Unsung Heroes : Nissan Primera 1990-1996

We take a sideways look at some of the UK’s most forgotten home-built cars. The Nissan Primera (P10) had the unenviable task of replacing one of the most dependable saloons of the 1980s – the Bluebird. 

In the end, Nissan engineered arguably the best car in its class and, quite simply, Japan’s first Euro-standard family car. Best of all, it was built in Britain. Where are they now?

Nissan Primera (P10): Washington’s finest hour?

Nissan Primera P10

Whither the Nissan Primera? Launched on the crest of a very creative wave from Japan which brought us the Honda NSX, Mazda MX-5 and Lexus LS400, this innocuous saloon, hatch and estate were hugely significant in the development of Nissan in Europe. Although it’s difficult to believe it now, this car was a revelation for the company, because it was the first time a Japanese carmaker had introduced a family car that looked, felt and even smelled European.

Some had been close, most notably the Honda Accord and Mazda 626, but they were still recognisably Japanese in terms of design and execution. The Primera was different. Had it not been for that small silver badge on the bonnet, this could easily have been the next offering from Ford, Peugeot or Vauxhall/Opel.

Today, we don’t really look at Japanese cars this way. They’re part of the multi-national car gravy train that delivers homogenized saloons, hatches and SUVs which could have been designed, developed and built anywhere. The current Nissan Qashqai is a great example of this – designed, developed and built in the UK and powered by a range of French drivetrains. It’s as European as they come. But back in 1990, when the Primera went on sale in the UK, this level of Europeanisation of a Japanese product was the stuff of dreams.

The car it replaced – the Nissan Bluebird – was, of course, built in Washington, and had the honour of being the first Nissan to come off the line here. However, in terms of design, well styling, it was Japanese through and through. You only had to look at its boxy styling, separate parking lights and angular dashboard to see that. In that respect, it was rather like the Triumph Acclaim. Despite that, the sheer amount of positive press it received saw it crowbarred on to many a company car buyer’s list, and it went on to become the UK’s favourite minicab.

Combining the best bits of the opposition

Some would say that the Bluebird was a long way from being desirable, though, and that the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2, Ford Sierra and Rover Group’s Montego were all far nicer to look at and drive. None of these repmobiles, though, came close to comparing with the Bluebird’s toughness and durability. Had it looked good, it would have been unstoppable.

That was put right in 1990 by the P10-generation Nissan Primera. And although, when it was launched here, it was plunged into the middle of an almighty legal dispute between Nissan and its former British distributor run by Octav Botnar, there was no mistaking this car for what it was – a serious threat to the establishment. The motoring landscape had moved on by the time the Primera shuffled on to the UK market – the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 ruled the roost, although the revitalised Sierra and Sapphire were giving it a hard time. Rover was also playing serious catch-up with the impressive new 200/400-Series cars.

There was another seriously impressive new boy to consider, too. The British-built Peugeot 405 set the benchmark for the family car class. It looked lovely, was roomy, handled and rode beautifully, and was offered in a large range of trims, engines and colours. Basically, it was Ryton’s Cavalier – but drove properly. And in 160bhp Mi16 form, it remains one of the 1980s’ greatest saloons of them all. This was the class-leading family car-cum-repmobile, and this was what the Primera had to beat.

Was the Nissan Primera best in class?

Nissan Primera 2.0e GT
Nissan Primera 2.0e GT

Did the Primera have what it takes? You bet! In many ways, it took the best bits of the opposition and combined them to create an almost irresistible repmobile. So, it combined the 405’s brilliant dynamics with the solidity and modernity of a Cavalier Mk3 and added in that famous Nissan reliability. It was brilliant! If only its embattled dealer network was up to meeting the demand for this car – and soon, waiting lists were building up.

It’s easy to see why – just like a Sierra, you could buy it in hatch, saloon and estate forms. Like a Cavalier, it was offered with a myriad of engines – a 95bhp 1.6-litre, a 121bhp 2.0-litre and a 150bhp 2.0-litre unit. All were 16-valve engines, and most of them were fuel injected (so important in the early 1990s). For Dervheads, there was also an insipid 2.0-litre 75bhp normally aspirated diesel (it came later in 1992), but that was outclassed by the 405 and Montego in terms of performance and economy.

Under the skin, it was highly impressive – this front-wheel-drive saloon and hatch also had multi-link suspension, and boasted dynamics that were up there with the mighty Peugeot 405. So, it was a winner? Yes. So much so that in later development, Ford chose the Primera as the class-leading car against which it benchmarked its upcoming Mondeo saloon and hatch during the latter stages of development. Many who drove both would say that the Primera was still a better all-rounder than the Mondeo beyond its 1993 launch.

Disappointing sales, disappointing replacement

The Primera’s sales were never strong enough in the UK to break Ford and Vauxhall’s hegemony. It wasn’t helped by the resurgence of Rover and the aggressive marketing by Peugeot. Despite being the best car in its class, the Primera was overshadowed and overtaken. The battle between Nissan and Botnar didn’t help either and, by the time that score was settled, and a new dealer network was established the damage had been done.

