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July 7, 2003

Review: 2003 Nissan Urvan Estate

Given a fixed length, width and height, the most efficient shape to enclose a space is that of a box.  That's something that appliance designers, modern architects and seasoned travelers know only too well—we don't see too many cylindrical refrigerators or triangular office towers.  Passenger vans have to follow the same rule, so don't expect anything other than a refrigerator on wheels when you go shopping for that 12-seater.

Nissan tried quite hard with the Urvan Estate to make sure its refrigerator, er…van, stands out from the crowd.  They're off to a good start with the front, which features a pair of large trapezoidal headlamps flanking a horizontally-straked grille, and a formidable gray bumper.  As you circle the front, there is something noticeably different about this van.  Unlike its flat-fronted rivals, the Urvan actually has a vestigial hood.  This protrusion doesn't contain the engine, as that's still under the front seats, but it's been included in the design to provide a crumple zone to help absorb the impact of any crash.  From the driver's chair, It feels much better to be behind a crumple zone than actually be in the crash space.  The extension at the front is minimal and doesn't hamper maneuverability.  You can still come to within kissing distance of that G-Liner bus in front of you.

There's not much to be said about the slab-sided left and right profiles, except that a mid-height crease helps to diffuse the sight of all that metal.  The 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels also help diminish the van-ness of it all.  The rear follows the front's styling theme, with red-and-clear trapezoidal taillights, and the largest possible hatch that can be fitted onto this body.  That tailgate opens end to end, and high enough to be out of head-conking range.

Knocking your head while hopping into the driver's chair can also be avoided by using the A-pillar grip and a strong pull upward.  There's a step provided on the door frame, but it's been recessed into the bodywork, making it too narrow to fit an average shoe.  Going down is made easier by a small plastic hand support thoughtfully provided near the seat.  Ingress into the rear passenger space is via a single sliding door.  A metal hoop is also provided to assist the rear passengers' ingress and egress.

From the driver's chair, you sit high up, tall enough to see over the roofs of CR-Vs.  Another pleasant sight is the most modern dash among the ref vans.  The white-faced instruments incorporating the usual four round gauges are easy to read at a glance.  The steering wheel won't faze you even if you're used to a sedan.  It's more horizontal than usual, but the two-spoker is thick and comfortably positioned.  The short, stubby stalks controlling lights and wipers are a pleasure to use.  The dashboard and center console have also been redesigned to provide numerous cubbyholes, drink and document holders.  The only archaic control, perhaps unavoidable since this is a commercial vehicle, is the pull-and-twist handbrake lever.

The aircon uses tactile-friendly rotary switches.  Mounted above the aircon controls, the 2-DIN stereo incorporates both a single-CD player and tape deck.  The latter will come in handy to play the kids' foreign-language tapes on the way to school.  Sound quality is sufficient for Mandarin lessons or AM news reports; play anything else and they will still sound like Mandarin lessons or AM news reports.

One thing missing from the features list is electric, or even remote, actuation of the door mirrors.   You have to open the windows and push them around manually. You'll need a passenger to help you sort out the one on the right-hand side.  Once they're set, they provide a sufficiently expansive view, such that maneuvering in traffic or tight mall parking garages is reasonably easy.

There are twelve seats in the Urvan:  three abreast seating in front, plus seven full seats and two jump seats in the rear, divided among three rows.  There's some space left over for luggage.  The front center will suffice for a small person for a short trip.  Otherwise, it folds down to provide cupholders, and a writing surface/closable compartment big enough for A4 documents.

The seven full seats in the rear mimic airline chairs, right down to their fabric design.  Only a personal video monitor and a smiling stewardess are needed to complete the impression.  For a trip of any appreciable distance, pick any of the seven for a cosseting ride.  A dual aircon system is standard, with individual vents for each row.  The jump seats are designed primarily for folding out of the way.  The backrests are barely a third of the full seats', and support is rudimentary.  They're acceptable only for short trips.

With all the seats up, there's space for just a few soft bags, but the rearmost seat can be easily folded and flipped up.  There's then room for a row of airport luggage or half a dozen large boxes.

Most of these vans will end up in the hands of chauffeurs, but the Urvan's driving comfort level is such that a typical dad or business owner can drive it in heavy city traffic and not break into a sweat.  The clutch effort is quite light, and the pedal has sufficient travel to allow smooth engagement.  The shifter is also a delight, being positioned just a hand-drop away from the steering wheel.  How?  The metal shift lever reaches high and jinks towards the driver—it's not pretty, but it works. Many sedans and even sports coupes can benefit from such positioning.

At the business end of the transmission is another formidable piece: the 3.0 liter inline-4 diesel pumps out 103 bhp at 3800 rpm, and 209 Nm at 2000 rpm.  This is the Nissan Patrol engine, sans turbocharger.  There's no mistaking that this is a diesel because of the muted rumbling coming from below the front seats.  The engine starts getting loud beginning at 4000 rpm, but it is still quieter than the MB100's raucous roar. There's strong low-end torque starting at 1500 rpm, and for economy and silence, it's best to keep the revs below 3000 rpm.

Acceleration from standstill is quick enough to keep up with our average 1.5 or 1.6 liter sedans.   With only two passengers on board, the Urvan doesn't like going beyond 90 km/h.  The van starts to hop about nervously, forcing us to lift off the throttle.  Having a full load of people on board will probably help by weighing down the suspension.  As for braking, the pedal is soft but the front disc-rear drum is effective.

Nissan promises that body construction of this van has been improved; this makes squeaks and rattles less likely during the vehicle's life.  Trim pieces and interior fittings have been repositioned to reduce wear by contact with luggage and people.

We don't expect radical changes in style whenever a manufacturer introduces a new van model.  The changes are usually evolutionary, with small changes in functionality and performance enough to lift one offering above its competitors. There's no getting away from the box, but as the Urvan shows, well-researched contents can make for one satisfying package.

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