The local company has had to sit on the fence as Nissan Japan ran
into financial difficulties that were only resolved following an alliance with
Renault. The ageing Sentra has been in dire need of replacement for some time,
and it is only now that the local company is in a position to do just that with
the introduction of what is to us a new model name - Almera.
The new model is the first major movement in a programme that Nissan SA (now
a wholly-owned subsidiary of the parent company) is implementing to change and
enhance its complete line-up over the next 18 months. Almera is the pioneer
of the renaissance, but it does not arrive as a widespread range of models aimed
at a vast circle of buyers. Quite the opposite, in fact. For now just one model
is on offer, a 1,8-litre five-door, which is targeted at creating public awareness
of Nissan's revival and the Almera nameplate itself in a competitive
sector of the marketplace before the range is expanded around mid year. (Sentra
continues until then.) Is the Almera a portent of (much) better things to come?
At least the looks are not run-of-the-mill. Exterior styling follows the modern
trend of being a little more than a conventional hatchback without being a mini
station wagon. This in-between rear-end treatment is emphasised on the Almera
by a kicked-up roofline that the designers call a "surf tail".
Study the lines in profile - specifically the C-pillar area - and the
blending of the rear into the curvature of the upper door shut line and tapering
glasshouse is actually a little awkward. However, the kick-up does follow the
rising waistline and, personal opinions aside, it does give the car some styling
distinction as well as providing a little more cargo space than a continuation
of the roof curvature would have allowed. A wide black rubbing strip along the
flanks, gently flared wheel-arches with just a modest gap around the 195/60
tyres, alloy wheels, chrome pulls in the otherwise black doorhandles, a blacked-out
B-pillar, and an indicator repeater in the fender complete the bodyside styling.
The wheelbase looks, and is, long relative to the car's length -
front and rear overhangs are minimal - which benefits cabin room and ride
The tailgate glass is shallow and the door aperture is not particularly large,
but the almost teardrop-shaped tail-light clusters do not impose too much on
the opening. The body-colour bumper features a stylised lower lip and carries
black protective inserts in the corners to match those along the sides.
Up front, the corporate grille's "nostrils" flare into
the leading edge of the bonnet and into the headlamps. Practical protective
inserts are set into the corners of the bumper. Foglights are mounted into the
apron, which incorporates a large air intake. The overall appearance manages
to resemble both the Primera and Maxima without being a crib of either, and
is the most sporty looking of the three. Brightwork is limited to a large Nissan
bonnet badge and a thin accent strip in each of the nasal grilles.
Almera comes across as a compact design with a presence that compares well
with such distinctive competitors as Ford Focus, Mazda Etude Sportswagon, Opel
Astra, Peugeot 306, Renault Mégane, and the benchmark VW Golf. Imported
fully built up from Nissan's Sunderland, UK plant, this Almera is just
a year on from its European début and therefore will be around for some
time: time to help re-establish the company as a major player in this country,
and win back some of the market share it once held so proudly. It is a tough,
but not impossible, challenge but, as we said earlier, the Almera is being introduced
into a very competitive arena...
Current owners of the Sentra (and the undistinguished Sabre hatch) will likely
be amazed at the interior of the "new future" Nissan. The old
car has suffered for practically all its life with dated cabin architecture
for which sufficient funds were never available to effect a makeover. But the
inside of the Almera is modern and brim-full with what the company terms "intelligent
storage solutions" that an MPV would be proud of.
For starters, there is not a trace of shiny black vinyl, once a hallmark of
Nissan interiors. The environment colour is called Dusk, which, in reality,
means a combination of greys. The facia is a curvy two-tone affair - dark
upper, light lower - with a centre vertical console in an harmonious graphite-coloured
plastic. Also two-tone, but less obvious, is the steering wheel rim, and the
floor console follows the upper console's vinyl/plastic combination.
Seats are upholstered in flat woven fabric with jacquard patterned inserts,
matched by the door panels. Chrome levers in the doorhandles mimic those on
the exterior. Black only appears on actual control panels. All this probably
sounds fussy. It is. Look closely and there are a remarkable number of textures
and tonal differences amongst the trim pieces, yet despite the apparent hotchpotch
we have yet to encounter anyone who has been put off by it all.
There are more than 20 storage areas in the Almera's cabin, some of
them quite innovative. Amongst the highlights are a padded soft-release spectacles
holder above the interior mirror, a facia-top bin (of which more shortly), a
lockable facia cubby, a drink holder capable of holding different-sized containers
that pops out over a base that itself is the lid to a small "secret compartment",
a lidded bin to the right of the steering column, a pull-out bag holder that
can support 10 kg, and a floor console armrest/cubby that can hold seven CDs
or eight cassette tapes plus a packet of tissues and a petrol card. Each front
seat has a plastic tray at the side and a map pocket behind. All four doors
have bins, the front ones large enough to hold a 500 ml bottle and a road atlas.
