When Renault formed its alliance with Nissan and basically rescued the Japanese carmaker from becoming history, the priority in the initial years was to quickly fix the product lines since products are crucial to success. During the 1990s, Nissan?s product lines had stagnated and customers wandered away, causing a sales decline which only compounded its massive financial problems. Because the recovery was such a massive task, priority was given to the markets which would be able to provide quick returns and these were the USA and Europe and of course, the domestic line-up also needed to be quickly updated.

Other smaller markets like the rest of Asia just had to wait till the big markets were stabilised and Nissan was in a better financial position. This is why it seemed like Nissan was not doing anything for this region (in terms of new products) and did not even announce any plans to make use of the benefits of the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA). Distributors like Edaran Tan Chong Motor (ETCM) in Malaysia just had to make do with what they had till Nissan could give attention to refreshing the products.

The waiting ended sometime in 2004 and planning began to develop new products specifically for the ?general markets?, ie those other than the big ones mentioned earlier. This included China, a giant market with much promise, and ASEAN. Toyota had already announced its IMV project which was intended to provide appropriate products for developing markets around the world and the IMV models were conceived to be cheaper to produce.

Coming in later may have been disadvantageous in one way but it also allowed Nissan to see what Toyota was doing and how well its IMV strategy worked, and certainly it has been quite a success. For Nissan then, the challenge was to come up with a global product that would meet the needs of the same markets that Toyota?s IMV project targeted but unlike Toyota, which is very rich, Nissan could not afford to develop an entirely new platform and had to make use of common platforms. Nevertheless, the product development cost was said to be around US$120 million.

The choice was the B-platform which was already used for some Nissan and Renault models and could be adapted for a MPV, the bodystyle deemed suitable for a large number of markets. The product plan called for the new model to be produced entirely outside Japan, something which has not been the case in the past where there has usually been a ?mother plant? in Japan. Because of this approach, it also took a bit longer than usual because extra and more significant investments were needed in other countries and the right ones needed to be selected as production hubs for the model. Of course, the engineering and design work was all done in Japan.

China was the first country in the world to get the new model called Livina Geniss (also called ?Jun Yi?) when it was launched last November. After China, Nissan had looked at ASEAN and saw that the biggest MPV market in this area was Indonesia so it was the best place to make the model for the region and it pumped in money to refurbish its own plant in West Java to produce the first righthand drive variant of the model.

Toyota Avanza and Innova (right) – the two models which the Grand Livina will take on

In developing the Grand Livina, as it is called in Indonesia, the target model was the Toyota Avanza as well as the Innova, the top-sellers there. According to Satoshi Matsutomi, Chief Product Specialist for the model, the product planners aimed to produce a rival which offered better comfort at an affordable price. They actually focussed more on the Innova, a larger model, which was the best-seller in Indonesia, continuing the success of the original Kijang.

?However, since the time we began development of the Grand Livina, economic conditions in Indonesia have changed and it appears that the Avanza has become much more popular than the Innova so we need to take a new look at our positioning,? he revealed.

Nissan Tiida/Versa

Nissan Sylphy

Mr Matsutomi? said that a key difference in the approach taken in the design of the Grand Livina in comparison to the Toyota IMV models is that the new Nissan model has a monocoque platform, similar to a car?s, whereas the IMV models use a chassis frame that is usually for trucks. The monocoque platform guarantees a more comfortable ride, and the B-platform is already in use for the Tiida/Versa and Sylphy.

Depending on the version, there are different front end styles but all seem to be derived from the Murano

Mr Matsutomi said that the Grand Livina is not intended to compete with the Honda Stream, Mazda5 and Toyota Wish as these are more upmarket in concept. ?In China, the main competitor for the Grand Livina is the Mazda Premacy (the predecessor of the Mazda5),? he said.

The size of the Grand Livina is close to that of an Avanza but the Nissan sits lower, partly because of its passenger car platform. This, however, doesn?t sacrifice ground clearance which is important in many Asian markets because of floods. And in spite of the floor being 185 mm off the ground, the sills and seat heights have been thoughtfully positioned so that the hip point is at a more comfortable level for most people to slide in rather than climb in, which is what Mr Matsutomi said is often the case with the Avanza.

Looks-wise, the first thing that comes to mind is ?Murano? because of the grille design which mimics that found on the SUV. It?s a bold ?face? for the Grand Livina which should help it stand out from other MPVs but it may not be to everyone?s liking. The side profile is well proportioned and quite clean, with well defined edges rather than a curvaceous look.

