Monday, 9 May 2011

Review - Nissan Almera 1.5 E

Nissan Almera 1.5E

  
Nissan sports cars hold an enviable reputation for awesome performance, fantastic handling and a tuning ability that rivals any manufacturer. Their more conventional cars, such as the Almera, do not hold such a reputation. In fact much the opposite.

However, they do share the reputation for reliability and build quality on which Nissan also prides itself and this mentality is at the centre of cars like the Almera.

This, the second generation of Almera bares the code ‘N16’, following the ‘N15’ Mk I Almera. It also came with a whole new generation of engines, including a 2.2l and 1.5l Diesel, borrowed from Renault, and a 1.8l petrol and the 1.5l petrol featured here.

The car was based on Nissan’s MS-Platform, which was co-developed with Renault and also underpinned the Mondeo-sized Primera saloon and Almera Tino MPV.

The range of the Almera featured a large array of trim levels with Air Conditioning available in all trim levels except the ‘E’ base trim level, which we are featuring in this review. However, back in 2000, the base car; the 1.5 l ‘E’ model was available for just £9,269.

The engine in our car is the QG15DE engine was new and used Aluminium for the cylinder block as well as the cylinder head. Originally, the engine used a mechanically operated throttle, although this was updated to use an electronic, fly-by-wire throttle. Despite this older throttle control system, the engine is very modern in design. As well as an all-Aluminium construction, it also features variable valve timing, as well as direct injection, a system currently being implemented by many manufacturers in 2011, as it’s seen as a necessity to improve engine efficiencies.

The engine we have is a 1497cc, 16v DOHC, four cylinder engine originally developed 88bhp at 5,600 rpm and 94 lb/ft at 2,800 rpm, however the engine update, increased power to 98 bhp at an improved 4,400 rpm and 105 lb/ft of torque at 6,000 rpm. This is the engine in our test car here.

These figures allowed the 1265kg Almera to reach 62mph in 13.8 seconds and can reach a top speed of 107mph, putting the 10 year old Almera on par with the £10,000 1.2l small car that is standard fare in 2011. Despite these ordinary figures, the 1.5l engine pulls well, with the VVTi system giving the engine a decently flat torque curve, and making the engine feel far more muscular than it is. Both engines are good, but the more powerful revision definitely the better choice.

As we’ve mentioned before, a sign of a low tuned, but refined engine is a high torque to power ratio, and in the case of the Almera, with more torque than power, the engine is very refined, with a good throttle response, even on the old, mechanically throttle controlled engine.

Looks wise, the Mk II Almera is quite a decent looking car, even our Bottom-Feeder gets the same body kit as the top model. The flat hatchback and the three doors make the bonnet seem longer than it is, while the wrap around headlights make the front look pointed. The lower air dam looks like a proper sports car splitter, although serves no performance purpose, and the fog light positions are well designed into the bumper.

The rear bumper is less interesting, but the whole rear end is well designed, the light clusters fit well with the shape of boot lid and the trapezoid shape of the hatch window combining to give the car a wide, low appearance as well as good visibility. The only real let down is the steel wheels, with alloy wheels only available from the ‘Hurricane’ trim level, 4 above the base ‘E’ trim. This car is the epitome of our declaration that every five door car looks so much better as a three door.

On the handling front the Almera is inoffensive and competent, a typical characteristic for a car like this. It uses MacPherson struts at the rear and Multi-Link independent rear suspension, and with the 2003 facelift, Nissan revised the damper settings and spring rates to improve the handling at the limit while maintaining the refinement level at normal speeds.

As you might expect for a car with a Multi-Link, rather than Torsion Beam, rear suspension set-up, the Almera is surprisingly agile. Like the engine, what seems an ordinary and uninspiring set-up is actually rather good. We discovered this same thing with the Micra road test as well, and many of its characteristics are present in the Almera.

The power steering system does have a numbness that afflicts electrically assisted units, but is reasonably direct and the car does go where you point it, giving a feeling of agility, accuracy and confidence inspiring. While it is far from being a class leader, even when it was new, it at least offers enough competence to allow it to be competitive with new cars. The ride is good too, although high frequency bumps do unsettle the ride to a fair extent, but for the most part it remains smooth and competent.

There is a degree of engine noise that penetrates the cabin, but the engine note is smooth enough that it provides information rather than irritation. The same can be said of wind noise, which again penetrates the cabin to a level that is no worse than a minor annoyance at worst.

The interior is the area where the Almera let’s itself down. That said, the car was released 10 years ago, with even the face lifted models now up to seven years old, and it isn’t the build quality that’s a problem, it is the design of the interior that is shabby.

While the materials are the traditional, ugly, hard grey/black plastics, they aren’t flimsy or of a poor quality, something that is reassuring, even on our 51-Plate car that is now nine years old, implying that the interior will survive as long as the mechanicals of the car.

