A Colorless Primera From Nissan

Nissan has serious ambitions for its new British-built Primera. The old car was only the ninth bestseller in its class in Britain, held back by -- among other things -- the lack of a competitive diesel version.

Nissan's initial objective for the new Primera -- which surely implies greater long-term ambitions -- is to boost it to sixth best, overtaking the Citroen Xantia, Rover's 600 and the Toyota Carina along the way.

A new 65kW (89bhp) turbocharged version of its long-established 2-liter diesel is one weapon in Nissan's armory; others include offering a full model lineup with a choice of a four-door saloon or a five-door hatchback and -- to come this spring -- an estate.

The Primera has plenty going for it. Nissan claims class-leading handling and more improved space and comfort compared to the old model. Even the entry-level Equation model comes with anti-lock brakes, power steering, central locking and a driver's airbag.

With a fuel tank capacity of 60 liters, the Primera is good for a theoretical range of just over 800 kilometers. But to achieve that you'll have to grit your teeth and ignore the low-fuel light for the thick end of 160 kilometers.

Nissan's 2-liter diesel was never especially quiet, and the addition of a turbocharger hasn't improved things. Tickover is quite thuddy, and once under way you're always much more aware of engine noise than in, say, a Peugeot 406. In quantity, the difference probably isn't all that great, but in quality it is. The Nissan engine has a sort of coarse, harsh purr that is subdued -- but by no means eliminated -- by the under-the-hood sound deadening. A more charitable way of putting it is that it sounds quite sporting, especially when accelerating hard through the gears.

There is a surprising amount of road noise on all but billiard-table surfaces, too, so that although wind roar is commendably subdued, overall noise levels are not especially restful.

A rather high clutch pedal forces an uncomfortable knees-splayed position for the long-legged -- more seat travel would solve the problem -- but for most other people, the driving position is good. There's plenty of room around the pedals, with a footrest to the left of the clutch, while the front and rear of the seat cushion are independently height-adjustable. The steering wheel is also adjustable for height, though not reach. The seat itself feels firm and a bit knobbly in places, but it remained comfortable on long trips.

The dashboard is well designed, with clear, simple instruments -- just the usual speed, revs, fuel and water -- good Euro-pattern column stalks and a sensibly placed radio with straightforward, uncluttered controls. The gear change is as light and precise as we have come to expect from Japanese designs, and it is matched by a smooth, medium-weight clutch. The steering is light, too, and looks high-geared with only 2.7 turns from lock to lock. But that's partly because the turning circle is rather poor at 11.5 meters.

While the steering is pleasant enough in normal use, it doesn't feel especially quick or informative. Perhaps that's why we found the handling a little disappointing after Nissan's class-leading claims. The car grips very well, doesn't roll too much and holds no nasty surprises -- it simply understeers if you try too hard and understeers less if you back off. It's safe, straightforward and quite quick, but oddly uninvolving. The brakes, though, are really excellent -- firm, but responsive, and with impeccable behavior when the ABS cuts in.

Nissan's emphasis on handling has left the new Primera with a firmish ride. It's by no means uncomfortable, and the suspension copes well with really big bumps. But with the seats also being on the hard side, you're more aware of poor road surfaces and minor irregularities than in cars with more resilient suspensions and seats like the Renault Laguna or Peugeot 406.


It's a big improvement on its predecessor, but that's not enough. In this class, the new Primera faces ferociously tough opposition from some of the very best turbodiesels around. While the new engine provides competitive performance, it can match neither the refinement of its indirect injection rivals nor the economy of the newer breed of direct injection engines.

In the end, and whatever the European input into its design, the Primera feels the same as it looks -- another well-built, competent, safe, no doubt reliable but ultimately bland Japanese car. And if that's what you want, the Carina TD frankly does it better. It's quicker, roomier, quieter and more economical. If, on the other hand, you're looking for the best in diesel motoring, it's back to the Peugeot 406.