Boosted To Lead
Never have I ever considered the Almera to be a leader in the subcompact car class.
Sure, it has features and attributes that we really liked and were really unique in its class when they first launched the nameplate in late 2012 like how well it actually drove, the ride comfort, the rear legroom, and those rear A/C vents to give justice to Nissan's reputation for ridiculously cold airconditioning.
But in many other categories, it was behind at the time. The bodywork was ho-hum, the interior was dated even when new, and it didn't even have an Aux-in port for my iPod (yes, I was still using one back then) or a socket for my MP3 USB stick. I actually had to use one of those FM transmitter gizmos for my iPod to get my music into the system.
Today that has all changed. When Nissan unveiled the new generation Almera that would be sold in the Philippine market, we couldn't help but be impressed. This is a promising car, without a doubt. A promise, however, is one thing. Delivering on it is another. And that's what we're here to find out.
Nissan handed us the keys to an all-new Almera VL N-Sport. It's the top-of-the-line model and easily the most premium priced subcompact variant in the volume category. Will it actually make the grade?
On the design front, definitely. If the previous Almera looked like it was designed by a committee, this one is a big leap forward. Actually, it's a “Leaf” forward because of the resemblance the front end has to Nissan's electric car. I do like the application of that front end and how the V-motion motif continues nicely onto the hood. The side profile is also interesting with the angled character line that aligns neatly with the door handles. Even the rear is very nice; I wouldn't mind following one in traffic.
Of course, it's not perfect as there are things I would change or take out like that black trim that they stuck onto the C-pillar; it's a bit much, to be honest. But it's good to see that Nissan has recognized that the bigger target market for a car like this is young and successful, and designed it to match. And the N-Sport package is actually neat with the 16-inch wheels, the LED foglamps (only this version has fogs), and the satin silver accents on the outside (front and rear skirts plus the mirrors). I'm so glad they didn't use much chrome on the outside.
The interior is really where it's at for the Almera. It just looks so neat and well thought out. The dash, for example, looks like it belongs in a more premium vehicle with that leather center pad; it's faux leather, but it still elevates the look. The shape of the dash does look like a wing, and I like the digital/analog combination instrument cluster as well as the really neat 8-inch center display screen.
The front seats are perhaps the most unassuming parts of the Almera, but definitely should be highlighted. If you're familiar with the Terra or Navara, then these will feel familiar because it's the same style of Zero-G aerospace-inspired seats. For long drives or hours in traffic, the front seats are very comfortable because they just feel natural. Low fatigue is the goal, and they achieved that.
The center stack is neat too with a big pocket in front for your phone and wallet, as well as two cupholders and another recess on the center console. Even the glove compartment is huge; actually, it's bigger than the one in my Navara.
The audio system is a good one too. The speakers aren't premium but the audio quality is good. This one gets Apple Carplay but not Android Auto; the latter is a license timing thing with Nissan's supplier for the system. Still, there's Bluetooth as well as a USB data port in front along with an Aux-in port; that's quite significant because I remember the first release of the Almera didn't have any of those in 2013.
The big thing here is the inclusion of a long list of safety features. This being the top-spec model means it has the usual things like six airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability control. I'm a bit disappointed that Nissan still saw fit to install drum brakes in the back, but they did make up for it with a lot of advanced safety features. Except for the base model, all versions of the Almera get the 360 camera system with the motion detector feature, forward collision warning, and autonomous emergency braking. This being the VL, it also gets rear-cross traffic alert as well as blind-spot warning.
The rear seat is a nice place to be in too. The seats clearly have been improved for comfort, and still have very good legroom like the predecessor. There is an armrest (with cupholders) that folds down if no one is sitting in the middle, and there are two USB charging ports between the two front seats.
Owners of the previous Almera will find that there is something odd about this new one. There has been a strange deletion in this new generation Almera: the dual A/C vents for the rear. That is unusual because it was a rather unique selling point of the Almera back in the day.
Where Nissan is key to making it up is in the cargo space: the trunk of this model is huge. At its widest point, it's about 54 inches, so it should be able to take on golf sets if need be. But the Almera VL also has a unique selling point: this is the only one in the subcompact sedan class that has rear seats that can fold down for larger cargo. It may seem trivial, but I speak from experience when I say it can come in handy if there was a sale on big 55” LED smart TVs or if you happen to be really lucky at the company Christmas party. The last thing you want to do is have to stick out the trunk and secure it only with straw rope.