The dash is clear and concise, with the Speedo the largest dial in the centre, the rev counter to the left and the fuel & temperature gauges to the right with warning lights and trip computer below them. Sat-Nav equipped, high end models get a different, far better looking dash than the lower models.

The steering wheel is a fairly large but inoffensive item, comfortable to grip and hold but mostly only for ordinary driving. The centre console is the let down here, showing the age of its design, however it is a decently laid out arrangement, with the Nissan customary storage bin at the top of the centre console, replaced in top-end models with the LCD display for the Sat-Nav, with the unbranded radio-cassette unit and heating/ventilation controls just above a small cubby hole and 12V supply.

The front seats are fairly comfortable, with no outstanding areas of support. They’ll provide plenty enough support for the average journey but are not made for high performance driving. There is a good amount of adjustment on both the seats and the steering wheel and the controls for seat adjustment are easy to get hold of.

The pedals are reasonably well placed, mainly for comfort and the clutch is light and predictable making it good for traffic use. The gear stick has a fairly long throw on it and the occasional missed gear will result if you’re going for fast changes.

The rear is somewhere that might draw complaint as the seats are only one step up from a slightly contoured bench and can cause a fair amount of discomfort if used for long periods. Leg room can also be a problem if the people in the front & rear seats are six footers, but for the most part, the Almera is a decent sized car for passengers. The doors are enlarged over the five door variant and while getting in and out of the rear is more of a chore, it is perfectly acceptable and far from being the worst three door variant ever created.

The boot doesn’t suffer either, able to contain 355 litres of luggage, making it slightly larger than an equivalent age Focus and not a huge amount smaller than a similarly aged Astra. There are some fairly sizable wheel arch intrusions, but the boot lip obscures them to some extent and cargo nets are available which allow the boot space to be maximised. The seats also split fold 60:40 though not fully flat.

On the kit front, our car really shows its status as the Bottom Feeder of the range, with no Air-Con or alloy wheels available, not even as a cost option. Paint options were the only real choice you had to make, with ABS listed as optional, it was worth spec-ing if just to help second hand values.

The standard kit includes power steering, electric windows, 4 or 6 speaker system, radio/cassette which was upgraded to a single CD-Changer in 2002, steering wheel audio controls, a second 12V socket for the rear passengers, a single driver airbag, remote central locking and a full size spare wheel. If you want Air-Con, as we mentioned, that’s the next spec level up.

As you might guess, for a car that was under £10k a decade ago, the Almera ‘E’ can be picked up for a pittance today. However there aren’t as many around as you might expect, for the 2003 face-lift, the ‘E’ trim was dropped from the range, making Air-Con a standard fitment for the entire range, however a high mileage or poorer condition example can be had for under £1,000 or even lower than £900, although as you can imagine these are risky propositions.

A 2002 registration year example with low mileage will cost no more than £3,000, likely to be just short of that, these will have the electronic throttle control and power increase while 2000 & most 2001 models with have the 88 bhp, mechanical throttle engine. Both engines will get the job done but as ever with cars of this age, get the most expensive you can afford.

The running costs won’t be a total deal breaker either. As you probably realise, this engine isn’t as efficient as the £10k car of today, however it is still capable of 42 mpg on the Combined cycle, a testament to the innovative engine tech that Nissan used and which is impressive when you consider the age.

Emissions are where the Almera really can’t match new cars. The 158 g/km of CO2 place the Almera in Tax Band G, so will cost you £165/year for your tax disc, a surprisingly high cost that could offset the low purchase price and is the price that often has to paid for a cheap second hand car.

Insurance is also respectable and comparable, with the Almera rated to just Insurance Group 4E via the old system, Insurance Group 14 via the revised system. This makes it slightly more expensive than little £10k city cars, but the Almera is a much larger car than those.

Conclusion

As with the Micra we tested a few months ago, the Almera 1.5 E does surprise a huge amount. What looks on the surface to be a poorly equipped, decade old take on the out-dated hatchback is actually a surprisingly competent car, a long way from the rubbish than many car makers still offer today.

It’s a car that is highly likeable but lacking in any standout attributes that a congested market demands, and Nissan has moved away from the traditional hatchback after dropping the Almera in 2006. However it means that this decent car can be had for very little money with little extra expense on running costs.

The three door is also a fairly good looking car. And for a car that can be had for a Grand, you could do much, much worse, even if you bought something brand new. Ok the interior is a dull place to look at but at least it’s been built properly.

It boils down to two points. Firstly, for a ten year old design, the engine and shape can still stand up to scrutiny, and secondly, it’s a Nissan, and like many Nissan cars, if you just need a reliable car that can get from A to B without fuss, the Almera is worth a good look at.


 Nissan Almera 1.5 E

Engine:  1497cc DOHC 16v In‐Line 4
Power: 88bhp @ 4,400rpm
Torque: 94 lb/ft @ 2,800 rpm
0-62mph: 13.8 Seconds
Top Speed: 107 mph
Fuel Economy: 42 mpg Combined




MD

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