I have always wondered what Nissan has been up to in India. They introduced the mass-volume Micra at a time when they hardly had any dealers – even today, the more expensive Sunny outsells the Micra. Then there is the perception that as long as they keep exporting a vast number of cars (they are the second-largest auto exporter, after Hyundai), they are not too bothered about the domestic market. Also they have the proven capability and history of making brilliant SUVs, but let their partner Renault be the first in launching a relevant one for the Indian market. Now they have a people carrier ready to be launched, which will also be badge-engineered for commercial applications by Ashok Leyland. And to make things just a wee bit complicated, in two years they will bring back from their past the Datsun brand that will be tailored for emerging markets. What gives? It doesn’t seem as if Nissan has a cohesive strategy in place right now, but I am sure a certain Lebanese-origin, Brazil-born, Japan-and-France-straddling executive has it all figured out.
Let’s leave all these macro issues for now and have a closer look at what we have in front of us – a multi-purpose vehicle wearing a name that perhaps has been researched all over the world for suitability, the Nissan Evalia. There must be something about this people-carrier, considering it is all set to become the taxi of choice for mega cities like New York and London. Well, there is. For one, it is fuel efficient (plus these cities will get alternative means of propulsion in their Evalias) as it runs on a proven diesel motor. Secondly, its turning radius is very good – just what you need in the city. And thirdly, sliding doors mean easy entry-exit even in narrow spaces. These three attributes should be good enough for you in case you’re looking at a family van. But I am sure you’d like to know more.
Let’s start with the way it looks. Most of the time, it is better looking than what will be its arch-rival, the Toyota Innova. It looks modern, with its fashionably cut sheet-metal, and aerodynamics have also played an important part in the way the front portion looks, especially the base of the A-pillar and upwards. But there is a preponderance of metal, mainly due to the small windows beyond the B-pillar, giving it the look of a panel van. The weakest point is its design at the rear, where the tailgate looms large and the tail-lamps are tucked into the corners. Contributing to its utilitarian looks are two elements – the sliding doors and the 165 R14-sized rubber, which don’t fill the wheel arches well. For a van, it is decent to look at, so it is not going to embarrass you in front of your neighbours.
Inside, it has acres of plastic, the quality of which is not exceptional and just about makes the grade. There are cubby-holes around for storage and there is a deep storage box between the two seats in the higher versions, which has some utility value. But this space could also have been utilised to fit an AC blower for the middle-row passengers who don’t get one – and the windows don’t open fully either! Positioning the gear lever on the dash also liberates space. Clever parts bin sharing means you will see bits of other Nissans in the Evalia; no complaints on that front. The driver sits at a high perch that offers good visibility, but it does not feel as high as the body-on-chassis Mahindra Xylo for instance. The instrument console is dominated by a familiar-looking speedo. To its one side are the idiot lamps and to the other – in the high-end versions – you get a multi-information display plus a reversing camera.
The middle row seats felt a bit wanting for shoulder room for three adults, but leg room is not an issue. There seems to be some dead space between the seats and the sliding door which could have been put to better use. The third row is just about enough for two adults and behind that there is usable room for luggage. Being a monocoque, the floor is flat and low, allowing for easy entry/exit as well as for loading luggage at the back. And the fuel tank is cleverly housed below the driver’s seat, which helps add weight to the front of the car. Overall, the Evalia gives a decent sense of space. Though it is shorter and less wide than the Innova and the Xylo, its wheelbase is better than either. What, however, would be good are captain’s chairs for the middle row, which is expected in the next couple of months, plus of course, airconditioning for the middle row.
Peer under the hood and you see the familiar K9K diesel motor inside, with enough room to spare to fit another one! The 1461cc inline-four turbodiesel develops 84.5 bhp but the torque is terrific, 20-plus kgm at 1750 rpm. More importantly, the power is sent, via a five-speed manual, to the front wheels in the Evalia vis-à-vis the rear-wheel driven competition and that makes all the difference with this MPV. Its turning radius of 5.2 metres is its strong point, which makes manoeuvring what is essentially a long van quite effortless on city roads. This could be its selling point, if Nissan wants to position it as a personal, urban MPV.
Initially I thought that the engine would be stressed to pull this van, but the easy arrival of torque makes all the difference plus the gearing is also good for most applications. The Evalia’s monocoque construction has contributed to weight savings, which is why they could manage with the small capacity K9K. At just over 1,400 kilos, the Evalia is a lightweight compared to the Innova and the Xylo. Needless to say, that is another reason why it sips diesel. At low speeds it tends to bog down a bit, but keep it in the 2000 rpm range and it is driveable across the gears without you having to downshift. Up on the mountain roads towards Nandi Hills in Bangalore, the Evalia’s motor needs to be kept on the boil, else you will have to shift to first in the hairpins. What is irritating is the drone that intrudes into the cabin, especially at the front. It gets pretty noisy and Nissan should spend a little money on sound insulation.
Now Nissan may say that the Evalia is car-like, but front-wheel drive and a monocoque alone don’t make a van behave like a car. Okay, it is much easier and friendlier to a person moving from a hatchback or sedan to get used to the Evalia versus the competition, but that’s it. The positioning of the steering wheel itself is a classic example of why it’s not car-like; it tends towards the horizontal plane. It is something that you will eventually get used to. When it comes to handling, you can sense the rest of the Evalia following you into the corner. It goes around corners quite well and there is a better sense of control as opposed to the competition. Provided you stick to its performance limits, the Evalia grips decently despite the smaller rubber. Thicker and taller rubber would make for better handling, but that could come at the cost of fuel consumption which is why Nissan is not offering it yet. The steering feedback is not exceptional and it is engineered to make things easy for you at moderate speeds. It serves its purpose; if you want feedback, get a girlfriend. The Evalia’s underpinnings offer a good ride that keeps the rough patches from intruding into the cabin – it is comfortable without being plush.
To sum up, the Evalia is good in parts. Manoeuvrability, looks, fuel efficiency and space are its strongest points. Its weakness is in the little elements that Nissan could easily reengineer, like the windows, the seating, the airconditioning, etc. The car itself is competent and well-engineered, and it even promises to serve you well for a long time, like an Innova. What Nissan should do is not get too ambitious with the pricing of the car – it is highly localised plus there are common elements with other cars in its portfolio, so they should price it competitively. If not, they are going to leave me sratching my head in puzzlement yet again.