Review and road test of the Nissan Primera (1990 - 1999)
SENSIBLE & SMART
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
If there is such a thing as a 'British' Japanese car, then Nissan's Primera is the original article. The first one rolled out of the company's Sunderland plant in 1990, built with European steel, screwed together with European parts.
Since then, the car has been gradually improved - but, even in its third generation - not beyond recognition. Reliability and value for money remain its keynotes - good news for the used buyer.
Models Covered:FIRST GENERATION PRIMERA1990-1996: (5dr hatchback, saloon 1.6 , 2.0, 2.0 diesel [L, LS, LX, LSX, SLX, ZX, EGT, GSI, GX, GSX, SGX, SRI, SE, Equation, Precision]
SECOND GENERATION PRIMERA - LATE 1996 TO 1999: (5dr hatchback, saloon, estate 1.6, 2.0, 2.0 turbodiesel [Equation, GX, SX, SLX, SE, SRI])
The Primera had an unfortunate start in life - and not only because it replaced the dull and generally unloved Bluebird, the first Nissan car built in the UK. At the time of its launch in 1990, Nissan was arguing with its former British distributor and the Primera suffered in the legal battle.
By the time Nissan put things right and established a new dealer network, customers were confused and some remained so right up until the Summer of 1993 when the Series II models were announced with anti-lock brakes, fuel injection and side impact protection beams as standard.
First generation cars offered a choice of three body styles - saloon, hatch and estate - with three petrol engines - a 95bhp 1.6, a 121bhp 2.0-litre and a 150bhp 2.0-litre unit. A 2.0-litre 75bhp normally aspirated diesel was launched in 1992.
In the autumn of 1994, the Series III range was announced, recognisable by new light clusters and a chrome grille. Inside, driver airbags were at last standard.
Things really changed in 1996 however. An all-new Primera was launched, fresh from the doors up, though it looked little different. Great to drive, it still lacked character. A superb 2.0-litre turbo diesel replaced the poor old two-litre normally-aspirated unit of the old model. An estate was launched in April 1998, replacing the first generation model which had soldiered on until then.
Slow sales were attributed by the UK importers to the bland looks with the result that a major restyle was commissioned and a revised, much better-looking range launched in September 1999. Inside and out, this car was much more stylish and the range now included a 1.8-litre petrol engine. All trim/equipment designations were new, too, including smart Sport and Sport + versions. This did little to spur customer take up and in late 2001 a boldly styled range of all-new Primeras was announced.
What You Get
A family-sized medium range car that's still among the best cars to drive in the sector. The sixteen-valve engines are willing and relatively quiet (though those observations can't unfortunately be made of the older diesels).
Build quality is generally very good and, as you might expect from a Japanese car, equipment levels are mostly high.
What to Look For
Avoid entry-level L-specification models which didn't have standard power steering from early 1992. Also avoid non-turbocharged diesels if you can; apart from anything else, many will be ex-taxis. Bear in mind that pre-1993 Series II cars don't have ABS or side impact bars. Try for an LX as a minimum spec choice for pre-September '96 models or GX on the later cars. These variants offer central locking and all-round electric windows on the LX and include air conditioning on the GX. Special editions are plentiful but few are worth paying more than about £150 extra. Check a standard car to see what you're gaining.
Also note that first generation estates (built in Japan rather than the UK) weren't replaced by a new UK model until May 1998 even though the second generation saloon and hatchback arrived in September '96.
Check for ageing, smoky engines on first generation cars which are also known for out of balance wheels and faulty power windows. Trim can get a bit untidy, too. Second generation cars are much improved with no makor niggles - make all the usual checks and try to find a car with full service history. This is important as many second and third generation examples will still have some of Nissan's three-year warranty left.
(approx. based on a 1995 Primera 1.6) A full exhaust will be around £275. An alternator is about £140 (exchange) and a front headlamp will be close to £90. A radiator is around £140 and a starter motor around £100.
Brake pads are £35 for the front and £30 for the rear and a full clutch assembly will be around £125
On the Road
Primeras are exceptionally reliable - you'd expect that from a Nissan. What might come as something of a shock is the way that the car drives. This was the first model the company produced that was genuinely satisfying to hustle around twisty roads. The suspension still puts more recent efforts to shame, while providing a smooth and comfortable ride.
Inside, the interior is easy to live with, though reversing isn't helped by thick rear pillars which obstruct your view.
One of the most sensible family buys around. It might cost you a little more than an equivalent Sierra, Mondeo, Cavalier or Vectra but it should be worth it.
Nissan Primera (1990 - 1999) review by JONATHAN CROUCH