Our Cars : Nissan Primera vs Montego

At first glance, a comparison between the brilliant Nissan Primera and the highly-developed Montego looks like a one-horse race. 

However, as the owner of these two cars, Neil Turner, explains – choosing a favourite is never quite as simple as that.


Head-to-head: P10 vs LM10

Montego v Primera 01

At first glance, it maybe difficult to see what these two cars have in common, one starting life on the drawing board in the late 1970s while the other was launched in 1991, but they both play a big part in the British motor industry and brought with them new innovations.

The Montego (and closely-related Maestro) was one of the first cars to be designed and manufactured by CADCAM (Computer Aided Design and Manufacture) and featured nice touches such as wipers that parked under the bonnet line and fully colour-coded moulded bumpers.

Although it had a slow start, the Montego also came head-to-head with the Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 on the fleet market and ended up selling in good numbers. The Primera was also manufactured in the UK and set the bar for handling in the medium car sector. In fact, the Primera’s dynamics were so good that Ford even used it as a benchmark for the Mondeo during the design stage. It was also the first car in its sector to offer ABS brakes as standard across the range from 1994.

Performance

It maybe unfair to compare two cars that were designed more than ten years apart (even though they were sold alongside each other for a couple of years), but it’s closer than you may think.

The Montego drives like a typical 1980s car, with quite a bit of road and engine noise coming into to cabin, although in my opinion it’s more modern feeling than the Ford Sierra. The 1.6-litre S-Series eight-valve engine is quite smooth (more so than the O-Series 2.0-litre), and has a decently wide torque band, but its SU carb-fed engine only musters 86bhp.

Having said that it’s not exactly slow, and only falls behind the Primera’s fuel-injected 2.0 16v by less than a second in the 0-60 sprint. This 1992 version has the 115bhp SR20Di engine, which was replaced by the 125bhp multi-point-injection SR20DE engine in 1993.

Handling

The Primera, on the other hand, still feels like it can give a modern car a run for its money, especially in the handling department. Certainly, from my point of view, its great steering feel and light kerb weight (1200kg) give it the feeling of being light on its feet, but it still has a ‘big car’ feeling on the motorway.

What impresses me about the Primera is that it just doesn’t feel like a near 30-year-old car. Imagine 15 years ago driving a Mk4 Cortina or Mk1 Cavalier, would they have felt as close to their modern-day counterparts? I suspect not.

I should add that my Montego is quite rare (for a 1.6) in that it also has power-assisted steering, which was standard on the SL/SLX models, and improves the steering gearing to provide a faster response and turn-in. It is never going to keep up with a Primera along a winding A-road, but it’s not actually that bad, and makes up for it with a better damped ride. Both have very comfortable driving positions, although the Primera also boasts a height adjustable steering wheel and driver’s seat.

Refinement

I have driven both the Montego and Primera on very long journeys (not these particular cars), and neither gave me problems like I have experienced in some modern cars (the B6 Audi A4 always gave me chronic right knee pain). Where the Montego excels is in rear seat comfort and space. It’s a nicer place to sit compared to the Primera and, added to that, the Montego’s boot is also bigger.

Another feature of the Montego is its great visibility, which seems to have been designed out of modern cars, in part due to structural strength requirements. Unfortunately, this is let down by poor mirrors, which do not have a wide angle and produce a large blind spot.

Summary: which would we have?

Ultimately, these two cars are from a different era, and even comparing a Montego 2.0i to a Primera 2.0i 16v would not really be fair let alone a 1.6 Carb, but in all honesty the Montego does not do a bad job against the Primera. Yes, the Primera is better built, and more reliable, but like the Montego it can also suffer serious structural rust issues.

It also handles better than the Montego and has very light and precise controls (although the PG1-equipped Montego is by no means sloppy or heavy). The 2.0-litre 16v engine also feels quicker than the 115bhp would suggest – in part, I suspect, due to the nature in which the engine loves to rev unlike the Rover 2.0-litre O-Series which was more about low down torque.