The Primera was uprated in the summer of 1993 into Series II form, with standard-fit ABS, fuel injection and side impact protection. The following year, it received an unappealing visual update, which incorporated new light clusters and a chrome grille. Still, it received a driver airbag to put it back at the top of the class in terms of safety kit. The star of the range was the excellent 2.0e GT with 150bhp, and it was every bit as good as the Peugeot 405 Mi16 or Vauxhall Cavalier GSi 2000 – but it never really gained the recognition it deserved despite doing well in the British Touring Car Championship.

It was in this form that the brilliant P10 battled on until 1996, now overshadowed by the Ford Mondeo and, ahem, Vauxhall Vectra – although only in terms of sales and not ability. The P11 which replaced it may have looked similar, but it lost the P10’s lovely rear suspension set-up, and was a much more cost-constrained (and profitable) offering than its predecessor. As for what followed it in 2001, the less said about that the better. Would Nissan build a car like the P10 today? Probably not, more’s the pity…

As a couple of asides, I learned that the engineering mastermind behind the current Nissan R35’s suspension set-up, Kazutoshi Mizuno, was responsible for the Primera P10’s suspension set-up (and he’s very proud of it) – and that Nissan Engineers considered the underside of an Alfa Romeo 156 to be too close in terms of design to the P10 to be a coincidence… ‘a straight copy,’ is how one described the 156’s rear suspension to me.


Keith Adams


  1. One can only imagine how the Nissan Primera or even the Nissan Sunny / Almera would have fared had they featured Pininfarina styling from the 1990s as on the Peugeot 405 / 406 and Peugeot 306, the only other thing missing on the UK market in the case of the Primera was a 187-207 hp SR20VE (or a 200-220 hp SR20DET AWD) variant to challenge the Honda Accord Type R (or Peugeot 405 T16 and Vauxhall Cavalier Turbo 4×4) above the 150 hp 2-litre GT.

    • However it seems Nissan dropped the ball on the larger Maxima / Maxima QX of the late 1980s to 1990s up to early 2000s, especially when the mid 1990s QX onwards used a torsion bar solid axle system in place of the independent rear suspension, leading it to not handle or ride as well as the smaller Primera and Almera.

      Otherwise Nissan would have basically had a trio of anonymous looking yet reliable and decent driving analogues of the Peugeot 306, Peugeot 405/406 and Peugeot 605 respectively.

  2. Wihtout any doubt the best car my family had; an almost unknown brand (in Italy) launchig a bland-looking saloon but undeniably well equipped. Sold only in the top “SLX” version (I mean diesel-engineered) after having tested a Micra, my father fell in love with Primera instead. 500.000 kms and 12 years later he was still driving it. Skipped the MarkII, he did not fail to get one of the last 1.8 petrol Mk3. Sold only five years ago, clocking a comparable mileage… Since then no more Nissans (Renault boys, guess why!?) but never bought nothing else other than Brit/Japanese (Toyota & Hondas). Unbelievably effective multilink suspension coupled,to a super-refined ride, a bomb-proof engine and interior fittings made the rest… Missing you Primera!

  3. I can remember the press at the time saying that the Japanese had copied the Mk3 Cavalier with its looks – but I always thought it was a better looking motor, and that it was the best looking Nissan since the Z cars. It’s funny that these seem to have disappeared off the radar – I have not seen one for ages – in fact I have not seen a mark 2 Primera for ages either. A neighbour of my mums had a Mk3 but the floorpan rusted away – which was funny as the rest of the car was bombproof.

    • Forgot to say remember the funky white with colour streak BTCC cars in the 1990s – if I remember it was a MK 2 in 99 with Anthony Reid that won the championship. Oh those were the best days of saloon car racing.

  4. I agree with much of what Keith says. The Primera P10 looked more like Ford & GM cars of that period than the Bluebird had. (the 1986 Bluebird also sold in Japan as the “Auster”).

    When it came to the 2.0 eGT sport model (originally called the 2.0e ZX), I still preferred the look of the previous Bluebird Turbo ZX.

    It’s true, there are very few Bluebirds or Primeras seen on roads now. However there is the first UK built Bluebird 2.0 SGX on show at Sunderland museum.

  5. Within Nissan we thought the opening Ad was crass, the guy had joined from Rover and produced this ad plus one for the company showing a Sunny GTI thrown out of an airplane just as the hot hatch market had suffered a severe blow due to high levels of theft and consequent high insurance premiums, how not to launch a company!

  6. I have had my 1999 Nissan Primera for 11 years and it has been awesome. A great car to drive and incredibly reliable. I am a driving instructor and so get to drive different new cars, despite its age it is my favourite. Parts are reasonably priced too. I pull my caravan all over the country with it. I get attached to my cars and it is very hard for me to change them. My wife and children love it too.

  7. The Primera and the second generation Micra still survive in considerable numbers. It’s a tribute to the workforce in Sunderland that they could produce two such durable cars that were completely reliable and could take huge mileages without any problems. Well into the noughties, it was common to see the 1990-96 Primera in use as taxis as drivers swore by them, in the same way they love Skodas now.

  8. The 2001 update was a poor swansong for the Primera, though. The car became blobby looking and ungainly and reliability on these was well below the previous models due to using Renault engines. Never seemed to see many of the 2001-05 generation Primeras compared with the previous two generations.

  9. We had a couple of early 1.6 petrol Primeras as pool cars at a company I used to work for in the mid-90s. They were really, really good cars to drive, and very well built – as pool cars they put up with a lot of abuse! A seriously underrated car in my opinion.

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