Fleet News

Nissan Almera Tino

Nissan

Review

##nisalmti.jpg --Right##FIRST, the firsts: Almera Tino is Nissan's first compact multi-purpose vehicle; the first CMPV with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution as standard equipment, and first in sector to offer continuously variable automatic transmission - Hypertronic CVT.

But the Spanish-built five-door hatchback is by no means the first CMPV on the European market - Renault Scenic took that title when it was introduced in July 1997, and while there is strengthening mainstream rivalry from Citroen Picasso, Fiat Multipla and Vauxhall Zafira, the Megane derivative remains the one to beat.

Although Renault owns a 36% chunk of Nissan, the Japanese manufacturer will be going all out for a 5% share of the CMPV market - even if that means winning some sales from its partner. In Britain that means 7,000 Tinos in a full year, on top of 20,000 standard Almeras, with fleet sales accounting for at least 35%.

At the end of May the top of Nissan's new market looked like this: No 1 - Scenic, with 16,097 UK sales in 2000 and a 42% share from its £12,945-£18,300 range; No 2 - Zafira, 10,104 units and 10% with a price spread from £14,500 to £18,450.

But Nissan Motor GB marketing director Neil Burrows is confident its CMPV will hit target without heavy raids on other marques' business. 'We're entering a relatively new segment, but it's a fast growing one,' he said at Tino's international press launch in Spain. 'We expect this segment to triple in size, and current estimates are that by 2008 one in three cars will be a CMPV derivative.'

Burrows stressed that Tino was not replacing an existing model, and would be bringing Nissan a 'slightly younger buyer'. 'It will help shift our centre of gravity towards C segment rather than B,' he said. The choice of engines - 1.8, 20 and 2.2, puts Almera Tino at the top end of the CMPV bracket, and with a price guide of £14,200 to £17,800 (actual showroom prices will be announced towards the end of July) the range looks class competitive, spec for spec.

Four grades are offered with each of the engines, S, SE, SE2 and SE+, but while S comes with ABS, EBD, brake assist, twin airbags, electric front windows and keyless entry, fleet interest will begin at SE, which adds air-conditioning, side airbags and folding seat-back tables.

While Tino was designed specifically for the European market, there was global input, with the brief shared by Nissan technical centres in Asugi, Japan, Cranfield, UK, and Munich, Germany. Between them they dismissed a Zafira-style seven-seat solution in favour of 24 seating configurations, a minimum of 440 litres of luggage space and 20 interior storage areas.

The latter includes two removable baskets with handles, hidden in the floor in the footwell of the rear seats, drawers under the front seats, 'secret' compartments beneath the rear seats, underfloor storage in the boot, magazine door nets for driver and front passenger, and drink can bins in the four side doors.

There are more can slots in the front centre console, a flip-top bottle holder in the rear, a facia top box where Birdview satellite navigation is not specified, a conventional front glovebox, two stretchable nylon nets in the boot area, as well as 10 anchorage points, and up in the roof lining there's a holder for sunglasses.

This then, is the car for the superstore family - thirty-something mum and dad and 2.4 inbetweenies in tow. There's even a 12-volt socket in the back so that little Jimmy can plug in the Gameboy when he's bored with colouring in on the seat-back table.

On the road

ALL this clever use of space would be wasted if Tino handled like a shopping trolley. In fact there's little discernible difference from the Almera hatchback in the way Tino drives - and that means well-controlled handling, a smooth ride and less body roll than you might expect for a CMPV, even one which is more compact than most of its rivals (it's a little taller than the hatch on which it is based, marginally plumper and 85mm longer).

Steering is a major key to this: as with the new standard Almera, it is direct and well-weighted, providing plenty of feedback and enabling accurate and satisfying positioning of the car on the road.

The next bonus is the combination of MacPherson strut front suspension, multilink beam rear axle and short wheelbase: hatchback stability, hatchback ride and thump refinement, and hatchback noise and vibration levels. And, just like Scenic, such a blend of abilities makes the Nissan deceptively quick: it is easy to drive quickly smoothly, and far more enjoyably, than in many hatches, let alone full-size MPVs.

The driving position is a little lower than in a Scenic, reinforcing the maker's message that this car does not want to be considered an MPV in the higher-than-thou sense. Our pick of the engines is the 2.2-litre intercooled, direct injection turbodiesel.

It's actually quicker off the mark than both the 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol units, has a massive torque advantage, is significantly more economical, and more benefit-in-kind tax efficient (see fact file). Like all diesels, even the new ones, the Tino's oil-burner is clattery on start-up, but that soon fades into the background. What we find curious is that Nissan does not offer its Hypertronic CVT with the 2.2 Di: automatics work well with diesels, and a continuously variable type would presumably be even more beneficial.

But: 'There's not the demand for it,' we were told. In fact, the CVT only comes with the 2.0-litre petrol ... and vice-versa: 2.0-litre has no manual option. Hypertronic is the latest version of the 'Dutch rubber band' system pioneered by DAF in the 1960s. In brief, it replaces conventional planetary gears and bands with two variable diameter pulleys, one on the output shaft, connected by a steel belt.

Drive is engaged via an electromagnetic clutch, which is itself regulated by a torque converter, so that no drive reaches the pulleys until power is applied.

The upshot of all this is seamless performance at peak engine efficiency or, to put it another way, up to 20% better fuel consumption while smoothly leaving a similarly-powered conventional auto struggling to keep pace.

It's got two built-in 'firsts', too. One is 'creep' which, unlike other CVTs, allows Tino to crawl forward on hills and in traffic, and the other is a sport mode to allow swifter acceleration and more pronounced engine braking.

OK, we're impressed. So why not make it available as an option on the 1.8 - itself a lively, smooth engine and expected to be the biggest hit with retail buyers - and the 2.2 Di? And, speaking of unattainable options, why is Birdview only offered as an add-on to the SE+ models when any of the three engines can be specified in any of the four trims, all of which have the facia-box space for it? Surely getting lost is not related to leather-trim steering wheel, six-disc autochanger and rear electric windows?

Verdict

WITH apologies for leaving a few questions unanswered, the new Almera Tino is a welcome entrant to the five-seater MPV class, bringing with it some genuine innovation and narrowing the refinement gap between standard hatchbacks and leisure-oriented compacts.

It will give existing rivals - CMPV and hatch - something more to worry about and another dose of peptic acid for those still beavering away over the drawing board and wondering why they didn't think of that first.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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