However, as you would expect, the Primera is the better car, and would be my choice if I had to drive one of them 300 miles… That said, though, I have a long history with the Montego, going back to 1986 when I was nine years old, and there will always be a place in my heart for it.

Cars tested:

I imported the Montego from Holland in 2016. It has only covered 46,000km (28,000 miles). The Primera is a newer addition to my fleet, bought from Keith Adams earlier this year, and has done 53,000 miles. It joins the Nissan Primera P11 GT which I have owned since 1998.

  • 1990 Rover Montego 1.6SL (LHD) – 86bhp 1598cc S-Series 8-valve
  • 1992 Nissan Primera 2.0i LX – 115bhp 1998cc SR20Di 16-valve

Neil Turner
Latest posts by Neil Turner (see all)

23 Comments

  1. I think the Primera is one of the most underrated cars of that decade. Reliable, good looking if a bit anonymous, and great to drive. As per a previous story about Nissan’s importing battle, the issues of this hid the virtues and really stopped it being becoming more popular than it was. It really is a future classic.

  2. I agree about them being a bit anonymous. I always thought they were very bland. The top of the range models (with names like SR, GSX, ZX, GT) all looked much better and showed what it could have been.

  3. IMO the Primera comes across more of a direct replacement for the Montego than the R8 400 ended up being. Styling aside, with the Peugeot 405 later Peugeot 406 arguably having the best styling in the segment yet it is interestingly the initial sketch for the MG Montego did have a bit of the 405 look at the front.

  4. The Primera buried the arguments that you only bought a Nissan for the reliability and long equipment list. This was a driver’s car designed for the European market and in 2 litre form could really take on rivals like the Mark 3 Cavalier. As well, it was almost unbreakable and could handle 200,000 miles with ease, a real tribute to the British workforce.
    The Montego by 1991 had come right and was having a decent twilight, with the estate and diesel models enjoying reasonable sales, but it could never recover from such a terrible start and a 1.6 carb model was rather old hat by 1991 when fuel injection was becoming common. However, I quite like the styling and the colour of the model in the article.

  5. We had 2 Montegos but the only Nissan we have had is a Micra.
    The first Montego was a late MG Montego Turbo from after they had smoothed off the back lights and replaced the smooth looking alloys with spoked ones. I had it from new as a company car and I was very pleased with it. It was the first seriously quick car I had had as a daily driver. The under boot floor compartment, combined with a travel rug, was excellent for bringing wine home from European touring holidays.
    Later we bought a used Austin Montego 2.0 GSi Estate for my wife to use. She was finding her MG Metro a bit small when taking 2 pre school children to her parents for the day with all the clobber such as travels cots for after lunch naps etc. That car was nicely appointed inside and the self levelling suspension was good when carrying people in the 3rd row of seats. Partly due to the car’s high spec, I took it over as my daily driver once the children were at school and my wife wanted to revert to a Metro. My employer at the time was offering a Vauxhall Omega 2.5 CDX or a car allowance based on the cost of the Omega’s contract hire rate. Money talks!

  6. That generation of Primera was seriously dull looking, something Nissan resolved with the final P12 version in 2001 which I thought was rather stylish.

    It was only with the Qashqai though that Nissan had a UK made model which led the market

  7. I notice that ROVER badge on the boot of the Montego. I thought all facelift Montego’s just had Montego name on their grilles / and rear badging. Is it because this was an export LHD version?

    • Basically yes. The later Montego and Metro had a Rover-shaped badge in the UK and an actual Rover badge in overseas markets

  8. The early nineties really saw buyers take to Japanese badged cars made in Britain. The Micra and the Primera were deserved successes, but also the Carina E saw interest in this previously humdrum Japanese car soar as it was designed and built for European tastes and seemed to go on foreve,r and the Honda Accord was an excellent driver’s car with Germanic build quality and finish.

    • Never drove the Carina E, but I did drive regularly the replacement Avensis which I found to be nasty. Not particularly comfortable, on motorways or twisty stuff and definitely no go! I got burnt off by a standard 1100 Metro, though we were fully loaded up. Only thing I can say was good was as a company pool car it got thrashed and none of the trim rattled or looked worn. The Accord was a class apart from the Toyota, and I can remember Top Gear magazine giving it rave reviews, which I don’t think it would now as its not German.

