Dandenong Ranges, Victoria
What we liked
>> Interior space
>> Ride quality
Not so much
>> No cruise control
>> No split-fold rear seats
>> No USB port
>> Small size, big ambition
The new Nissan Almera may share the same global V-platform as the Micra, but there's nothing micro about the new sedan.
America's top-selling compact sedan, the Almera has arrived in Australia priced from below $17,000 and Nissan is confident the car will appeal to all demographics, from first-car buyers, to retirees and even families.
With class-leading rear-seat leg room and one of the largest boots in its class the Almera's main talking points, it delivers a compelling dollar-to-space ratio, so much so that Nissan reckons the car will even attract buyers from the next segment up. It's not a dubious boast either -- the car is remarkably spacious.
The Almera plugs a gap in Nissan's product line-up where previously it had no compact sedan, and though Nissan's new CEO Bill Peffer says the Almera is not a core model for the brand, with an annual sales prediction of around 3000 cars, he also hinted that at such a competitive price point -- under $17,000 -- demand could exceed supply.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
>> Lots to like, but far from perfect
The Nissan Almera has a budget car price tag, from $16,990 for the entry-level ST manual ($18,990 for the auto) and topping out at $20,990 for the auto-only Ti model, but is packaged with a good amount of kit.
ST models come standard with hands-free Bluetooth phone connectivity, remote keyless entry, steering wheel audio and phone controls, a four-speaker CD stereo with AUX input, a multi-function trip computer and 15-inch steel wheels with hub caps.
Move up to the Ti model and the standard features list widens to include rear parking sensors, proximity key fob with keyless pushbutton engine start, climate control, adjustable rear seat headrests and a fold out centre armrest with cupholders in the rear seat.
The Almera Ti also gets a few exterior additions -- 15-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights and a rear spoiler. All models are offered in six colours: Brilliant Silver, Burning Red, Deep Sapphire, Ebony, Titanium and White Diamond.
However you do get what you pay for and at this budget-end of the market that means there are omissions. You won't find a USB port to charge your phone, there's no cruise control, no reach adjust on the steering wheel or folding rear seats on any Australian-delivered Almera models.
While it may miss out on a few key features, the value equation should be enough to overcome these shortfalls, particularly when it's backed up with Nissan's six-year/120,000km capped-price servicing and backed by a three year/100,000km warranty which includes 24-hour roadside assistance for three years.
>> Go for the auto gearbox
Propelled by the same 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that powers the Nissan Micra, the new Almera motivates relatively well when paired to the four-speed automatic transmission. It's not going to fry the tyres under full throttle but it moves away from standstill briskly with two adults on board due to its light weight (between 1008kg and 1036kg) rather than its power and torque of 75kW at 6000rpm and 139Nm at 4000rpm.
The four-speed automatic gearbox is a better unit than the five-speed manual, and one of the better four-speed autos in this class to boot. Gear changes are not what you'd call lightning quick but the gearbox is decisive and rarely leaves the engine to labour in a low gear. While the auto's tiny brain is switched on, to the say the manual gearbox works at all is about as close to any praise as you'd get.
The clutch is appreciably light but shifting gears is a grind, so to speak. It feels as though there's not synchromesh on any of the cogs, so you have to really shove the gear stick hard to slot it into gear. It's not a nice sensation. Luckily for Nissan 75 per cent of sales in this segment are for automatics.
The combined ADR 81/02 fuel economy is rated at 6.7L/100km for the automatic models and 6.3L/100km for the manual, which is about average for the light-sedan segment.
Electric power steering makes turning the Thai-built Almera effortless and suspension comprises independent MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear with coil springs. The latter provides good ride quality but only so-so handling, but the same could be said for many of its competitors. Deceleration is taken care of by disc brakes fore, drum brakes aft, and they do a decent rather than magnificent job.
>> Size matters
The Almera has been a massive success in the USA thanks in part to TV commercials that compared rear seat leg room to the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
Although it shares its underpinnings with the Micra, the Almera rides on a stretched 2535mm wheelbase, 100mm longer than Micra's, and it's this extra length that delivers remarkably good rear-seat leg room. Head room is a little tight in the back due to the sloping roof and the rear seats are fairly low to the ground, but the sense of space inside the car is impressive.
Bumper to bumper, the Almera measures roughly 700mm longer than the Micra, 4495mm and 3780mm respectively and there's plenty of room for front and rear-seat occupants. Like most light cars it's narrow, measuring 1695mm wide, and shoulder room becomes non-existent with more than two adult rear-seat passengers.
The seats provide adequate support and comfort, are finished in a budget cloth yet the initial impression when stepping into the cabin is positive. It feels well built and on some very winding roads there were no squeaks or rattles.
Instrumentation is concise with a pair of analogue dials providing road and engine-speed details, while a basic trip computer details fuel usage and distance to empty. Four beverage holders, two bottle holders and electric windows and mirrors are also included.
Almera's boot is almost as large as Holden's Commodore, boasting 490 litres of space, and not too far off the Honda City's class-leading 506 litre trunk. The only problem is the boot can't be expanded into the rear passenger compartment as the seat backs have no folding provision.
>> Compact protection
Nissan has no plans to supply Australian NCAP with a vehicle to gain an early ANCAP rating, so we'll have to wait until ANCAP gets around to testing the car of its own volition, which could take years. Nevertheless the Nissan Almera comes with the expected array of safety features, including a total six airbags -- counting full-length curtain airbags -- antilock brakes and electronic stability control.
Three child-seat anchorage points are included on the rear parcel shelf and an engine immobiliser is also standard.
>> Hyundai and Holden top the table
While the light-car segment is one of the most populous in Australia, the light-sedan sub-segment is not as crowded, and the Nissan Almera will do battle with sedans like the Ford Fiesta, Honda City, Holden Barina, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio.
As one of the most affordable sedans in Australia, and also in its class, the Nissan Almera is well positioned to challenge the status quo, and take the fight to big sellers like the Barina and Accent.
ON THE ROAD
>> Simple transportation
If you want an easy car to drive, the Almera won't disappoint. Avoid the manual model because it's a dog of a box, but the automatic models do a good job of motivating the car's one-tonne mass. The car's electric power steering makes the steering very light, which ensures it's easy to manoeuvre in tight situations, but it is devoid of any meaningful feel or feedback so don't expect Mazda2 levels of driving satisfaction.
On damp, twisting, undulating roads, the Almera evidenced good grip levels and the ABS performed well on a particularly slippery section of road, but it certainly didn't ignite the senses as a driver's car. However as a daily commuter or simply a mode of transport, the Almera does an honest job -- it's relatively frugal, offers good all-round vision from the captain's seat and has unexpected surfeit of interior space.
Nissan has put together a tidy little package that has the potential to be a surprise seller for Nissan, particularly with its low asking price, substantial warranty and capped-price servicing.
While cruise control's no show is disappointing (and is available on some competitors such as the Mazda2 sedan), and the lack USB port and a reach adjustable steering column are lamentable, at this price point it doesn't dent the car's appeal too much. Ultimately you get what you pay for but motorists on a budget should certainly investigate the car's pros and cons.
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