Nissan Almera

The big news in the local motoring scene last week was the launch of the Nissan Almera and its RM66,800 starting price. When that was announced at the event last Tuesday, a series of gasps were audible even within that big hall, followed by applause – it caught many of us off guard.

Not only, then, is this an important car for Nissan; the competitive pricing alone is enough to make the Nissan Almera a serious contender in the B-segment, already the domain of rivals Toyota Vios and Honda City.

The said segment is a significant one – according to Edaran Tan Chong Motor, it accounts for more than 38% of the Malaysian car market, with between 18,000 and 19,000 cars sold per month. If Nissan is to achieve its sales target of 10,000 units for the first three months, there is little room for error – the Nissan Almera is a car it has to get right.

With more than half a million already sold globally, it makes a pretty strong case for itself from the start. Still, there’s nothing like actually driving it to get some real-world answers, and this was fulfilled for a group of members of the media in a recent test drive to Melaka, where not only did we stretch the Nissan Almera’s legs, we stretched ours too at the back. There’s enough room for that, you bet.

The media drive fleet was made up of Nissan Almera V- and VL-spec cars – the highest and likely to be the better-selling two out of the four variants on offer, which made the test drive all the more relevant. I drove the V to Melaka and the VL on the return trip, and although they’re obviously no different to drive, there is considerable variation particularly in interior trim and equipment.

As standard, both have front fog lamps, black door pillar garnish, variable intermittent wipers, twin airbags, seven-spoke alloys and remote boot release differentiating them from the lower E grade. The range-topping VL adds on keyless entry (called Intelligent Key) and push start, automatic air-con and Fine Vision Meter with multi information display in its instrument panel. V starts from RM76,800; VL from RM79,800.

You can be the judge in terms of looks. I find the Nissan Almera’s styling understated, to say the least. Then again, there are people who prefer their cars this way. Personally, I like the look of the Impul bodykit, along with rear spoiler – it lends a certain degree of subtle aggression to an otherwise sedately styled sedan.

Step inside and you are greeted by a simple cockpit that’s arguably more function than form. Material quality is par for a car in this price range, but switches, knobs and controls in general do have a relative solidness in their operation, although obviously quite some way from premium in outright physical feel. No complaints as far as driver ergonomics are concerned – controls are where they should be and fall intuitively to hand.

The day began with an eco drive segment – we were to drive from ETCM’s Southgate showroom to Port Dickson as ‘normally’ as possible, with air-con on and without coasting or turning the engine off, while keeping between 80 and 110 km/h on the highway. This was managed without fuss, save for the occasional wait at traffic lights and the erratic morning traffic that threatened to worsen our consumption figures.

I drove the Nissan Almera in a relaxed manner during this stint, venturing beyond half throttle only once or twice. I found the electrically-assisted power steering perhaps a little too light for me at low speeds, but this is arguably a matter of individual preference. In any case, it isn’t devoid of feel – feedback from road surface undulations is well communicated to the driver, while directness and accuracy is above average.

The Nissan Almera does feel quite solid to drive and well put together, despite its affordability. Instrumental to that is a pliant, well-damped ride and sufficiently muted engine sound levels at low revs. The cabin also refused to emit any rattles, creaks or squeaks even when going through nasty ridges or potholes.

At the end of the 90 km eco drive, we brimmed the cars’ tanks and worked out our results. My car used 4.87 litres of petrol, which translates to an average of 18.5 km per litre, beating the quoted 14.9 for the automatic transmission variant by quite a margin.

Out of the thirteen Nissan Almeras in the media drive convoy (all of them automatic), the best achieved fuel consumption on that run was a staggering 24.8 km per litre, and the worst was 14.5, which is quite remarkable considering each car had three people on board, plus bags and other equipment in the boot. The average for all thirteen cars was taken to be 16.6 km per litre.

Sitting in the back of the Nissan Almera, I can report that the much-touted 636 mm of legroom is a real boon especially when travelling long distances, and the seat base is angled just so to provide good thigh support. Nissan claims best-in-class cabin space; most of it must be down to that legroom because head and elbow room are skimped on somewhat.

Now I’m not overly tall, but my head hits the tapered roofline if I lean back in my seat. Also, if two regular-sized adults were seated on the rear bench, the person in the middle would find it a real squeeze unless he or she were relatively small in stature. I also noted the absence of door and seat back pockets for the rear passengers.

Soon it was time to hit the open road. Free of eco constraints this time, we engaged the cars in a spirited drive down some scenic and winding rural roads. With 102 PS and 139 Nm of torque from the 1.5 litre HR15DE four-pot, acceleration from a standstill is just short of brisk, and one learns to carry more speed into the corners to save having to bury the throttle getting out of them. The engine note turns a little harsh beyond 3,000 rpm, but it isn’t excessively loud.

Kickdown on the four-speed automatic is quick enough for most overtaking situations, and thanks to an engine that spins pretty freely, the Nissan Almera reaches its 4,000 rpm power band fast. Gear changes are leisurely at best, but for the most part smooth and imperceptible. Steering feel weights up nicely with speed, too, and grip and body control levels are acceptable.

The brakes, although a seemingly outdated front-disc, rear-drum affair, provide more than enough stopping power for a one-tonne car such as this. There is no sudden bite; instead pedal action is predictable and progressively linear, making gradual application and release easier.

At the further end of the speedometer, the Nissan Almera is moderately refined. Wind noise is present, but the car does not fidget excessively and not a lot of steering effort is required to keep it on track. You wouldn’t want to do such speeds for a sustained time, though.

Both the V- and VL-spec Nissan Almeras I drove were equipped with the multimedia navigation system, a RM2,800 option. The in-house developed unit (by TC Auto Tooling) brings together a rear view camera display, DVD, iPod, USB and Bluetooth.

Legibility during the day is fairly good, although most would need to select the brightest setting. The six-inch screen is responsive to the touch, and system response is adequately quick. There’s also a split-screen feature that shows navigation on one side and radio on the other.

Has Nissan got the Nissan Almera right? To properly answer that question we would have to line it up side-by-side against its main rivals, but from the drive alone it is clear that the newest B-segmenter to hit town is attractively packaged. Its strong points are its simplicity, frugality, that rear leg space as well as an extensive catalogue of add-ons.

The basic RM66,800 Nissan Almera may be, well, basic, but it’s still good to know there’s an offering in this segment for that money, and at any rate, you can always spec it up with only what you need – a familiar business model that often makes sense. In these times of economic uncertainty, the Nissan Almera may be just what Nissan needs in our market.