The other unique selling point of the Almera across all variants is what's under the hood. While many of its rivals like the Vios and City are sticking to their guns with a naturally aspirated 1.5L four-cylinder, Nissan took a shot and offered the Almera with a turbo 1.0L three-cylinder. The tiny engine isn't to be underestimated though because while the power isn't class-leading at 100 PS, the torque is very high at 160 Nm. And given that more torque coming in at lower RPMs is more important for fuel economy, this should be very efficient.
Now this isn't the first time we've seen a 1.0L turbo in this class of car as the Ford Fiesta was the first to go for that back in 2013 with the 125 PS 1.0L EcoBoost. I remember that engine to be quite good (chime in if you have other experiences), but what really led to its demise in our market was the dual-clutch gearbox that was just unreliable. Thankfully Nissan didn't feel the need to go for a “game-changing” mindset for the sake of grabbing headlines as they fitted the Almera with a CVT. The new generation CVTs are proving to be much more reliable and more efficient, though I really wish Nissan put in a pair of paddle shifters on this one or even just a simple manual +/- gate.
Driving the Almera VL around, it's easy to see how Nissan has stepped it up in this model category. It just feels smooth and acceleration is indeed good. There's a little lag from the turbo engine, but once it spools up and torque comes into play, it goes. But what really matters is fuel efficiency. On the highway, I was averaging 24.1 kilometers per liter of gasoline. In the city, I was doing 10.9 km/l at an average speed of only 17 km/h. That is a really slow average speed.
The reason the Almera is so efficient is because of the engine and transmission combo. If you drive sensibly and patiently, the Almera will reward you with outstanding fuel economy. Just keep the revs low and let the CVT adjust and compensate, allowing you to cruise. And the fuel eco in the city is a direct result of the idle start/stop system. I do shut off that feature for EDSA-type stop-go-stop-go traffic, but for general urban driving (e.g. stoplight to stoplight) it works wonders. And it also helps that the temps outside are cooler now, so it doesn't get too warm when the A/C compressor shuts down with the engine.
That start/stop system also has another benefit: it helps reduce the vibrations you would feel on a drive. As I had explained before in many of our videos, a three-cylinder engine is inherently unbalanced because there are an odd number of pistons moving up and down in the engine block. That means you can't cancel out all the vibrations. If you want to see what that looks like, pop the hood of Almera and look at how the engine is shaking quite a bit. If you see those vibrations in a four-cylinder car, you would suspect that one of the sparkplugs is dead. But in a three-cylinder it's normal.
So the key is managing the vibrations and making sure as little of it is transferred to the body. That's why the engine mounts are beefed up and allow the engine to vibrate as “independently” as possible. You'll still feel the vibrations at idle (it smooths out at higher RPMs) and you can even see it; just open one of the doors when you start up the car and you'll see the door moving. That's why the start/stop isn't just there for fuel eco, but for comfort as well.
The Almera is a fun drive; I like the feel of the steering and how well the vehicle corners. But what I think is more important is the focus on everyday comfort. The ride quality of the Almera on roads like EDSA is outstanding even when compared to the City and the Vios. But what really sets it apart is the focus on making the cabin silent. They used an improved windshield, added more insulation on the A-pillars, more sound deadening under the hood and firewall, and they even extended the seals for the doors. Try driving one on a road with a lot of motorcycles and jeepneys and you'll hear what I mean.
The Almera isn't perfect though; no car is. The lack of Android Auto is a minor thing, but I think the one thing this vehicle really needs is cruise control, and I mean the adaptive kind. Actually, all the architecture for a good adaptive cruise control system is with NIM, but for some reason, Nissan felt the need to withhold that. Some would say that cruise control is trivial in our traffic-mad cities, but given that there are new expressways opening up, such a feature would really come in handy. And it helps prevent speeding too; that's useful if you want to get that new 10-year license.
The reason I think this really needs such a feature is the price. Nissan is already asking PHP 1.098 million for this Almera VL N-Sport. The Almera is no longer the “budget-meal” option in the subcompact class.
That makes it the priciest one amongst its direct rivals in terms of features and positioning. This would go up against the Vios GR-Sport which costs PHP 1.02 million, while the City RS Sedan is at PHP 1.058 million. So on the outset, the pricing is a disadvantage, but Nissan did something to make up for it: they gave this Almera VL N-Sport a 5-year, 150,000-kilometer warranty.
After spending a bit of time in the Almera VL N-Sport, I can say I really like it even though the price is quite high for its class. Personally, though, I would go for the lower grade VE version which costs PHP 100,000 less, and the review of that is coming up.