturbed by the buzz of the Ariya’s motors.

After a hearty meal and a restful night’s sleep, we’re up in the early morning half light. Ahead of us is a day of testing the car in extreme conditions that range from strawberry fields buried beneath a metre of snow to ice-covered waterways.

Rally round

Finland is famous for producing some of the world’s best rally drivers and it’s easy to see why. Led by rally racer Max Vatanen (son of the legendary Ari) we trek out in our Ariyas along the Finnish equivalent of a British B-road. Taking a short detour over one of those 1,000 frozen lakes we head onto narrow, undulating stretches used regularly as rally stages.

We zip along country lanes that twist and duck between huge stands of pine trees, on the sort of snow and ice-coated surfaces that would bring the UK grinding to a halt. There’s no tarmac in sight and the edge of the road is marked simply by branches jammed into snow banks. To us Brits it is bizarre and intimidating. To the Finns, it’s just a regular day. That’s reflected in the fact that Max has us buzzing along at the national speed limit of 80kph despite everything around us being a uniform white.

Nissan Ariya Ice Drive Finland
Finland’s rural roads are a very different test than an average British B-road

The fact we stay neatly between the snow banks rather than buried axle-deep in them is undoubtedly thanks in part to the cars’ studded winter tyres. A single millimetre of metal might not sound like much but it’s enough to bite into surfaces that would have regular rubber slipping and spinning uselessly.

But the Ariya’s e-4orce four-wheel-drive system has its part to play in giving us the confidence to drive like the locals. Like so many well calibrated systems, it gets on with its work unobtrusively. Under the surface the system is responding 10,000 times a second, adjusting the twin motors’ torque distribution and wheel braking to keep the car pointing in the right direction. From the driver’s seat you simply feel the car going where you want it to, when you want it to, even on these slippery, bumpy roads.

The impact of the e-4orce’s drive modes are laid bare on the frozen surface of Lake Kuorevesi. Here, Nissan has kindly carved out a twisting track through snow banks on the 60cm-thick ice. There are even mocked-up roundabouts where we’re challenged to get the car to misbehave.

Nissan Ariya Ice Drive, Finland
Getting to grips with the Ariya on a frozen lake

Under the patient supervision of Lora – another successful Finnish rally driver – I work from snow mode, through normal and sport before deactivating the stability control entirely. And it provides a clear demonstration of how well these systems keep you in line, even if you’re not aware.

In the most intrusive snow mode, stupid applications of throttle and steering lead to an occasional lurch towards understeer before the system pulls everything back into line. Tapping through the modes leads to later intervention and a bit more sliding around, right up to turning everything off. At which point we slide, literally, between playful drifts and shambolic 180-degree spins.

Trying to find the limits of car and driver is great fun in the safe environment of a private track. But stuffing the Ariya into a snow bank proves what a potentially life-saving difference a well-managed four-wheel-drive system can make out in the real world.

With the systems very much turned back on, we head back off the ice and onto the snow-covered roads once more. Making calmer progress, it’s easier to appreciate the work that’s gone into the Ariya. It isn’t as pioneering as the Leaf was but it gives Nissan a serious contender against the likes of the VW ID.4, Kia EV6, Ford Mustang Mach-e and Toyota bZ4X. And although the sub-zero temperatures do have a detrimental effect on the claimed 300-mile range, it’s never a worry even on our long unbroken run back to Helsinki.

Nissan Ariya Ice Drive, Finland
The event saw the Ariya take on a tricky ice-covered handling track

As well as its high-quality and utterly unique interior, the Ariya offers an impressive range of powertrain options and abilities. Our Evolve-spec car offers startling acceleration for such a large car – 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds – while returning up to 309 miles of range. Even in cold weather, the on-board heat pump and battery preconditioning help get the most out of the battery, while 130kW charging offers a fairly rapid top-up.

Lower-grade cars make do with a smaller battery and single motor, while there’s the Evolve+ spec that turns up the twin motors to 389bhp (from 302bhp). Whether that’s necessary is questionable, but based on my experience, the added control and confidence of the e-4orce models is well worth having, even if you never find yourself on a frozen lake.

For a full verdict of the Ariya in less extreme conditions, read our complete UK review here.

Nissan Ariya Ice Drive, Finland
Sub-zero temperatures weren’t a concern
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Matt Allan

Matt is Editor of EV Powered. He has worked in journalism for more than 20 years and been an automotive journalist for the last decade, covering every aspect of the industry, from new model reveals and reviews to consumer and driving advice. The former motoring editor of inews.co.uk, The Scotsman and National World, Matt has watched the EV landscape transform beyond recognition over the last 10 years and developed a passion for electric vehicles and what they mean for the future of transport - from the smallest city cars to the biggest battery-powered trucks. When he’s not driving or writing about electric cars, he’s figuring out how to convert his classic VW camper to electric power.