How times have changed ? when I began this line of work 30 years ago, test-driving a new Nissan model many months before its launch in Malaysia was unheard of. Back then, the people at Tan Chong were so paranoid about news of a new model that they would even deny its existence! But such narrow-mindedness has changed, partly thanks to the internet where the launch of a new model is known around the world the same day it happens anywhere. So for anyone to deny the existence of a new model was silly and the thinking changed.

So it was not a big surprise to be invited to learn about the new Nissan Grand Livina as well as drive it at a regional press preview in Bali last month. Nissan planned the event for media from Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan. Though they are not likely to sell the model in Japan, they wanted the Japanese journalists to see what they are doing for the ?general markets?.

Route around Bali had various surfaces including rough ones

Indonesia was chosen because that?s where the second production site for the Grand Livina is, and the only one making righthand drive variants. To my knowledge, no other manufacturer has done a media preview in that country so this reflects the growing significance of the Asean market.

Our test-drive?was quite a straightforward and took us to the centre of the island and back to the hotel, a distance of about 200 kms and for the Malaysian media, we had an extra 100 kms on the following day. The route chosen was quite varied and mostly like what you would encounter on the old roads to Ipoh or Kuantan, plus a section coming down a hillside which was pretty rough.

We had a chance to test the 1.5 litre and 1.8 litre versions and I started off the with smaller engine since experience has shown that starting with a bigger engine often influences the opinion of the smaller engine negatively.

Getting in, I realised that the driving position was somewhat low – unusual for a MPV. It is not a complaint, though, and for those who make the change from a passenger car to a Grand Livina, it would be welcome as they would still feel the same. Of course, a higher position is always nice but because of the low roofline, this was probably not possible.

The HR15DE engine was new to me as we have never had the Tiida here so I was curious how it would perform. As the engines were well run-in (having been driven from the factory to Bali), the unit was quite free-revving and seemed adequate for the vehicle which is lighter than the Avanza. I feel pretty sure the engine also runs smoother than the Toyota engine but might not have the same strong torque at the lower end. Of course, it was quite a while since I drove an Avanza so it was just a feeling and I might be wrong.

Switching over to the bigger engine later, the Grand Livina took on a different character. The MR18DE felt like a hotrod and had a very nice exhaust note. It?s a quicker MPV than the 1.5 version and certainly was a pleasure to drive. On the car I drove, I noticed a bit of throttle response lag which bothered me in some corners but I didn?t get a chance to try another unit to see if it was just on the one I had. The gear ratios in both version are well chosen and keep the engine spinning at low revs while cruising.

The handling of he Grand Livina was as I had expected ? stable and sharp. I would have been disappointed if it was not since it does, after all, ride on a car platform. In other MPVs I?ve driven, there is always the feeling of ?tallness? and a high centre of gravity but the Grand Livina did not make me feel that. Had I been put into it blindfolded and not able to discern the shape, I might have thought I was driving a large sedan.

Mr Matsutomi had emphasized that ride comfort was a priority and so I made that a must-check item. Yes, he was justified in his confidence that the ride comfort would be better than the Avanza?s; for one thing, there was none of the jarring going over bumps and the transmission of road shocks was no worse than, say, a Sentra.

I even sat in the third row for 30 kms or so to see what life in that section is. Legroom was a bit tight but no worse than the Avanza and the seat height was okay too. My legs were still bent a fair bit but it was tolerable, as was the ride over the rear end. Cool air doesn?t quite reach the back enough although it was pointed out that the top vents on the dashboard are actually designed to ?throw? the air further back.

I was enthusiastic about the Grand Livina when the presentation was given and after the? drive, I felt certain that it would be a worthy rival to the Avanza. Its size doesn?t make it a serious contender against the Innova as there will be people who want a big MPV but if ETCM offers the 1.8-litre engine as a ?premium? version, there will probably be a fair number of people who will like it as it would offer performance which I believe is comparable to the Innova?s engine but for what (I believe) will be less money.

It?s going to be hard to decide whether the 1.5-litre or 1.6-litre should be introduced in Malaysia. My view is that the 100 cc extra over the Avanza would give an edge to the Grand Livina and if ETCM gets its sums right, it might even be able to price its challenger very close.

Nissan has been quiet too long and the Grand Livina shows that when it gets going, it can deliver impressive products. If you ask me, I would say this Nissan MPV is worth waiting for if you plan to buy one this year.

(LxWxHxWB) Toyota Avanza: 4120 mm x 1635 mm x 1695 mm x 2655 mm; Nissan Grand Livina: 4421 mm x 1692 mm x 1587 mm x 2600 mm; Toyota Innova: 4555 mm x 1770 mm x 1755 mm x 2750 mm

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