By Seth Fargher
We’ve been keeping an eye on Nikola Motor Company since mid 2016 when the electric vehicle manufacturer first teased the market with a few renderings and horsepower numbers surpassing the 500 mark. In the nearly three years since, the company has been somewhat elusive, taking strides forward while also backpedaling to regroup and redefine the essence of what it is they are actually building.
All the hype coupled with a few appearances at the Sand Sports Super Show has kept the industry guessing so when an invitation to attend the company’s big unveiling dubbed “Nikola World” came our way, it was an easy yes. For context, Nikola Motor Company is an electric vehicle manufacturer that hit the scene early in 2016. They have a whole host of offerings including a watercraft (still in the prototype phase) two off-road vehicle platforms and it’s bread and butter, an electric semi truck.
Nikola World served as sort of a world premier for the entire lineup and included appearances by not only the company CEO Trevor Milton but the entire executive team as well as the Governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, who played a crucial role in the company’s decision to build it’s billion dollar manufacturing plant in Phoenix. The event consisted of a lavished party leading up to the unveiling on Tuesday night, followed by a product demonstration and several breakout sessions Wednesday morning.
After watching this story unfold over the last three years, we came to town with three main questions: what is it, when can we expect to see it and how much will it cost?
For starters, the company offers two off-road vehicle platforms, the NZT and the RECKLESS. The RECKLESS is a militarized version of the NZT complete with an autonomous weapons system and the ability to be operated remotely. It is virtually undetectable by enemy surveillance because of its quiet electric motors and low thermal signature due to an advanced refrigerant cooling system. Obviously stealth and safety are the primary objectives of this platform and we have no doubt the US military will be chomping at the bit to put it to use.
While machine guns and remote controls are cool, we were really curious to learn about the vehicle itself and how it stands to match up against the current crop of high performance UTVs. Straight out of the gate, Nikola reps put the brakes on the idea that the Nikola NZT is meant to compete in the same class as other side by side vehicles. This was interesting to us considering in the past, they’ve gone to great lengths to illustrate their machine’s capabilities over the leading UTV models from other manufacturers. Nikola’s new position suggests that the NZT is in a class all of its own with trophy truck like performance, safety features that mimic those found in many automobiles and technology that’s on par with the leading electric vehicles. That doesn’t leave much left to compare to a UTV and we’d have to agree.
The vehicle itself is much more automotive inspired than previous iterations that we’ve seen, from the cab to the capacities and its luxurious amenities. As you’d expect from an electric vehicle, it’s very clean and there aren’t many moving parts. The suspension is a dual a-arm design on both the front and rear, featuring boxed steal constructed a-arms although we were informed the production model might include forged aluminum a-arms. FOX 3.0 Internal Bypass shocks are used all the way around providing 18 inches of suspension travel.
At the heart of the machine is it’s power train, consisting of four independent 400V AC electric motors with independent drive axles, capable of putting out 590 horsepower and 775 ft lbs of torque. Direct drive transmissions mean there are no belts to worry about and acceleration is instantaneous. Nikola claims it can reach 60 MPH from a stand still in four seconds flat. The absence of belts and a clutching system certainly reduces the number of wear items which in theory means less maintenance and helps cut down on costs over time. Nikola claims a million miles of operating life on its drive train which is a scaled down version of the same drive train found on it’s semi truck.
Like you’d expect from any electric vehicle, the NZT is heavy…5250 pounds heavy. That’s more than a JEEP Wrangler or a Toyota Tacoma. Add in four passengers and a little equipment to max out its 1260 pound carrying capacity and you’re looking at more that 6500 pounds. Thats a lot of weight to be pushing around Glamis or controlling at speed through uneven terrain in the desert.
Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome, at least to receive acceptance from the UTV crowd, is keeping the125 kWh Lithium Ion battery pack charged. The vehicle comes with a 150 mile range and depending on your power source, can take as little as 2 hours or as long as a day and a half to recharge. A DC Fast Charger is considered a Level 1 charging solution and can recharge the battery up to 80% in just 2 hours. A 220V generator is considered Level 2 and will take 15 hours to recharge and your standard 110V generator (Level 3) will have you parked for a day and a half.
That poses a problem for consumers who like to be off the grid with no access to power hookups. Surely not everyone is going to attempt to log 150 miles a day but it certainly requires one to be more strategic in their ride planning to make sure they have ample time to recharge between rides.
Regenerative braking helps to recharge the battery during use through it’s big 13 inch rotors and the company is considering installing charging networks at high trafficked riding destinations to aid consumers in getting a faster charge. Undoubtedly that is a ways down the road and what locations get the charging stations will likely depend on what regions have he highest concentration of sales.
VP of Powersports Jordan Darling admitted the company expects some level of consumer adaptation to this new technology. “As with anything new, people are going to change the way they recreate in order to use this technology.” At a minimum, if people are used to going off the grid with just a standard 110V generator, there’s always the option of purchasing a larger 220V generator as a first step.
If you can overcome the charging complexities the $80,000 price tag is the other potential handicap that will make the NZT hard for a lot of consumers to swallow. Rather than test the market with a lower cost entry level machine, one that is more likely to compete with current UTV models, Nikola is bringing it’s top of the line, NZT to market first.
The unit features a host of automotive inspired niceties including front and rear cameras, full integrated Rockford Fosgate sound system, 35” Kevlar infused DOT tires, turn signals and a 13” 4k infotainment display that controls virtually everything in the vehicle. From here the operator can control each of the electric motors in the event one encounters a problem of some kind.
If you’re concerned about how well all this electricity plays with mother nature, don’t be alarmed. The NZT has achieved an IP67 rating which means it’s completely submersible in up to nine feet of water for 30 minutes. (Not that we would recommend it).
$80,000 buys you the open variant model of the NZT and a second, fully enclosed version will be available as well. Pricing on this model is not yet available but the fully enclosed version comes with a removable hard top enclosure, power windows and full climate control system including heat and AC.
During our visit, we were able to ride shotgun on a small test course erected in the parking lot outside the West World Complex in Phoenix. There’s not much you can tell from the passengers seat on a ride that lasts less than 60 seconds but our first impression was…interesting.
Without engine noise you can hear every little clank and rub from the rattling of the doors to the squeaking of the shocks. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch, its just a different experience. There was one small straightaway on the course and you could certainly feel the instantaneous acceleration but unfortunately the ride was over almost as quickly as it began. The two NZT’s being used for demo rides were 64 inches wide and the production model will stand at 72 inches. That’s comforting as the demo model felt a tad top heavy.
The whole experience was rather futuristic in nature and admittedly they are still ironing out some kinks as they pioneer this new technology in the off-road landscape. UTV or not, Nikola is gambling hard on electric technology being the way of the future and is going all in with the NZT. Production is slated to begin in 2021 and consumers can reserve models on the company’s website right now at NikolaMotor.com/nzt
In the meantime, we’ll keep our eyes peeled as the vehicle continues to evolve and cross our fingers for a more in-depth opportunity to get behind the wheel.