The traditionally lucrative medium-sized saloon car market has seen a downturn in recent years. There are several reasons for this, including an increase in the number of alternatives such as MPVS and SUVs. To maintain profitability, car makers have had to enhance the specification of their cars in this segment, while attempting to offer the buyer a unique, and quality product. The focus is no longer on price, but rather value-for-money. Perceived quality is now high on the want list of buyers. Nissan recognised this before the second generation Primera was developed. Here we review the top-of-the-range T-Spec 5-door, fitted with the 2.2-litre turbo diesel engine.
Unique is certainly a word that could be used to describe the styling of Nissan's Primera, especially the 5-door version photographed here. No other saloon in the class dares to divide opinion like the Primera does. It looks almost like a one-box shape, with the windscreen so far forward and the steep bonnet. According to a 'source', the Japanese look at cars differently to us Europeans. Where we stand back and take in the overall appearance, they look at details. If you look closely at the Primera, it is made up of incredibly complex shapes - curves and edges. Notably, the lights are features rather than just functions. The pictures don't show up the sharp crease down the centre of the rear of the car either. The shape is not elegant or pretty, but it certainly is distinctive.
The theme continues inside. I really like the thoroughly contemporary layout, with a prominent central binnacle and high-set instruments. The binnacle works well, controlling satnav, climate control and the stereo, as well as housing the TV screen for the parking camera hidden above the rear number plate. It does restrict legroom a little though, particularly to the left of the clutch pedal. The main instruments are a lesson in clarity, and have a high-quality stylish appearance. As well as making it cheaper to convert to left-hand drive, this layout reduces the amount of time it takes to refocus from the instruments to the road. There are a lot of buttons to get used to on the centre console and steering wheel, but in practice we found it to be slicker than BMW's I-drive system (as tested in the 7-series
Interior accommodation is generous, with plenty of room to comfortably seat five adults. The cabin is airy too thanks to the long and low dashboard, despite the dark grey leather trim. All interior materials are of good quality and we particularly liked the stylish exposed stitching in the leather. The boot is also capacious enough to take the family on holiday.
Indeed, if you plan on towing a caravan, this Primera may be the ideal partner; the test car was fitted with Nissan's four-cylinder turbo diesel engine designated 2.2 dCi 138 (it is a 2.2-litre engine using common rail diesel technology to produce peak power of 138 PS), allied to a six-speed manual gearbox. We have driven Honda's Accord fitted with its excellent 2.2-litre diesel engine, and were impressed with its performance, economy and refinement. The Primera's unit better be good.
Our first impressions were mixed. The Nissan unit is not as refined as the Honda diesel. There is a lot more audible turbo whistle and wastegate flutter. The driveline in general was not as polished as we expected it would be; there is some lag in the power delivery, which makes smooth gearchanging difficult; the gearbox itself is quite slow, which would not be a problem if we didn't find ourselves having to change gear frequently to keep the engine on song. On the plus side, there is plenty of low down urge for normal driving conditions (as well as towing) and not far off 140 bhp for the odd overtaking move. Cross-country, the Primera has enough go to keep up with most moderately hot hatches.
Not that the Primera is being sold as a driver's car. We found the Nissan to be capable and poised when pushed on our favourite twisty roads, but body roll is ever-present. The steering feels lifeless at low speed, but comes alive the faster you drive, enabling accurate placement of the nose. In extreme, the nose will run wide to help you scrub off speed. To be honest, on the wide tyres fitted to the T-Spec versions, it is unlikely that you would regularly venture to the limits of grip on the public road.
The motorway is perhaps the Primera's natural habitat. The engine noise is present, but not intrusive. Wind and tyre roar is hardly noticeable. What did surprise us though was the ride; given the degree of roll, the ride is quite hard - not harsh, but not as comfortable as say the Jaguar X-type
. Also, the crosswind performance of the test car was poor for a car likely to spend much of its time on the outside lane of the motorway. Don't get me wrong; the car is not unstable; it just requires more steering input than you would expect while overtaking trucks, etc. Perhaps the large tyres have a detrimental effect.
Another negative effect of large tyres is of course increased fuel consumption. Nissan claims that this Primera will achieve 35 mpg on the tough Extra Urban Cycle. We managed an average of 32.5 mpg in a week of driving that was mostly 70 - 90 mph on the motorway, with some sitting in traffic.
It is all too easy to be critical of a car. The Nissan Primera 2.2 dCi 138 is not a bad car; it is a good car. However, the likes of the Honda Accord 2.2 i-CDTi is better in many areas. The Primera though beats the Accord on price and level of standard equipment. Neither is the Accord available as a 5-door hatch. However, Ford launched a 2.2-litre TDCi engine at the 2004 British Motor Show
, which is bound to make its way into the 5-door Mondeo. Each of these cars has its good and bad points, though it is becoming more difficult for buyers to differentiate. Look at the fine detail though and the Primera does make a case for itself. Perhaps the Japanese have got that idea spot on.