COAL Capsule(s)/Round up: 2012 Perodua Viva and 1999 Nissan Primera – Short Term Cars and a Bit of Reflection

The two cars that feature in this final (for the moment) installment of my COAL series both didn’t stick around long enough to form much of an impression on our lives. However, they are both unlikely to be very familiar to CC members so I felt that they deserved a few moments in the spotlight. The first of the two is the car I have owned for the shortest period of time of all my cars, just over a month in fact. I ended up owning it because of a joke I made to my mechanic friend, who ended up with my W124. This little Perodua was owned by his company and was effectively a shop hack, used for general running around.

When I jokingly suggested that he buy the Mercedes, the full suggestion was actually that he trade me the Viva and some cash, because I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to sell one of these, and if it was, I could always use it to bomb around for a bit. The whole idea made very little sense for my friend, but he liked the Mercedes so he agreed without putting too much thought. So in early 2023, I found myself the proud (?) owner of a Perodua Viva.

Impressive? No, but adequate for sure.

“What exactly is a Perodua Viva?”, you might ask. It is, in short, a very small city car manufactured by Malaysia’s second homegrown car maker Perodua, built from 2007 until 2015. It was based on the sixth-generation Daihatsu Mira, which is a Kei-class Japanese city car. It was effectively a restyled version of that car, produced in Malaysia. The Mira only had Kei class powerplants (sub 660cc), but the Viva was available with a choice of 660cc and 989cc three pots. It ended up being quite popular in emerging markets like ours, and was a pretty big hit for Perodua all around. The car I owned was a 2012 model, which meant it was a facelifted version and had such luxuries as four power windows and two front airbags! Motivation was provided by the 989 CC version of the Perodua three-cylinder, actually a pretty advanced engine with DOHC, four valves per cylinder and even dual variable valve timing. It thundered out all of 60 horsepower and 66 lb/ft of torque, which must seem like lawnmower power figures to North American CC readers! 

But because the Viva was pretty light (under 800 kg all in), this meant that it was peppy enough, even with the power-sapping four-speed auto the car was saddled with. I haven’t really bothered to look up performance figures, but the Viva had no trouble keeping up with traffic and didn’t feel outmatched on the open road, so long as only two of the five seats were occupied. It was, in all honesty, a competent little car, and cheap as chips to run and fix, just the sort of thing that would work as an extra car to hack about. I thought about just hanging on to it for a bit, but the near complete lack of crash safety was not something I could look past, even as an occasional car for driving. The Viva just felt way too light and tinny all around and I’d heard a few disturbing stories of how they performed in any impact greater than a fender bender, so up for sale it went. 

It was pretty well packaged for a tiny car, honestly.

At this point, I got to see how the popular end of the used car market in Sri Lanka worked. Something I’d never seen before since I almost always buy odd cars that only enthusiasts would like. Putting any of those up for sale always meant a low volume of inquiries and a patient wait of a few weeks to a couple of months before the right buyer came along. The Viva, on the other hand, was more like putting a juicy steak in front of a pack of starving hyenas! I had never seen anything like it, the phone rang 3-4 times every hour and a large number of those calls translated into inspections too. At one point, four different people looked at the car within a one-hour period. Needless to say, with that level of interest finding the right buyer took a matter of days, and I didn’t even have to come down much from my intentionally somewhat high asking price. It took less than 5 days from advertising to concluding the sale, and some of that delay was while the buyer worked out a lease with his bank. All in all, the Viva proved to be my easiest selling experience by a country mile.

Five reasonable-sized humans could fit pretty well.

After the Viva departed, the search began again for yet another car. My very patient wife rolled her eyes a bit and asked why we couldn’t manage with just two or one car but after hearing the many justifications I came up with she stayed quiet. Part of me wanted something fun and a bit daft, like an Alfa 156, but for once the sensible side prevailed and I focused on on reliable Japanese machinery from the 90s or 2000s. The main criteria were space and reliability, so the options considered were fairly mainstream with a focus on hatchbacks and station wagons. I had basically narrowed my choices down to a Mazda 3 hatch or a Nissan Wingroad (think of it as a Versa wagon), when a friend sent me an ad for a late 90s Nissan Primera station wagon, a car that I had actually forgotten even existed. The sedan version I knew of was a pretty fun and interesting car, but the wagon was a rare bird and almost never came up for sale. The first ad was from a town a few hours away and the owner was extremely difficult to coordinate with for an inspection. After several attempts, I had just about given up when another ad for a completely different example appeared on one of the auto-classified sites. 

This turned out to be a local, two-owner example, used by the current owner for the last decade. It seemed pretty promising so I scheduled a visit. The owner was not really a car guy, but he liked his car and had taken care of it fairly well. The test drive revealed weak shocks and some other suspension noises, but nothing too scary, or so it seemed. The owner admitted that he was not mechanically minded so he basically just drove the car and fixed anything that he was advised needed fixing during the periodic oil change service. We settled on a price and I picked the car up a few days later, and immediately sent it to my regular shop with the instructions to fix everything that needed fixing. 

