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Nissan gets helping hand from Renault

COMMERCIAL VEHICLES

A joint venture with Renault has given Nissan access to a full range of vans that complement its existing commercial vehicle line-up.

Geoff Ashcroft reports

AFTER years of dabbling in the commercial vehicle market with a distinctly undersized portfolio, Nissan is now starting to reveal its hand.

The Japanese car maker has entered into a joint venture with Renault, which has given access to a complete range of vans up to 3.5 tonnes GVW, allowing Nissan to finally replace its ageing Vanette Cargo with a long-awaited, extended van range.

'We have developed a good reputation with a limited range of commercial vehicles, but we needed a wider range to allow us to compete more effectively in the market, ' explains Nissan light commercial vehicle and 4 x 4 brand manager Andrew Limbert.

'The quickest route to market was to form a strategic alliance with another manufacturer, which gives access to proven technology, such as Renault's common-rail diesel engines, ' he adds.

As a result of the alliance, Nissan now has its own versions of Renault's Master large panel van and Trafic medium van, which are badged as Interstar and Primastar respectively.

'It's much more than simply a badge engineering exercise, ' says Mr Limbert. 'We are aiming our Primastar van at the owner-driver and small fleet markets, rather than large fleet users, which means our version is much higher in standard specification, offering greater levels of in-cab comfort.'

Mr Limbert cites rear parking sensors, central locking, electric windows and electrically adjustable mirrors as examples of specification that can be found on the Primastar range.

The larger Interstar van also differs slightly from Renault's Master, but will only be sold by Nissan as a panel van - the firm doesn't want to jeopardise sales of its Cabstar E by offering the Interstar as a chassis-cab. This extended range of Nissan commercial vehicles is available through the firm's retail network of over 230 car dealers. But as part of Nissan's increased focus on the CV market, there is now a team of specialist CV managers and an additional network of 50 Nissan business centres, which deal solely with commercial vehicles.

'The business centres are strategically located around densely populated, urban areas, ' he says. 'We can offer overnight servicing and dedicated after-sales staff at these outlets to meet the needs of van users. But we didn't want to exclude owner-drivers such as tradesmen and utility users, who would still shop locally for their best deal, which is why the range remains available through our network of car dealers.'

Since embarking on its renewed journey through the commercial vehicle market, Nissan's market share has risen from 1.8 per cent to 2.5 per cent. And its sales volumes for January 2003 were 62 per cent up on the same period last year.

'By the end of this year, we hope to have secured 3.2 per cent of the UK's CV market, ' says Mr Limbert.

'This month's Commercial Vehicle Show will reveal further enhancements to our 4 x 4 Terrano van range too, which should keep us on track for even more growth.'

The Primastar on the road

PRIMASTAR is the most recent offering to join the Nissan range, and Construction News recently had the chance to put the van through an extended road test.

The van is available in two gross weights - 2,700 kg and 2,900 kg - and both are short wheel base versions available in E, SE and Access trim levels.

Over and above the basic E spec, the SE version adds rear parking sensors, full steel bulkhead, perimeter alarm, electrically heated and adjustable mirrors, plus electric windows and twin passenger seat.

The access trim level is as the SE but without the twin passenger seat, and its twin rear doors are replaced by a glazed tailgate.

Engines consist of two 1.9-litre diesel options, 82 hp and 100 hp, though the 100 hp version is reserved for SE and Access specifications.

A petrol-powered variant is due later this year, along with a more powerful 2.5-litre diesel engine, and long-wheel base and high-roof variants are also planned.

We sampled a 100 hp SE-specification Primastar and were pleasantly surprised by its performance. Coupled with a six-speed gearbox, the van is something of a motorway cruiser - the sixth gear knocking engine rpm down to keep in-cab noise levels acceptable.

But whereas other makers' diesel engines will pull firmly through a relatively broad rpm range, this turbo diesel motor has stamped out all it has by 3,500 rpm and the next gear beckons if acceleration is to be maintained.

It is a situation made all the more frustrating when watching a rev-counter that has the capacity to sweep round to 6,000 rpm, but with the pointer barely able to reach 4,000 rpm.

All this low-speed running is not all in favour of fuel efficiency - during a week's unladen motoring that saw 1,200 miles on the clock, it returned between 33.1 and 35.2 mpg. But the dividends come from extended service intervals - the dieselpowered Primastar only needs to visit the dealership every 18,000 miles.

Ride and handling are comfortable yet secure and, with disc brakes all round, the van stops just as well as it goes.

But there's little feedback from the front wheels when pushing through corners - it doesn't do anything badly, but it does fail to inspire those who have to spend long days at the wheel.

Getting past the van's external futuristic styling could be a stumbling block for traditionalists who prefer to see vans as nothing more than a box on wheels. But the cabin layout will no doubt be welcomed by those who need practical storage for many an item - be it documents, drinks bottles or flasks.

One thing I didn't need was a road map - this van came equipped with an optional satellite navigation system, a gizmo which has its ups and downs. I'd suspect you'd really need to be a courier to justify spending £1,000 on the system.

Remote controls for the audio system are conveniently located on the steering column, meaning your hands never need to stray off the wheel unless you're changing gear. And with a stubby gear lever projecting from the dashboard, this too falls easily to hand.

At the business end, the van offers a low-loading flat floor area measuring 2.41m long, 1.66 m wide and 1.38 m high, giving a total load volume of more than 5.5 cu m.

Access to the load area is through a pair of side-hinged rear doors that can be opened up through 250 deg, and a nearside sliding door. An optional offside opening door can be specified, but if you need to carry sheet materials measuring more than 2.41 m, waiting for the long wheel base version could prove to be a smart decision.

With prices starting at £13,025 plus VAT for the SE model we tested, the Nissan Primastar appears to represent good value for money. And when you consider it should only need to visit the dealer for a service every 18,000 miles, you can appreciate how Nissan is confident it will grow its share of the UK van market.