The Nissans: two become one

If there's one car brand in the Philippines that has needed a shot in the arm for the longest time, it's Nissan.

In the past few decades Nissan's operations have been split with passenger cars (in general) were manufactured and/or sold by Nissan Motors Philippines, Inc. (NMPI) while the commercial vehicles side (in general) have been under the custodianship of Universal Motors Corporation.

We can't even begin to describe how confusing it was in having two operations for one brand, each with very different owners, dealer networks, corporate philosophies, product planners and operational strategies. The best way to describe it is walking into the nearest Nissan dealership looking for a Sentra (sold by NMPI) but all you can find are Urvans and Navaras (sold by UMC) or vice versa.

That was the problem. There were two very different entities working one brand name in the auto industry. Not anymore.

Enter Nissan Philippines, Incorporated, the new national sales company for the Nissan brand. Headed by Kenji Naito and a new team, the new company will get full support from the parent company, Nissan Motor Limited (NML) in their goal of raising the brand's presence, prestige and ultimately market share, in the Philippines.

These two models are Nissan Philippines, Inc.'s opening salvoes to do it with: the 2014 Nissan Sylphy and the 2014 Nissan Altima. NPI then proceeded to invite members of the automotive media to the Clark International Speedway to try out these two new automobiles at the Nissan Spin event.

Let's see how they get on then.

Bye Sentra, hello Sylphy

For the longest time Nissan's entry into the Philippine C segment has been the Sentra. If memory serves, the Nissan's C segment competitor probably has the most number of rebadged and renamed versions all around the world in past generations. Pulsar, Sentra, Sunny, Almera (not to be confused with the current B segment Almera), Renault Samsung SM3 and even the Renault Scala all point to the same line of cars. It's even been called the Bluebird in Taiwan.

Now the Sentra name has been retired in the Philippines in favor of something new: the Nissan Sylphy. No, not Selfie.

For all intents and purposes, perhaps it's better if we call it by it's code: the B17 Sylphy. The B17 is actually the seventh generation of the Sentra/Sylphy line. In all honesty the Sentra was truly popular in the Philippines back in the 1990's and early 2000's, but that gradually waned as Toyota's Corolla Altis and Honda's Civic both rose in popularity, not to mention the rapid growth of the B segment, particularly the Vios, in the country. Perhaps this Thai-made B17 can change that.

Style-wise, you can tell this is leaps and bounds ahead of the Nissan Sentra 200. Mind you, the Sentra 200 was a decent machine, but it just didn't catch on as it should have. The look of the new Sylphy is indeed striking given that front end, the proportions and the rear. All around, the Sylphy looks good, and has some neat design details to boot.

Open the doors and again the car impresses; it actually feels like you've bought a car one category higher in price and size. The materials feel of quality. The buttons feel great to the touch. The wheel is great to hold. Everything feels like they're very well sorted out. Of course, this being a wildly hot summer day, the A/C lives up to Nissan's legendary coolness.

Nissan actually had three different Sylphys available to drive on the full version of Clark International Speedway: an entry level 1.6 liter with a 5-speed manual gearbox, a midrange 1.6 liter with Nissan's new CVT system as well as the top spec 1.8 also with a CVT.

Driving all three cars in quick succession, it's easy to distinguish the differences in spec and performance. This isn't a full test drive; rather it is a sample of how the Sylphy performs at the limit. Off the line, the obvious choice is the 1.8 liter CVT, a car that elicits a neat note when pushed. The 1.6 liter Sylphy, with its 5-speed gearbox or the CVT, is surprisingly light on its feet.

Body control is good for all models and the brakes work very well given the heft of the cars. The manual gearbox is a little too light for feel if you ask me, but the CVT works just fine and even has a sport mode that holds the 'gears' just a little longer than normal for spirited driving.

What is common amongst all is that they are clearly oriented towards better comfort (suspension, NVH and seats) rather than outright handling and performance; that's probably the reason why I feel so relaxed driving around the circuit than I do with most other cars. Just to give you an idea, the Sylphy is probably softer sprung than the 2014 Toyota Corolla Altis and 2014 Honda Civic. In comparison, cars like the 2014 Ford Focus or the newly-launched 2014 Mazda3 would probably outpace the Nissan.

