Nissan Almera 1.6 GX
Spanish sounding it may be but the new Almera hatch from Nissan replaces one of the country's most popular Japanese cars - the Sunny - and one that has done much in the past to raise the public profile of Japanese cars to the point where they are widely acknowledged as ultra reliable, well built, well equipped and usually represent exceptional value for money.
All of these virtues are apparent in the new Almera which is much like it's predecessor but is a new start, not evolutionary, but from a clean sheet of paper and better in so many areas that it really is a new car in it's own right.
Launched just a few weeks ago with a huge advertising campaign, the Almera is already selling well both to it's intended target audience - a rather younger age profile than for the Sunny - and to that older car buyer who Nissan had thought might not be tempted by the slightly quirky new looks.
For, among hatches, the Almera is certainly a different looker with those feature rear windows beyond the C post giving it a striking appearance and also endowing it with excellent all round visibility. There is a friendliness and character to the car which will doubtless change the image that it's predecessor had of being a car bought mainly by older drivers and driving schools, the Almera still has the easy driveability of it's forebear but now adds superior performance, a cheeky style and a bit more fun to the equation, all features that I am sure will attract many younger drivers.
The large range includes 3 and 5 door bodies with 5 trim levels and a choice of 1.4 and 1.6 litre petrol engines and a 2 litre diesel at present although I suspect a turbo diesel and hotter petrol version - perhaps a 2 litre - may follow later. The range starts at £9,455 for the 1.4 Equation and tops out with the 1.6 SLX at £12, 655 but I chose to drive a mid-range car - the 1.6 GX - with the optional autobox, a mix that I think will be one of the volume sellers in the range.
Immediately the Almera strikes one as being greatly superior in every way to the Sunny, the longer wheelbase making for very good interior space and comfortable seating for five with good head and legroom. Visibilty is very good thanks to those large areas of glass and the large doors make for easy access. Well trimmed internally, the cabin is a smooth blend of multiple curves and features a clear and well laid out instrument pod. The front seats are very adjustable as is the steering wheel and the rear seats are split 60/40 and make a good size boot into a very commodious one. The equipment package at this GX trim level is very impressive power steering, electric front windows, electric mirrors and sunroof, a drivers airbag, central locking, an immobiliser and a good 4 speaker stereo are all standard.
As the adverts have said the Almera is light to drive, easily parked, with good performance from the lively and smooth 1.6 engine able to nip through traffic and this nippiness really becomes a treat out of town for the new car has an all new suspension set-up that revels in twisty country roads, it's easily placed, taut, responsive and feels composed and safe no matter how hard pushed.
The 1597cc, 16 valve, engine pushes the car along in a very sprightly manner, it's free revving yet still quiet and economical and mated to a choice of 5sped manual or 4 speed automatic gearboxes and I drove the autobox version - an £850 option - which provides both smooth fully auto shifts and responds well to being as a clutchless manual. The 100 bhp provides bags of punch for overtaking, the faster it goes the better it feels and yet it still returns remarkable fuel consumption figures.
Pitched at a whole new market the Almera looks like attaining the rare feat of keeping it's former buyer profile and gaining a whole new type of buyer neither group of which is likely to be disappointed by what is a fine new small car.
First published 1996 - Article ©Graham Benge 2007