Nissan says its all-new Almera offers `surprisingly more`. Just how much more? We travel to Malacca to find out....
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|An affordable Nissan that revokes the spirit of the Sunny 130Y.|
|1.5-litre HR15DE engine is mechanically simple and engineered for fuel economy.|
|Cabin is uncluttered and decently built.|
Exorbitant taxes and duties on imported vehicles in Malaysia have created a clear market segregation between what we call the national and non-national brands. Pricing advantages enjoyed by Proton and Perodua make them the most affordable cars in the market, but it also gives them something of a 'bargain basement' image.
This creates a situation where most motorists aspire to vehicles of imported brands and it is not uncommon that some people actually have 'not a Proton' as their number one criteria in buying a car. Buying a foreign brand vehicle is seen as a step up, and that B-segment playground occupied by the Toyota Vios and Honda City is widely seen as the entry-point to the promised land of 'non-national brand motoring'.
The Koreans have been making some inroads in the segment, and so have Ford and Mazda with the Fiesta and Mazda2 respectively. Volkswagen also sees its Polo Sedan as an entry in this segment, but with its final price bearing six-figures with insurance factored in, a wage earner taking home less than RM4,000 a month will find it a difficult option to consider.
The B-segment is price sensitive, and not only must a vehicle in this segment be cheap to buy, it must also be affordable to maintain, with factors such as fuel consumption and servicing costs being especially close to the heart of potential buyers. In this respect, the Japanese makes have an advantage, as they have built a reputation of being reliable to run, and even when they break down, the damage to one's wallet can be chalked off as minimal.
The Mitsubishi Mirage, with pricing estimated between RM56k and RM64k, is an attractive offer, and is likely to sell well when it finally hits the market. But although Mitsubishi is not a niche brand, it is also not seen as a major mainstream player in the market. At least not compared to Nissan, who just introduced us the all-new Almera 1.5, a full three-box sedan priced within striking distance of Proton buyers.
|Side profile is not the Almera's best angle. |
Prices & Variants
The Almera is offered in three trim levels - E, V, and VL. The cheapest 1.5E variant is offered with the option of manual and automatic transmission, whilst the V and VL models are auto only. Prices start at RM66,800 for the manual E variant, with an additional RM3,000 required for automatic transmission. Going to the 1.5V is a big jump to RM76,800, and right on top is the 1.5VL at RM79,800.
Nissan's model deployment and pricing strategy is a clear attempt to challenge the Toyota Vios, leader of the B-segment today. The Almera undercuts equivalent variants of the Vios by margins of between RM5,500 and RM7,500. Furthermore, Edaran Tan Chong Motor personnel have told us that they have even taken the effort to benchmark their servicing costs against Toyota, ensuring that the Almera is also more affordable to maintain compared to the Vios.
Do watch out for a couple of caveats though. Nissan advertises a number of equipment in the Almera that are uncommon in the price range, such as keyless entry (i-Key), push button ignition, steering-mounted controls, Fine Vision Meter, and automatic climate control with temperature display, but most of them are exclusive to the top VL spec model only.
|Keyless entry and start is exclusive to the 1.5 VL variant. |
Standard equipment does include a 2-DIN audio unit, trip computer, rear armrest, intermittent wipers, 3-point rear passenger belts, ISOFIX, and alarm, but takers of the E spec model will have to live without alloy rims, remote bootlid release, front fog lights, and even trunk illumination. Uncommon at this price range, however, is a high degree of personalization options that is available to the Almera buyer. You have the freedom of picking and choosing upgrades such as leather seats, multimedia navigator, body kits, and tinting films individually, or bundle them together in packages.
We have worked out the costliest possible combination to be a VL-spec model Tuned by Impul (with 17" rims) mated to a Premium Navi package complete with a tint upgrade to V-Kool Elite. This specification will net you an Almera that costs over RM95,000 before factoring in insurance, on par with a fully optioned Toyota Vios TRD Sportivo. For our money, we recommend that you check boxes for the multimedia navigator (RM2,800), trunk tray (RM180), and V-Kool Elite tinting (RM2,600).
|The Toyota Vios needs to brace itself. |
This being an entry level model, Nissan could quite easily have gotten away with rehashing an existing platform, bolt on existing powertrains for the Almera, and save a few bucks in the process, but they didn't. Even if the Almera isn't its first recipient, the V-platform underneath is all-new, and it is designed to spawn a whole new generation of compact models for the Renault/Nissan alliance. Ingredients that make up the chassis are nevertheless simple and straight forward, with the usual MacPherson and torsion beam combo being the architecture of choice.