Nevertheless it's a far better showing from Nissan, especially when you compare the Sylphy to the Sentra 200 that was marketed a while back. The 2014 Sylphy offers a very comprehensive and very attractive package; these and more in one comfortable machine.


Bye Teana, hello Altima

In all honesty we have always found the previous two generations of the Teana to be a bit odd in their own respective ways. Mind you these two models were pretty decent, but they had some features that somewhat boggled the mind.

The Teana that was offered by NMPI from 2006 to 2009 was strange because they opted for a 2.3 liter V6 when its competitors were powered by 2.4 liter inline-4 engines or 3.5 liter V6 motors. That on top of the fact that the first gen Teana was also underspecced and had a rather underwhelming design statement compared to the likes of the Camry and Accord of the same era made for likewise underwhelming sales. The second Teana was also quite improved, but they put the best seat in the house, the one with the motorized ottoman, in the wrong spot: the front passenger.

The 2014 Altima should change things up a bit.

Launched at the Blue Leaf Pavilion in Pasay a few months back alongside the Sylphy, the 2014 Nissan Altima promises to deliver much in revitalizing the Nissan brand; it is, after all, the new flagship of the company here.

If you've travelled to our ASEAN neighbors recently (i.e. Thailand) you'll notice that the Altima we have here is exactly the same as the Teana they still have there; like the Sylphy/Sentra, the Altima/Teana are essentially the same car. The major difference is that our Altima is shipped all the way from the United States as Thailand just manufactures right-hand drive Teanas. Whatever the case, the new 2014 Altima indeed has quite the standout design statement like the Sylphy.

Settling inside the Altima, it's easy to realize that the cabin is indeed impressive even when you consider the competitor models like the 2014 Accord and the 2014 Camry. The top spec variants get a powerful 3.5 liter V6 along with a CVT and large, GT-style paddleshifters. There wasn't really much time to appreciate the features given the quick nature of the test drive, but what we can immediately tell was that the front seats are probably the best in the class for driving comfort; they were developed by Nissan and NASA to distribute a person's weight evenly. No exaggeration; it's a significantly improved seat.

Firing up that large V6 up ahead emits that signature growl of Nissan's VQ series engines; the same line of V6 motors found in Nissan's performance models like the 370Z and the R35 GT-R. At full throttle from a standstill the Altima squats down and applies as much power to the tarmac of Clark Speedway's main straight. The brakes work hard to scrub speed given the heavy executive saloon. Ditto for the suspension; it's best to remember this is a comfortable cruiser rather than a sport sedan.

The transmission operates flawlessly in maintaining smooth acceleration all throughout, though at some points I opted to use the paddles on the 2014 Altima to have better control of the ratios in the corners. What I did notice was that the rear end feels different from many other saloons in its class; the reason being (by my understanding) is the unusual suspension arrangement that has a bushing halfway through a lateral control rod. While great for comfort, the rear suspension does allow a minute level of play that, when pushing the car through the corners, gives an unusual feeling midway through; it's most evident when the Altima gets a little unsettled when I clipped the kerbs.

After that point, I decided to just slow the car down a bit and cruised around the course, enjoying the smooth ride and drive. Judging by the ride, the 2014 Altima could very well be the best in the class, something that I would verify later on in a separate test drive.


Nissan: back on track in the Philippines

Just like that, the laps was over. While I did enjoy the time on the track, it was clear that Nissan's 2014 Sylphy and 2014 Altima do not really belong on a circuit, and that's perfectly fine. Their intended customers probably won't take them to a racetrack anyway; that's what the 370Z and the GT-R are for (hint hint).

The 2014 Nissan Sylphy and the 2014 Altima both belong on urban streets where comfort is the priority and on the open expressways where smoothness and refinement are what you need. All these and more in two strikingly designed packages.

Are these the shots in the arm that Nissan has needed? Only time (and the market's response) will tell. What is sure is that more are on the way from Nissan Philippines, Inc., and that makes for some very exciting years ahead for the brand.