Back in 2002 I bought my first car, a 1992 Audi 100 2.3E. It was a handsome beast, comfortable, built like a bank vault, and with five cylinders, automatic climate control, a quiet interior and ABS brakes I could skip those terrible shitboxes than young people usually have to suffer in the beginning of their motoring life. But I learnt soon that the Audi left a lot to be desired about that “fun to drive” factor we car enthusiasts like so much, so after buying it almost immediately I started to look for a substitute. This would be a 1997 Nissan Primera GT, one of those unassuming looking cars that could teach a thing or two about driving pleasure.
Perhaps the name “Primera” doesn’t sound too familiar to American CC readers, but think “Infiniti G20” and you’ll recognise it. In theory the first and second generations of the Primera/G20 were conventional and dull looking medium size sedans/hatchbacks for the family man. In practice, a combination of revvy engines and sophisticated chassis made them very uplifting to drive. Why a car looking so inoffensive and destined to a generally indifferent audience was engineered to feel so good to drive is a mystery, but the truth is Nissan got it right from the start.
In its 1990 launch, the first generation Primera/G20 (or “P10”) was acclaimed by the European and North American press for being the best handling and more fun to drive family car. Well, let’s make that the only fun to drive medium size family car, with the exception of the Peugeot 405. The second generation Primera (“P11”) followed the recipe in 1996 carrying the same rev-happy 2.0 litre engine; as in the P10, that 2.0 litre was available in 130 and 150 bhp versions (the last in the top of the range GT model; back in 1997 that figure was a lot more impressive than today). A 1.6 petrol and a 2.0 diesel engines were also available. Shame that the 180 bhp Autech “Neo VVL” stayed in Japan. Incidentally, both Primera generations were built in Nissan’s Sunderland factory in England, avoiding sales restrictions for Japanese cars in the European Union. Just in case some of you raise an eyebrow about British car workers manufacturing skills (thanks British Leyland!), the Nissans were very well screwed together and reliable.
What made these cars so fun to drive? Well, the twin cam sixteen valve engine was an important factor, but the crucial one was a rather well solved suspension design. In the front, where almost every competitor boasted the usual McPhersons, the P10 and P11 had a front multilink device, derived from the 300 ZX Z32. In the rear, interestingly, the P11 had an apparently simple twist beam that seemed a retrograde step from the P10 independent suspension. But that beam was centrally located with what Nissan called a “Scott-Russell linkage”, similar to a Panhard rod, but more effective, better packaged and cheaper to make. What could seem a cheapskate feature proved to be a very good idea on the road; it must be one of the cleverest cost cutting engineering measures a Japanese car maker has introduced since the ´90s “yen shock”. In 1996 CAR Magazine declared the Primera SRi (2.0 litre, 130 bhp) as “one of the top 20 best handling cars”. Editor Mark Graham brillantly summed up: “The Primera is the best- handling minicab money can buy”, alluding to the Primera (and its predecessor the Bluebird) popularity as minicab in England. Another worthy quote was: “It takes just one lap to see the Primera is no track virgin”. Clearly, all those miles covered in the Nordschleife testing prototypes weren´t wasted.
A pity that styling was so derivative. The P10 was bland but at least it was 1990 and almost every family car was dull (in Europe, at least). The P11, launched in Europe at the end of 1996, was a make over of the first generation, and perhaps less elegant. In those years car makers were starting to be just a bit more risky: the new Peugeot 406 and Volkswagen Passat and the post restyling Ford Mondeo/ Contour were more modern and daring. The GT version was a bit fussy, too; with the deep front spoiler, rear wing and deep side skirts, the standard 15” alloys looked small. The interior didn’t win any prizes for class, especially its naff seat upholstery, but ergonomics were alright, and those sports seats were giving you a hint about the nature of the GT. Rather nice room in the back and useful boot, too.
But the Primera GT wasn’t a car you want to sit in the rear seat. You wanted to drive it. The SR20DE engine showed great enthusiasm climbing to the 7000 rpm redline. The gearbox was perfectly matched, thanks to short throws and fast action. And I have seldom driven cars so happy to be tossed around: flat cornering and good grip from the Pirellis P6000 weren’t missed, despite tyres were only 195/60. The best term I can use to describe it was “chuckable”: you pointed the bend, the car went around it, understeer well suppressed, safely, no questions asked.
Remembering my old Primera while writing this article reminded me that just a few years ago you didn’t need a lots of power to enjoy driving (performance was decent; a 8.5 seconds in the 0-100 km/h dash is not so bad, as is a 135 mph top speed) and looking my old refuelling notes, it could be rather economical. About 8 liters/100 kilometres, or 30 US mpg at 75 mph cruising, was easy to get.
And about reliability, well, my car was cheap because it needed a new clutch and a pair of front brake rotors. An electric window regulator broke, and a coolant hose developed a leak, the coolant falling on the alternator. Apparently the alternator wasn’t very happy with the coolant shower, and a few days later started to groan and finally failing.
I was rather happy with it, but after two years of ownership something terrible happened. I was struck by the Saab bug. I always liked the 9000, and by chance I met some guys from the local branch of a Saab club that convinced me to look for a 9000 Aero in the classifieds ads ignoring my zippy and practical Primera. Six months later, I found my Aero: a 1997, 120,000 miles, one owner, lovely car I owned for seven years. Much faster that the Primera, but with an arthritic chassis very inferior to the Nissan’s, my old Aero was a great car but taught me that it’s a lot more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.