Ford made headlines last month with its plans to cull almost its entire passenger car lineup, including all of its sedans. Such a wide scale cull seemed unprecedented but Nissan’s European operations did something similar over a decade ago, discontinuing their volume C and D-segment offerings and offering only crossovers in their stead. This Primera was the last in a line of D-segment Nissans in Europe dating back over three decades.
Nissan has continually shown a willingness to axe slow-selling and unprofitable models. It withdrew completely from the mid-size segment in Australia in 1997, only returning in 2013. Then, just last year here, Nissan axed their entire non-performance car lineup including their entry in the largest non-crossover segment in Australia, the C-segment. And so it was in Europe a decade ago where the compact Almera and mid-size Primera were discontinued, leaving only the hot-selling Dualis crossover in their stead.
Although the Primera didn’t survive past this generation, it wasn’t for lack of trying on Nissan’s part. The third-generation was radically redesigned and the influence of Nissan’s new partner Renault was very clear. In fact, the Primera was even more radical to behold than the contemporary Renault Laguna it competed with, French designer Stephane Schwarz aiming for a coupe-like silhouette and penning a shape with crisp lines and exaggerated details.
(from top) Primera sedan, hatch and wagon
The sedan and hatchback, much like contemporary Ford Mondeos and Opel Vectras, were virtually indistinguishable with their fastback silhouettes. There was a wagon, too, which looked just as futuristic as its counterparts.
The interior, too, was revolutionary for a Primera. Gauges sat in a center-mounted cluster, à la the Saturn Ion and Toyota Echo, although they were angled towards the driver. The audio and air-conditioning controls sat on a canted platform, the design reminiscent of the contemporary Infiniti M45 and Q45. It was a modern and rather upscale interior and the feature content was luxurious for its class, including standard climate control on all models. Rather novel for its time, many Primeras came with a reversing camera, although it had only a black-and-white picture for the first few years. Top-spec models were also available with satellite navigation from launch.
The more luxurious feel was also aided by a smoother, more compliant ride which didn’t come at the expense of the keen handling the Primera had become known for. The Primera was powered by a choice of 1.8 and 2.0 petrols and a 2.2 diesel, with 1.6 and 2.5 petrol engines available outside of Europe. A more powerful common-rail turbodiesel arrived shortly after launch and, with 136 hp and 232 ft-lbs, proved to be just as rapid as the largest petrol mill – an extra 90 ft-lbs of torque will do that! Transmissions consisted of five- and six-speed manuals, while Nissan’s latest CVT transmission was made available across much of the range.
first and (facelifted) second-generation Primeras
The daring design was vastly different from the conservative first and second-generation Primera (Spanish for “the first”). Both of these generations were manufactured in the UK and Japan; Primeras from the latter country were sold in North America as the Infiniti G20. The second generation was an exceptionally cautious redesign and despite the Primera’s all-round competence and surprisingly sharp handling, especially in sporty trims, the Primera came to acquire a rather dour mini-cab image in the UK. Overall sales throughout Europe remained well adrift of the class-leading European offerings like the Volkswagen Passat and Ford Mondeo. However, the Primera continually performed better than Japanese rivals like the Toyota Avensis.
As you may have figured from this generation being the last Primera, Nissan wasn’t able to uproot the entrenched European opposition. Sadly, sales actually declined in Europe. The Primera had sold 100-120,000 units annually during the late 1990s but the new model could never muster 100k annual sales. By 2004, it was selling under 50k units annually and shortly thereafter, Nissan pulled the plug.
The third-generation Primera – or should that be “la tercera Primera”? – boasted all the attributes of its forebears but added some much-needed style. Unfortunately, it could never get out of the second tier in a segment that, although beginning to show signs of decline, was still hotly competitive and full of first-rate options. So, Nissan decided to cut its losses, a move that seems remarkably prescient today.
At least they went out with a bang.
Primera – the only one I’ve ever seen – photographed in downtown Brisbane in May 2018. It’s either an import from New Zealand, where Nissan maintained a presence in that segment when Australia didn’t, or a grey import from Japan.