Nissan Almera 1.5 VL

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nissan20160621Fast Times tries out Nissan’s B-segment entry for a week

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As a kid in the late 1990s, I used to love reading children’s stories in picture books that my parents got for my sister and me.

One story I remember particularly well is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.” For those who haven’t read it, the story is about a duckling who was born looking vastly different from other ducklings. In my picture book, this duckling didn’t have the yellow feathers and the pert, orange beak of a typical duckling, but had pale-white plumage and a large, black beak. This effectively made the duckling a social outcast, as the other animals couldn’t understand how a duckling (often a symbolism of cuteness) could look so “ugly.”

Sadly, this duckling grew up thinking that it was a big, ugly duck because it couldn’t bear to look at its own reflection. One day, the duck met a ballet of beautiful swans, who welcomed it with open arms (or should it be wings?). Perplexed by such a warm reception, the duck dared to look at its reflection in the water and discovered that it, too, was a swan (which means it was actually born a cygnet).

Somehow, I recalled this story 17 years later when I was reflecting on my latest test car: the Nissan Almera. This is likely because I’ve long considered the Japanese carmaker’s “duckling” as the gawkiest-looking subcompact in its class. But perhaps, like the ugly duckling, the Almera’s beauty is something that needs time to fully appreciate, which is why I borrowed one for a week.

Looks could really be improved
My discontent with the Almera’s appearance certainly doesn’t stem from the front, which has recently been facelifted to put it more in line with Nissan’s other models. The most apparent change is the prominent trapezoidal grill – garnished in chrome in this top-of-the-line VL model – that complements the chrome detailing in the fog light surrounds and the lower grill. Besides the overly large headlights, which could have been made flatter like in the larger Sylphy, the Almera’s “beak” doesn’t really look bad.

It’s the same story down the side. It may look slab-sided because of the large doors, narrow wheels and lack of design flourishes, but it’s hardly offensive. Indeed, I quite liked the redesigned 15-inch alloy wheels because these reminded me of snowflakes.

However, it’s the Almera’s tail that really ruffles my feathers. Unlike the sharply styled Sylphy and Altima, which feature high and squared-off trunk lines, the Almera’s back end seems to be a poorly executed pastiche of a Maybach 57’s rear. I find that it looks far too bloated and saggy, especially from the rear three-quarter view, although the rear spoiler and chrome garnish (both standard in the VL), along with the facelifted lower bumper, make it less unattractive.

Spacious interior
However, one benefit of such a large, albeit misshapen, derriere is the enormous 495-liter trunk. Deep, wide and very long, it very capably fit my Dad’s large luggage (lengthwise) for a week-long business trip abroad. One issue I did find was that the trunk opening isn’t that tall, so putting in large boxes could be challenging.

This sense of capaciousness extends to the cabin, which can only be described as palatial. Headroom and elbow room are good for the class, while legroom is truly exceptional (better than some compact sedans, even). Indeed, just after getting this test unit, I drove four of my former UP Law blockmates (shoutout to Block D2019), who had just survived taking their hellish final exams, to a house party. Despite the small hump on the rear floor, three of them sat comfortably in the back, including one who is nearly six-feet tall.

Meanwhile, the “greige” interior color (an amalgam of beige and gray) adds to the feeling of airiness, although the greige carpets are prone to getting mucky. Other nice touches include the good-quality leather in this VL model – which adds a touch of class to the cabin – as well as the sculpted chrome door handles and the gloss-black trim on the center console that holds the easy-to-use 2-DIN audio system and the funky, circular climate-control system.

That latter feature, beings true to form for a Nissan, was very effective in turning a leather-lined toaster into a chest freezer. In fact, it’s so effective that the standard rear fan (which isn’t really connected to the air-conditioning) as it merely sucks air from the front and blows it out of the vents) was rather pointless. Not only was it very noisy at full blast, but the space it took in the car could have been used for a storage box, which would have been helpful as the car is sorely lacking in storage spaces, especially in the rear quarters.

In terms of safety, the Almera fares well with standard dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, three-point seatbelts for all passengers, child-seat anchors and adjustable headrests (although the center-rear passenger unfortunately doesn’t get one).

Lively performance
Still staying inside, the Almera revealed yet another impressive trait: it’s quite nice to drive. This is primarily down to the powertrain, which combines a 1.5-liter, twin-cam, 16-valve inline-four producing 98 horsepower and 134 Newton-meters of torque with a four-speed automatic gearbox. The engine is refined and very eager to rev – although at least 10 more horsepower and a larger torque spread would have made it more fun – while the gearbox is one of the most responsive units I’ve ever used, chucking out smooth and instantaneous two-gear kickdowns to fully exploit the engine’s midrange grunt. However, I would have liked at least two more gears for added performance and economy.

Speaking of economy, I had so much fun stirring the engine and gearbox that after 135 kilometers of purely city driving, which included a terrible stop-and-go drive to The Manila Times office in Intramuros, Manila, I averaged 5.9 kilometers to the liter. Those with more sensible driving habits should be able to get closer to double digits.

Other nice things I found from driving the Almera include the light and responsive steering (which could do with a bit more feel), the strong brakes operated by a firm brake pedal (which could do with a higher bite point), the firm suspension that ably balances a comfortable ride and acceptable levels of body roll, and the very clear white-on-black gauges. Negative points were from the difficult-to-read, black-on-orange displays for the radio and the air-con, as well as the front seats, which lack thigh support and have a recliner handle that is difficult to reach when the door is closed.

Not quite a swan yet
In summary, the Nissan Almera VL exemplifies the old saying on how to not judge a book by its cover. Set aside the disproportioned exterior and you have a car that is actually a very competent, extremely spacious and fairly fun-to-drive subcompact. In other words, in the pursuit of function, the Almera had to sacrifice much of its form.

However, at P880,000, the Almera VL sits right in the firing line of better-equipped, top-specification subcompacts like the class-leading Toyota Vios G and the excellent Suzuki Ciaz GLX, which almost matches the Almera’s spaciousness, but manages to be more entertaining to drive and better to look at. Indeed, considering that Nissan is responsible for incredible-looking cars like the Juke and the GT-R, I don’t see why it can’t make its duckling into a swan in the next generation.

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