Doesn’t look it, but quite an interesting thing.

Well, as you can probably guess, “everything that needed fixing” turned out to be a pretty long list. It wasn’t that the car had been neglected, really, it’s just that absolutely no proactive maintenance, beyond fixing whatever was broken, had been carried out so it all ended up becoming my problem. By the end of the fixing process, it had a new suspension, a refreshed cooling system, engine mounts, oil seals and several other bits I had forgotten, adding up to nearly 50% of the purchase price when all was said and done. I didn’t begrudge the expense because the plan was to use this car for a few years, as a second daily driver, which my wife would drive most of the time. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way because my wife said that she would prefer using the Forester since to her the Primera felt cumbersome to drive. I didn’t see what she was on about because to me it seemed like a very pleasant and easy-to-operate example of late 90’s Japanese cars. 

The second generation of Nissan Primera (sold in the US as the Infiniti G20) was one of those cars that was regarded very highly in its time by those who drove it, but was overshadowed in the market by competitors with more showroom appeal. With a well-developed chassis and drivetrain, it was a remarkably capable handler and racked up quite a record in British and European Touring Car racing in the late 90s and early 2000s. Unfortunately, the majority of the development budget appeared to have been spent on things you couldn’t see, so all this goodness was clothed in a body that was effectively “generic 90s car”. This would mean it didn’t quite have the sales success it deserved, and led to the number of survivors being very small indeed globally. Sri Lanka, of course, is the land where everything survives, so we have a pretty healthy population of the sedan version at least. But wagons were rare and as far as I know, this is one of maybe 5 cars that are here in total. 

A very useful and somewhat distinctive rear-end.

The wagon at least looks a little more distinctive than the sedan thanks to the fairly sharply raked rear window. It’s a clean shape and ironically stands out a bit now among the sea of boring that modern everyday cars seem to have become. The Primera was offered in Japan with a fairly wide choice of versions, and the hottest among them had Nissan’s SR20VE variable valve timed 2.0l DOHC four putting 190 BHP to the front wheels through a CVT gearbox (the only choice for the top engine, oddly). Mid-range models had the non-VVT SR20DE, which still managed 150 BHP and was available with a manual, said to be nearly a match for the peaky VVT engine and CVT combo. Those models came with nice wheels and aero enhancements as well.

There were even more versions besides these.

Mine unfortunately is simply a base model, with the QG18 1.8l four and an old school four-speed auto gearbox, so a very generic 90s Japanese car specification, really. On paper figures for this engine are around 125 BHP and 125lb ft, which are again very average. In use, it feels perfectly adequate with reasonable low-end torque and smooth operation, but it doesn’t really like to be pushed, unlike the SR series engines which zing up to redline with real verve. Overall, the best description for it would be “competent”. The chassis on the other hand rates a fair bit higher, with really sharp responses, good grip, and a decent level of feedback. This is one family hack that can acquit itself very well when being hustled, I must say. 

So the Primera ended up being a nice car after the “open wallet surgery,” but the problem was that the eventual cost of all of that ended up straining the household budget quite a bit more than we were comfortable with. Combined with the fact that my wife doesn’t really like driving it, and that I have two other older cars that need care and attention, while the Forester itself is no spring chicken, led to a discussion where we concluded that the second daily driver was a drain on finances that we really didn’t need at this point in time. So the Primera is now up for sale, and I’m hoping that I won’t end up too far upside down on it in terms of return. We are going to try to manage with one daily driver for a while, and review the situation when school runs and so on become a necessity. 

A very 90s Japanese cabin, lots of glass, low dash and good visibility.

And with that, my current COAL series comes to an end. At the moment, my little stable consists of the Forester, 406 Coupe and the Primera until it sells, while Bugsy is also around as a focus of my attention. There’s also another old car, that I am technically caring for but don’t own, which will get its time in the spotlight at some point in the future. The internet says that the average person will own 6 to 8 cars over their lifetime, but it appears that those of us with petrol in our veins are pretty far above average on that score, because I just counted and it seems I have already owned 20 in the 16 years that have elapsed since I got my license! All going well, that number should likely go up quite a bit before I’m finally ready to turn in my keys, assuming private vehicle ownership will still be a thing in the future (I sure hope it is!). 

If you were to ask me what my favorite of my COAL so far is, with a bit of thought, I’d have to say the Miata. It is most certainly the car I regret selling the most and the one I’d like to have back one day. The Forester I also like very much because it does the practical stuff very well while being fun to drive and is really quite fast. The others have all added value to my life to one degree or another, and they’ve all been fun to own, in their own ways. I’ve been fortunate indeed to have the means to indulge my car hobby, and to find a wife who is understanding of its importance to my life. Other priorities mean that I may not be able to indulge in it quite as much as I once did, but I do hope that whatever I drive will always be interesting and different from the norm, because I firmly believe that life is too short to drive boring cars. 

I appreciate everyone who read these for coming along on this journey with me, and I hope you enjoyed reading my chronicles as much as I enjoyed writing them. Thank you for reading, it really means a lot!