Road impressions: Nissan Sunny ZX

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Unfulfilled promise

Unusually amongst manufacturers with a large and essentially family-car range, Nissan has avoided taking the hot-hatch route to projecting a bit of glamour into the Sunny, its small-car range. Instead, it offers a two-door coupe, and the basic 1600cc version has now been joined by the ZX, with a twin-cam 16-valve injection motor turning out 122 bhp.

Tagging the performance “ZX” badge on to the Sunny has involved several changes, visible and invisible: a deep air-dam with a rather aggressive air intake at the front, side skirts, and a rubber spoiler on the boot-lip are the obligatory addenda, while stiffer springing, low-profile tyres, and discs on all four wheels prepare the chassis for the extra work. 122 bhp is a lot to extract from a 1.6-litre engine, but the power delivery does not suffer from any of the problems one used to expect of engines tuned to this sort of level. It revs easily, and though a heavy throttle foot is needed to chase all of those horses out of the stable, their arrival is progressive, peaking at 6600 rpm. But it makes an inordinate amount of fuss about working hard; not the exciting noises of a brace of gargling Webers, but a buzzy thrash which penetrates the entire cabin. Perhaps this is an economy reminder, as it is acceptably quiet at middling throttle positions.

I have to admit that I found the idea of a sporty Sunny a difficult one to accept until I set off in this one and was agreeably surprised. It has a taut feel and pleasant progressively weighted power-assisted steering which blend together nicely with the 185/60 R14 tyres. There is very little front-wheel fight under acceleration, though in a rather wet week around town the little coupe spent a lot of time with its wheels spinning, searching for a toe-hold, and the brakes have a good firm feel.

Nissan claims a 0-60 mph figure of 8.5 sec for the Sunny ZX, but one would have to be very used to the gear-change to achieve that: it is light but not very quick, with a rather wide gate between second and third which is easily missed. Other controls are generally pleasant in action, but those switches which are mounted on the bulky-looking dash are an odd wish-wash of press-button and rocker, and several are disguised as warning lights or vice-versa, as well as being out of view behind the wheelrim. Could Do Better in that department; yet the instrument dials are amongst the best I have seen on any car — large, clear and well-lit; Alpha Plus for those.

Interior comforts are generous: electric windows with that useful one-touch feature on the driver’s side, electric mirrors, a tilt or remove sunroof which is stored in a special bag in the boot, a four-speaker radio/cassette system, adjustable steering position and wrap-around sport seats of reasonable comfort. An air-blend heater is installed, but the temperature seemed to vary a good deal, and the through-flow is rather sluggish, with no fresh air supply. Remote boot and fuel-flap releases are provided, and a variety of handy storage spaces finish off the interior.

No-one expects a coupe to carry rear passengers over long distances, but the Nissan is particularly mean on backseat headroom. It is not that the roofline is very low, rather that the rear window rail intrudes badly just at head height, making even short trips a trial. Individually-folding seat backs help to make room for luggage, but the boot-space is surprisingly narrow: it looks like a MacPherson strut set-up with bulky turrets, although there are in fact trailing arms and parallel transverse links. A complex folding shelf covers up the groceries, but is so bulky in itself that it is difficult to carry on top of other luggage.

Although Nissan tells us that the aerodynamic extras bring the drag factor down to the very low figure of 0.29, it is hard to reconcile this with the angular lines of the Sunny Coupe: the car’s flanks are composed of several folds and creases which conflict with the new side-skirts, making the whole appear over-styled.

For those in the front seats this Nissan will provide a pleasant means of transport, without being especially exciting. Its handling is stable and secure, but not outstanding, and the same goes for overall adhesion. It is the sort of mildly understeering chassis behaviour that any reputable small car should be turning in today, but perhaps lagging a little behind the car’s sporting pretensions. In outright performance, on the other hand, the ZX has an edge over many of its rivals; the high-revving nature of the power-unit tends to obscure just how fast it is because the urge builds up so steadily, but with 122 bhp it will give many other drivers a surprise. At its price of £10,500 the Nissan hardly looks cheap against its many rivals; but as these are mostly from the hatchback hordes, it may have a separate appeal, even exclusivity, of its own. GC