The engine powering it, however, isn't new, but neither is it antiquated. The 1,498cc HR15DE engine does not have much technology to speak of beyond variable valve timing and drive-by-wire, but it is made of aluminium, with weight saving being a key benefit. Its outputs of 101hp and 139Nm are average on paper, but with the heaviest variant tipping the scales at 1,045kg kerb weight, the Almera compensates with a decent power-to-weight ratio. The engineering aim of this engine is fuel consumption, and Nissan's claims for the Almera are 14.9 km/l and 15.9 km/l for the automatic and manual transmission models respectively.
The 5-speed manual version is not likely to see too many takers. As expected, majority of buyers have opted for the automatic model, and serving them will be a transmission with 4 speeds. It has been a while since we've tested a car with an overdrive button, but let us assure you that this transmission is all-new. Once again, Nissan could quite easily have gotten away with throwing in an existing transmission and left it at that, but they didn't.
|Nissan actually engineered an all-new 4-speed automatic transmission for the Almera. |
Considering Nissan's prowess in CVT technology, it is astonishing that they went through the effort to develop an all-new 4-speed automatic transmission from scratch. There are some cost considerations involved in the transmission's development, but the absence of fifth or even sixth ratios is also motivated by a desire to reduce overall weight and complexity. Compared to the Latio's older 4-speed unit, the Almera's gearbox is lighter, more compact, and locks up faster - all factors contributing to improved economy.
A mechanically simple vehicle as a whole, the Almera's trump card is its packaging. Within a compact footprint of 4,425mm by 1,695mm, Nissan was able to squeeze 490 litres of cargo room in the boot, and class-leading cabin space that must be seen to be believed - there is at least 20cm of rear leg room even with the rear seats pushed all the way back. With the front seats in their normal positions however, measured rear leg room is 636mm - enough space to sit with your legs crossed.
|Generous legroom available despite front passenger seat pushed all the way back. |
The following day after its launch earlier this week, ETCM invited members of the Malaysian media on a 2D1N drive from KL to Malacca and back on a journey stretching about 220km long. Opening leg of the drive was an eco run to Seremban conducted at a relaxed but not crawling pace of between 80 and 110kph depending on speed limits.
Seeking to demonstrate the Almera's fuel economy under realistic driving conditions - mixed roads, air-conditioning on, gentle acceleration, and no hypermiling measures - majority of cars in the 13-vehicle convoy comfortably met or even exceeded Nissan's claims of 14.9 km/l for the automatic model. In the company of Motor Trader's Chips Yap and CBT's Mick Chan, my test unit, a VL model, clocked 21.8km/l - a result measured using the brim-to-brim refueling method and achieved without crawling our way to the destination.
The Almera's outstanding fuel economy goes hand-in-hand with virtues such as refinement, comfort, and also the aforementioned spaciousness of its cabin. Handling is surprisingly decent, corners are taken with competent fluency although steering feedback is notably muted; not an unexpected characteristic, and neither is it likely to be a deal breaker as far as potential customers are concerned.
High speed stability is not encouraging, so we'd advise against straying too far above the national speed limit - 130kph is the fastest that we would recommend. Having said that however, the sound deadening package is excellent, and as long as you're not redlining the engine, conversations can be carried out without raised voices. Further helping that cause is an overdrive ratio that brings you into triple-digit speeds with only 2,500rpm on the tachometer.
|Fine vision meter with trip computer. |
Despite the simplicity of its package, the Almera is a crucial model for both Nissan and ETCM. ETCM is banking on this model to help them double sales volume, and to finally pull Nissan's brand ranking in Malaysia right alongside Toyota and Honda. It is Nissan's first proper foray in the competitive B-segment in a long time, and the folks at Toyota in particular will be watching this one closely.
The Almera may be an unexciting vehicle from the perspective of an enthusiast, but it does offer exceptional value for money with a competitive price tag buying you a generously-sized vehicle, and one with a Japanese badge at that. Ownership is likely to be painless as well. Nissan cars have a reputation of being affordable to maintain, and the Almera's mechanical simplicity implies good long-term reliability.
There is some truth in the Almera's 'Surprisingly More' tagline. It is a well-packaged vehicle, and it is certainly not as boring as its appearance and performance numbers might suggest. Surprisingly capable and well-engineered, the Almera is an honest car that gets its basics right. A good choice for anyone looking for straight forward and trouble-free motoring. Toyota Vios, you've been warned.