At the front of the rear seat cushion are separate adjustable straps to hold
a briefcase (or laptop), and an umbrella of practically any size. All this,
and we have not got to the luggage area yet!
But before we do, back to that facia top bin. During the build-up to the local
launch, we managed to get behind the wheel of a number of Almeras, and with
each one the press-to-open lid of the bin gave trouble. Sometimes it would open,
sometimes it would not, in which case a gentle slap on the facia released it.
The lid did not always close first time, either. In one car, the catch actually
broke. Over time it appeared to us that the problem was less prevalent when
the car had not been in the sun, which suggests not enough allowance has been
made in the expansion/contraction compatibility of the materials. It is an annoying
deterrent to using what is a useful - and very visible - storage compartment.
The cargo area is a little less innovative, but versatile and practical. Nets
in both sidewalls can contain small objects and keep items upright. It is claimed
that the nets can be joined together to restrain goods on the floor, but we
found they did not reach each other. Under the removable stiff cargo cover,
we managed to load 296 dm3 of our ISO-standard blocks over the 680 mm high bumper.
Folding the split rear seat backrest forward liberates 1 160 dm3 of utility
space. With the backrest down, the load floor is flat without the need to fold
the cushion forward, and the cargo area is relatively free of protuberances
to hinder the carrying of large objects. The tailgate rises to 1 780 mm and
has a helpful pull-down handle.
It is all good news for packages, then, but what about the people? Four average-sized
adults can be accommodated quite comfortably. The front seats do not have a
long range of fore/aft movement, but our long-legged tester managed - just
- to fit without complaint, leaving enough room for someone to sit behind
without the necessity to splay legs. The driver's seat has front and
rear cushion height adjusters.
A rake-adjustable four-spoke steering wheel, electrically operated exterior
mirrors, and a left-foot rest are for the driver's convenience. The sunvisors
are small and practically useless when in the side-window position. All passengers
benefit from the standard air-con, electric window operation, and a custom audio
system that features RDS radio, cassette tape player, in-dash 6-CD shuttle,
and speed-dependent volume control through the six speakers.
The car's looks and the pleasant growl from the 1,8-litre twin-cam 16-valve
engine (and not forgetting Nissan's recent successes in motor sport),
tend to give the impression that the Almera has some sporty pretensions. Well,
it does and it does not. The motor is tuned for drivability rather than performance,
a fact borne out by the relative lack of punch at high revs in the taller gears
as the maximum torque of 158 N.m is developed at a surprisingly low 2 800 r/min.
Peak power is 84 kW at 5 600 r/min, and there is little to be gained by sending
the tacho much beyond that point. The reality is that using the engine's
mid-range strength will ensure rapid progress without the need to challenge
the abrupt 6 600 r/min limiter.
Out on the test strip, we managed to just beat 11 seconds for the sprint to
100 km/h, register 159 km/h on the computer as we flashed past the kilometre
marker in 32,37 seconds, and went on to record a 188 km/h top speed. Not a ball
of fire, then, but the 1 229 kg (as tested) Almera is no sluggard, either. The
gearshift is typically light and long, but slots home without hesitation.
Fuel economy is good. Based on steady-speed figures, CAR's fuel index
(ie calculated overall consumption) is 9,1 litres/100 km, which means that more
than 650 km should be possible from a 60-litre tankful.
Where the sportiness does come in is with ride and handling. MacPherson struts/lower
wishbones up front, and a beam axle located by trailing arms and a Panhard rod
at back, is a tried and tested suspension formula. It has no surprises, but
the Almera's damper settings are quite firm, which results in a lively
ride and the occasional thump making itself felt through the body. Roadholding
is excellent, with gentle understeer setting in when cornering at the limit.
Mid-bend bumps can unsettle the rear a little but without it getting wayward.
Power-assisted steering remains light and precise, but a tad numb, throughout.
A comprehensive braking system is standard. Ventilated discs up front, solid
discs at the rear, ABS and EBD can be found on some of Almera's competitors,
but brake assist (BAS) is usually found only on more upmarket premium models.
One tester complained of a lack of progression and consistency in the pedal
action, but generally the system proved efficient and fade-free.
Another standard feature not commonly found in this class of vehicle is dual
front airbags. Two-stage remote central locking is linked with Nissan's
own NATS anti-theft/immobiliser system, which includes audio system protection.