For the Indonesian market, the Grand Livina comes with engines from two different Nissan powerplant families mated to either 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmissions. The smaller engine is a 1.5-litre HR15DE while the larger one is a 1.8-litre MR18DE (which also gets a 6-speed manual transmission). Both engine families are quite new and were developed jointly by Nissan and Renault.

Nissan HR15DE engine

With shared technologies, the 4-cylinder engines have claims of class-leading torque levels and lightness as well as 30% less friction than earlier Nissan engines in the same class. An interesting feature of these engines is the length of the four intake manifold branches which were acoustically-tuned for a pleasant engine sound. The sound pressure also rises as the engine speed increases to enhance the sensation of acceleration.

Both DOHC 16-valve engines have Nissan Continuous Valve Timing Control (CVTC) on the inlet valves to broaden the powerband and outputs are as follow:

HR15DE: 109 ps/6000 rpm, 148.2 Nm/4400 rpm
MR18DE: 128 ps/5200 rpm, 175.7 Nm/4800 rpm

It is believed that Nissan is also looking at the HR16DE 1.6-litre engine as another option for the Grand Livina, perhaps for certain markets. This engine produces 118 ps and 166.9 Nm and might give Nissan a selling point over the Avanza which has 1.5-litres as its largest displacement.

The chassis is quite straightforward with independent MacPherson struts in front and a simple H-shaped torsion beam axle with stabilizer at the rear. As complete technical details were not available, it is uncertain if the suspension has the ?ripple control? feature in the rear dampers and a rebound spring, which is found in some of the B-platform models.

With regard to load capacity, Mr Matsutomi said that the suspension is good enough for the loads that are expected for the Grand Livina. He agreed that a chassis frame handles loads well but explained that the Grand Livina was developed with comfort in mind and a monocoque chassis is better in that respect. He did not think that there would be any issues with load-carrying even with seven persons on board.

From the Grand Livina?s exterior size, you would not imagine that three rows of seats can be installed but the Nissan designers managed it in a fairly roomy ? for its class ? cabin although the ceiling is low for a MPV. The third row seat is set at a reasonable height off the floor though like other MPVs in this class, it can do with extra height. However, any higher and there would be headroom problems. The folding of the third row backrest was designed with an easier operation than the Avanza?s, Mr Matsutomi pointed out, emphasising that the backrests also fold into the floor for a completely flat cargo area.

Up front, the layout is the same as that of a passenger car (hardly surprising, of course).? The controls and switches are not excessive and the instrument panel has a nice simple layout. Like an increasing number of new cars, the coolant temperature gauges is left out, which I?m still not sure is a good thing!

There are a few nice features worth pointing out. One is the slot for the handphone next to the handbrake lever (very necessary nowadays) and another is the bottle-holder for the rear occupants. Positioned between the front seats, this holder pops up over the air-conditioner vents ? yes, there are vents for the rear occupants too ? so that the drink can be kept cool. Now isn?t that clever, yet simple? The glovebox is also quite large and deep and from discussions with Kinny Saitou, a Product Chief Designer at Nissan, I think the volume was influenced by French designers as European motorists like to have deep glove compartments to carry large water bottles.

For the Indonesian market, there are various trim levels ranging from basic to ?premium?; for the top end, there?s wood trim and leather but not many extra features. The cheaper versions don?t have airbags and even the most expensive comes with only a single airbag. But that?s what Indonesian customers are satisfied with at this time so Nissan is not making the Grand Livina cost more than it needs to be by adding a second airbag. Nevertheless, the provision is there for a passenger airbag which most likely will be needed in the Malaysian market. The point here is that Nissan has planned for this additional airbag whereas in the Avanza, it?s apparent that the passenger airbag was not originally planned (you can tell from the way the cover is not flush on the dashboard).

For most readers, the question will be when the Grand Livina will be launched in Malaysia and what specs it will have. The answer from ETCM is ?second half of 2007? and it will be assembled here too (at the new plant? outside Rawang, Selangor). The price levels and specs are still a secret though it would be a reasonable guess to place the price range between RM75,000 and RM100,000 and possibly two engine sizes.

ETCM is aiming to grab a big slice of the mid-size MPV market and as in Indonesia, the main rival would be the Avanza. Those who have been considering an Innova might also show some interest if their finances are tight. It is also possible that models like the Naza Ria and Citra could lose some sales to the Grand Livina as many people still have more faith in 100% Japanese models.

It should be said that in spite of a lack of new models for several years, ETCM has done a fairly good job of maintaining interest in its products and working on strengthening its relationship with customers, the latter aspect a crucial element for every company today. The Grand Livina will be an additional model in the local Nissan range, selling alongside the Serena, so it? should bring incremental volumes for ETCM. This new model, plus a 14-seater microbus and a passenger car, should see the company in a better position to compete from now on.

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