Nissan marketing director Neil Burrows said: 'Sales of Almera have been low compared to average company sales. For Primera, we take about a 4.5% share, and the Micra more like 8%. Overall we have about 4.5%. But Almera has been more like 2.5% and we want to see that rise to about 4% or 4.5%.'
In a bid to appeal to key potential buyers, the firm has spent millions of pounds researching drivers' needs to help in designing the car. It is 'designed in Europe, for Europe', according to Nissan. Build quality was another major issue and VW's Golf is now the key benchmark as part of a £200 million investment in Nissan's Sunderland plant, where the Almera will be built alongside Micra and Primera.
Research also provided a vital insight into the small details needed in a car, from an abundance of storage pockets to a small 'curry hook' in the passenger well. In all there are 20 'super utility' features. There is a power point at the rear of the centre console for plugging in games machines, which can be used to power laptops through an adapter.
Outside, replaceable bumper inserts allow for small bumps and scrapes to be repaired at lower cost than paying for a new fitting. For the first full year on sale, Nissan is expecting to sell about 20,000 Almeras, giving 3% market share. Almera will go on sale on March 1, although deliveries to dealerships start this month. It will begin the biggest launch for Nissan since the Micra in 1993, with £15 million being spent on advertising.
Buyers have a choice of a three- and five-door hatchback at launch and three engines - a brand new 1.5-litre petrol and 2.2-litre high pressure direct injection diesel. A 1.8-litre petrol unit already seen in the Primera completes the choice. The diesel offers extended service intervals, up from 6,000 miles of six months to 12,000 or 12 months. Petrol engine intervals remain at 9,000 miles.
A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, while a four-speed auto is being considered for the 2.2 diesel and 1.5 petrol. A satellite navigation system which provides a bird's eye view of the route, called Birdview, will be an option. Trim levels are branded in the same way as Primera, with S, SE, SE+, Sport and Sport+. The 1.5 gets E, S and SE, while the 1.8 has the whole range and the diesel is offered in S, SE and Sport+.
Fleet buyers are expected to favour the 1.8-litre petrol, but the 1.5 SE is billed as the overall best seller. The new diesel should take 10% of sales. A GTi is not planned, but an estate and saloon are on the drawing board. However, there will be a Spanish-built mini-MPV on the same platform, the Almera Tino, which arrives in the autumn.
With European focus on the design process, Nissan has ensured that the new Almera is suited to the challenges thrown at it by European roads. Suspension settings were tested on German autobahns and unmade roads in Spain to ensure they offered good handling and comfort. During a test-drive in the 2.2-litre diesel in the winding hills and rutted streets surrounding Rome, it was clear that the designers knew just what European drivers would be putting their cars through.
The suspension is firm without being harsh, allowing for stable cornering with little roll, although rutted surfaces at slow speeds can catch the car out. The noise of the diesel engine, Nissan's first use of a direct injection unit in a passenger car, was suppressed at speed and unintrusive around town.
Performance relied on keeping the engine above 2,000rpm - if it fell below that, response was lethargic. Keep the revs high, however, and the car put in a performance worthy of a petrol engine. Ironically, the Birdview navigation system, available in the summer as an option, managed to send several journalists normally reliant on old-style maps off the test route and into the countryside. Some of the badly-kept roads we encountered showed the car in a good light, although there was significant boom in the cabin, but the worst of the juddering from the cobbles and ruts was kept out.
Half of all Almera sales are expected to go to fleets and user-choosers will be the cornerstone of business sales. Already, key fleet customers have taken to the wheel during a driving event in Rome, while dealers went to Spain to put the car through its paces. Contract hire firms were targeted by Nissan as part of a concerted effort to ensure the model has good predicted residual values, a vital factor in ensuring competitive leasing rates.
Burrows said: 'To ensure there is not too much volume in the used car market, we will reduce the number of vehicles going to the daily rental sector.' CAP Motor Research estimates that the 1.8SE 5dr will be worth £4,775 or 35% of its new value after three years/ 60,000 miles, with rivals such as Ford's Focus 1.8 Zetec on 37% and Vauxhall's Astra 1.8 CD at 34%, but way behind Golf on 42%. The 1.5S 5dr is expected to be worth £4,350 (36%).