    • I’ll go along with that. My Company ’96 Accord saloon was a really nice car, luxurious and returned good MPG on long runs. Acceleration was good a swell.

  9. Wow a Dutch Monty, I never saw one there over numerous visits. Must have sold in tiny numbers. Ditto any eighties Austin Rover. There were a few Minis, but that was about it in late eighties.

    • I was over there 20 years ago and the number of British cars was quite high, though mostly Japanese cars like Nissan Pirmeras and Toyota Avensises/ Carina Es that were used as taxis, with a few Micras and Honda Civics thrown in. Can only recall seeing one Rover 75 and it was just before the BINI was introduced, which could have seen a surge in British cars in Amsterdam.

      • The Bini sells very well in the Netherlands, and they’re everywhere. You do see some JLR products too, though in smallish numbers.
        Back in seventies Mini was a big seller, as surprisidly the Allegro. Maxi’s were also seen and lots of 1100/1300 and some 1800/2200.

        • As Nedcar contract assembles BMW Minis, you’d hope they’d sell a few there, it’s not as if there are many other Dutch made cars!

  10. Much as I like the Monty (and I like them a lot), having driven a couple of early Primeras, I’d say that they are a fine car, much better dynamically than their slightly generic looks suggest. Sadly I’ve not driven a Monty (a drive in an early VDP or MG would be lovely), so I can’t make a comparison.

  11. The first Japanese car I experienced was a humble Nissan Sunny loan car, the quality and feel of the principal controls, clutch, gearchange brakes and steering, the low levels of NVH together with the perkiness of the engine were shining examples of how a car should be, and within minutes I had concluded there would be no more Fords Vauxhall etc for me. I went out and bought a 1.3 Nissan Micra K11. That period was the 1990s when politicians industrialists and executives were waking up to the harsh realities of the superiority of typical Japanese goods, do you recall the top-selling book, “The Machine Which Changed the World” a study and comparison of Japanese vs USA/ European car plants, it was uncomfortable reading for many car executives

  12. @ cyclist, by the nineties, Japanese badged cars were just as good to drive as European rivals, the rusty Datsun era was a fading memory and they were still rock solid reliable. I would say a car like a Honda Accord was just as good as a BMW 5 series and the second generation Micra was considered better than most European superminis. I can remember driving a 1.3 litre Micra and commenting on how powerful and refined it was, when some superminis were still buzzboxes.

    • They were not as just as good, they were far better!, 16Valve DOHC engines, sequential fuel injection to mention two, the European small cars products were simply biscuit tins on wheels, old engines, 4 speed boxes, high levels of NVH, the Japanese cars were reliable well-made up to date products with long-term warranties, , a european small car such as Corsa or a Polo was a poor relation to a mid-size car, simply for the people who could not afford anything better

      • Buy a one litre Corsa and it was a truly miserable experience. Plenty of NVH, a miserable, penny pinched interior, cheap stereo, poor performance and a drab body. Even in 1 litre form the Micra drove like a much bigger car and was built like a Mercedes. I still see a few Mark 2 Micras in service today.

  13. The Ford Mondeo vs Primara, it was said in the press that Ford took the Primera as the benchmark car for the design and engineering of the Mondeo, Nisan were at their peak in those years, the later merger with Renault was not good news for the Nissan owner, cost cutting led to a downgrade in reliability of Nissan cars, they became more like Renaults

    • @ cyclist, I will agree with that and for all I had a second generation Almera that had no engine problems, I did hear of timing chains stretching and snapping, and cars with Renault diesel engines suffering from EGR failure. Also transmissions seem to have been a problem on newer Nissans, the CVT autos are troublesome and a Micra I had 7 years ago needed a new clutch at 20,000 miles as the original was cheaply made and fragile and burned out. Certainly surveys in What Car don’t rate Nissans highly for reliability.

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