New Almera GTi: Sexy Driving in Stodgy Body

As soon as you catch sight of Nissan's racy new Almera GTi, you know performance hatchbacks are still alive and kicking.

Settle into the latest Nissan's seat, turn the key and you're rewarded with a rasping growl from the sporty chromed exhaust. As you pull away, among the first things you notice are the remarkable sensitivity of the brakes, throttle and steering.

Sports-car suspension means there's virtually no body roll, so the flashy alloy wheels stay flat to the road and grip with amazing tenacity. In fact we were surprised by how hard the Almera hangs on to the road under even the fiercest provocation. And when you eventually find the limit of its grip, it's the front tires that give up the ghost first, although you can quickly get matters straight again by just lifting off the gas.

Through bends the Almera has real poise and balance. After each corner you can almost hear the car screaming with pleasure at what it's done, excitedly anticipating the next bend and coaxing you to get there as quickly as possible. The more you punish the Nissan, the more it seems to love the abuse. And the more you're tempted to become abusive! Don't worry about a thing, though, because the brakes are more than a match for the performance, so you can use the engine's full power with complete confidence.

With all this pure ability, you could rightly expect the comfort to have been sacrificed. Surprisingly, this is not the case, as the supple suspension protects the car's occupants.

Even the gearshift on this car feels slicker than that of lesser Almeras, which are infamously staid. With peak torque being produced at just under 5,000 rpm, and maximum power looming 1,500 rpm later, you need to use it often to keep the revs up. Do that and the Almera piles on speed at an exciting pace.

To its credit, the two-liter engine is not rev-hungry. It is as happy to putter through town as it is to roar down a country lane. There's plenty of guts at low revs and it will pull happily from below 2,000 rpm if you just can't be bothered to change down a gear.

Overall it's a thoroughly modern performance hatchback, with all the pace and poise of its predecessors plus the safety and security you would expect of a new product. Driver's air bag, anti-lock brakes, side impact protection, alarm and immobilizer all come as standard fittings, and for a price that puts almost all the rivals to shame.

But the car is about more than thrills and spills; you also get a practical, well-built cabin, an excellent driving position, and space for tall people in the front and another couple in the back.

But at the end of the day, this is still a Nissan Almera, which means you have got to live with those slightly awkward looks, and you have to be prepared to ignore the manufacturer's rather pedestrian image. Inside, it is very difficult to see this car as anything other than a collection of sporty add-ons and a rather dull cabin. For apart from the racy steering wheel, there is nothing to remind the driver that he or she is in a performance hatchback, which is meant to be zippier than family-style hatchbacks. The fact is, when you are inside this car, you could be in any Almera, and that's a disappointment.

Still, the Almera GTi provides as much pace and basic driving pleasure as any of its rivals in the performance hatchback sector, and it also carries a very attractive price label. It's certainly our favorite Almera model, and we'd be delighted if Nissan were to apply its gearshift quality, steering and brake characteristics to the rest of the range.

But the car's ultimate lack of character clouds its appeal. Lacking the passion of Alfa Romeo's 145 Cloverleaf, or the finesse of the Peugeot 306 S16, the Almera GTi manages only to sit toward, rather than actually at the top of, its class.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.