Leading the new Primera's crusade into fleets is a 1.8-litre petrol engine to fill the void between 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre options. Simon Carr, Nissan GB's fleet sales director, says the upper medium sector has traditionally accounted for about 25% of all new car sales but in the last six years sales of 1.6-litre engined cars have halved from 20% to 10% of the market, while sales of 1.8-litre engined models have increased to take a 40% share of the sector. He said: 'The market dynamics have changed, which has given us an opportunity to introduce a 1.8-litre engine which we believe will appeal to user-choosers because that is where the market is expanding.'
Developing 114bhp at 5,600rpm, peak torque of 117 lb-ft at 2,800rpm and a offering combined cycle fuel consumption of 38.7mpg, the engine looks good on paper. And with a carbon dioxide emissions figure of just 180g/km it betters many of its key rivals, including the 1.8 Ford Mondeo at 185g/km, the 1.8 Peugeot 406 at 209g/km and the 1.8-litre Vauxhall Vectra at 195g/km (company car tax is likely to be based on CO2 emissions from April, 2002).
Prices are still not confirmed, but Nissan says any increases will be more than compensated for in extra specification. The existing range starts at £13,900 on-the-road for the 1.6-litre Equation, through to £19,800 for the 2.0-litre SE estate. And for the first time the September 1 on-sale date will see Nissan launch its entire Primera range - four-door, five-door and estate - at the same time. It also expected that on top of the S, Sport and SE trims there will be additional luxury levels.
There are now four engine options, including the new 1.8-litre petrol which joins the existing 1.6 and 2.0-litre petrol models and the 2.0-litre turbodiesel. All of these units are fitted with on-board diagnostics systems which continuously check vehicle emissions. If they exceed European standards a warning light will inform the driver. The system will detect anything from a misfire to a catalyst malfunction that may affect emission levels.
The new Primera now also offers three transmission choices, with a more refined five-speed manual, a new hypertronic CVT automatic transmission, and a CVT M6 which incorporates a six-speed clutchless sequential shift. Early indications are that the standard CVT will come in as an option at about £950, with the M6 costing £250 on top of that.
Changes to the existing range also see a host of new safety features including mechanical brake assist, driver, passenger and side airbags as standard, ISOFIX car seat fixings and Xenon headlamps. For extra security there is double-plip anti-hijacking technology and a touch panel boot release, which cannot be operated when the engine is running. There is also a new climate control system, which is integrated into a new centre console design. Standard specification across the range now includes ABS, brake assist, dual front and side airbags, climate control, electric front windows, electric and heated wing mirrors, six-speaker stereo, and storage includes cupholders, driver's sunglasses holder, coin box, and card holder. Extra equipment for higher trim levels includes white instrument dials. Sport and SE add body-coloured body kit, leather steering wheel and leather gearknob.
There is no doubt the new Primera is a dramatic improvement on the outgoing model. Exterior styling has improved lines and a more squat appearance, accentuated by body-coloured skirts on the Sport and SE, wider wheel arches, a more rounded bonnet and chromed grille. Xenon gas-filled lights can be specified to add to the sporting look of the car, while also providing a safety feature - the blue light produced is said to be less of a strain on the eyes than yellow non-gas beams.
The rear of the car has also changed substantially with the whole boot sculpted to incorporate a low spoiler, before flaring out again at the bottom. A curving new rear light design is also added. The interior deserves the major facelift description. Its all-new dashboard and centre console is more fluid, and the stereo, climate control and other functions are integral to the design. One of the greatest improvement becomes immediately apparent on the road - Nissan has done wonders in cutting out exterior noise. The manufacturer claims road and wind noise has been reduced by 45%. Both on motorways and on country roads the difference is astounding.
At the launch event I had the opportunity to drive the 1.8-litre, 2.0-litre with CVTM6 in Sport trim and the 2.0-litre estate, also with the CVTM6 transmission. It is easy to see why Nissan has pinned so many of its fleet hopes on this new 1.8-litre model, with its mid-range torque providing impressive overtaking power, while maintaining good economy. The ride was a little soft, but by choosing the sport option, revisions to the multi-link suspension mean a far firmer ride. There have also been improvements to the seating, with the seat lengthened, allowing for a more comfortable journey for drivers with longer legs.
What will really get company car drivers talking and enjoying their journeys is the CVTM6. While the normal CVT is a good performing automatic, with smooth changes, the M6 allows for more driver involvement. By switching the auto's shift to the right the gearbox becomes sequential - knock it up for an up change and down for a down change, with no clutch. It works well, with the engine responding instantly to shifts. It can be switched to an ultra-economical sixth gear, which during motorway cruising provides 15% better economy than the standard automatic and up to 5% better economy than the manual 'box, although the saving may be wiped out as a result of poorer fuel economy around town.
And at £1,250 extra for the whole CVTM6 package, which is only available on the 2.0-litre model, it will cost from about £18,500 to enjoy this hi-tech mode of driving. Similar advances have been made with the estate. It still benefits from minimum wheel arch intrusion, has cargo hooks mounted to the bodywork, and also now includes an underfloor storage compartment, which can be used to hide items such as laptops or other small valuables. It can also be turned over to provide a washable, waterproof trough to store things like muddy boots.
Simon Carr remains realistic about sales of the new Primera and says that he expects the marque to retain about a 4-5% market share of the upper-medium vehicle sector. This will mean selling about 25,000 vehicles next year, and Carr says that about 66% of these will go into fleets. He said: 'The most important thing we are looking at now is not increasing the numbers dramatically - we could do that if we wanted - but which fleets are buying these cars. This new Primera has been designed to appeal far more to the user-chooser market, and the 1.8 puts us in a strong position to do that.'
Carr says that with the improvements and expansion of fleet emphasis will come improved residual values, which he believes will creep above the mid-30% of price new for a vehicle at the end of a three-year/60,000-mile cycle. It remains to be seen whether that Nissan badge continues to prove a problem for a manufacturer whose car is entirely British-designed and built, and will not even leave the European market to go on sale in Japan. The increased engine line-up, new transmissions, new look inside and out, and general increase in specifications are guaranteed to make many fleets take a second look at this Sunderland model. And rightly so. It's an attractive fleet package.