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

comfort.

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.