BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Nissan's third generation Primera was a car that very much underplayed its hand. Beneath the somewhat dowdy styling was a package that had a lot going for it, and was well screwed together by the staff at Nissan's Sunderland plant. It was always one of the more European feeling 'Japanese' cars, set up to cater for continental tastes, but whilst still offering traditional Oriental values of reliability and value for money.
Models Covered: FACELIFTED THIRD GENERATION PRIMERA - 1999 TO 2002: (5dr hatchback, saloon, estate 1.6, 1.8, 2.0, 2.0 turbodiesel [E, S, SPORT, SE, SPORT +])
The Primera lineage can effectively be split into three separate parts, although maybe not the three you were expecting given that the models we examine here are dubbed Third Generation. Generations One and Two (1990-1996) established the Primera name and were a little dull in their execution. The Third Generation car was a new car altogether - a vastly improved effort with class-leading driving dynamics but which carried over a recognisably Primera shape. This was to cost it sales amongst buyers who incorrectly considered it a mere facelift of the older cars. A superb 2.0-litre turbo diesel replaced the poor old two-litre normally aspirated unit of the old model. An estate was launched in April 1998, replacing the first generation model which had soldiered on until then. Slow sales were attributed by the UK importers to the bland looks with the result that a major restyle was commissioned and a revised, much better-looking range launched in September 1999. Inside and out, this car was much more stylish and the range now included a 1.8-litre petrol engine. All trim/equipment designations were new, too, including smart Sport and Sport + versions. This did little to spur customer take up and in late 2001 a boldly styled range of all-new Primeras was announced.
What You Get
Private people buying a medium range family car want image and prestige. Companies meanwhile, want most of the cars they purchase to be powered by petrol engines offering the right balance between performance and economy: 1.8-litres is usually considered to be about right. Since the original second generation Nissan Primera had neither of those things, the emergence of almost completely new version halfway through its model life came as little surprise. This is the car we should have had at the start, with a proper range of engines to power a line-up of saloons, hatches, and estates. The front corners are softly curved while the bonnet has sculpted lines that flow into the familiar Nissan 'flying wing' chrome grille and on over gas discharge headlamps to dip into the reshaped front bumper. The side profile also has stronger feature lines to make it look less slab-sided and the rear features revised tail lamps and a more rounded boot section. Changes to the interior were equally necessary - and were equally far-reaching. The facelifted Third Generation car is lighter, simpler and more upmarket looking. Though unfortunately, the basic shape of the dashboard couldn't be altered, a metallic facing has made it look much smarter, as have brighter instrument graphics and various splashes of chrome. Though the bodystyles remain as before, there are new equipment grades labelled E, S, Sport, SE, Sport+ and SE+. Sadly, with the deletion of the 148bhp engine, the performance GT version is no more. Nothing then to emphasise the Primera's continuing status as one of the best handling cars in its class. Still, that didn't help the original Primera. Nor did high equipment levels, now extended to include ABS across the range, along with twin front and side airbags (on all but the base 1.6E), plus climate-controlled air conditioning on all but the base model. Nice touches include a 'curry hook' for your takeaways, built into the back of the front seats. There's also brake assistance for emergency stops, a system to warn against high emissions and seats designed to reduce car sickness. All examples of the careful thought which albeit belatedly has made the latest Primera such a competitive car. If you're shopping amongst Mondeos, Vectras and Lagunas, it deserves a second look.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Many of the caveats that concern early Primeras were well and truly ironed out by the time the 1999 iteration arrived. Entry-level models were no longer barren of toys and the interiors had come on leaps and bounds. Mechanically the Primera is as close to perfection as you're likely to find in this sector. Just make sure that it hasn't racked up starship mileage at the hands of a minicab operator. Damaged catalysts can be costly to repair and check on oil or coolant leaks. Otherwise it's tricky to pick a duff one.
(approx. based on a 1999 Primera 1.6) A full exhaust will be around £285. An alternator is about £140 (exchange) and a front headlamp will be close to £150. A radiator is around £140 and a starter motor around £100. Brake pads are £35 for the front and £30 for the rear and a full clutch assembly will be around £125
On the Road
Primeras are exceptionally reliable - you'd expect that from a Nissan. What might come as something of a shock is the way that the car drives. This was the first model the company produced that was genuinely satisfying to hustle around twisty roads. The suspension still puts more recent efforts to shame, while providing a smooth and comfortable ride. Now to that 1.8-litre petrol engine, the absence of which denied the original Primera access to the largest business-buyer slice of the company car market. It's a 16-valve unit, with variable valve timing and 112bhp of power on tap to enable sixty to be reached from rest in 11.0s on the way to 112mph. Though that's nothing special, an average fuel consumption figure of over 38mpg put the Nissan amongst the class leaders. Of course, if you really care about fuel consumption, you'll opt for the 89hp 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine which, like the entry-level petrol 1.6, was carried over almost unchanged from the previous model. All of which leaves only the 138bhp petrol 2.0-litre engine, an amalgamation of the 128 and 148bhp 2.0-litre units offered in the old model. Thanks to changes aimed at reducing noise, vibration and harshness it's certainly more refined, helping to make up for the fact that plush Primera buyers are still denied a V6 petrol option. Still, it does offer a useful turn of speed (130mph and rest to sixty in 9.6s), though that does depend on the choice of manual transmission. With this engine there's the choice of two CVT automatic gearboxes - for the first time in a car of this size. Continuously Variable Transmission is a belt-driven system normally used on small cars that minimises the fuel consumption premium that's usually part and parcel of owning an automatic. Primera 2.0-litre buyers have the option either of conventional CVT or, for a little more (of course), the new CVT-M6 gearbox. This version has a manual over-ride much like you find on the 'Tiptronic' or 'Steptronic' autoboxes offered by Audi and BMW. In Drive, just flick the lever to the left and you can nudge it up for a higher gear and down for a lower one. Whichever CVT 'box' you choose, you can expect fuel consumption figures 10-15% better than those of rival automatics.
If you can live with the dated styling, a used Nissan Primera has much to recommend it. Good to drive, effortlessly reliable and built with a genuine depth of quality, the Primera is better then you may expect. With the latest model causing prices to soften, now could be a good time to bag a modest mileage bargain.