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Will Magnite be Nissan’s Magnum Opus?

S Muralidhar | Updated on November 26, 2020 Published on November 26, 2020

Despite weaknesses, the new sub-compact SUV has the potential to bring the Japanese car maker back into the reckoning

Even at the risk of sounding repetitive it must be mentioned that the new Magnite will be a make or break vehicle for Nissan India. For far too long, the brand’s portfolio has been stagnant. The Kicks was a brief flicker of light, and though it still has potential in the market, it hasn’t been able to deliver significant sales volumes. With a portfolio of vehicles many of which are in desperate need for a refresh, Nissan’s dealer network has been stretched thin too. So, a lot is at stake and the Magnite needs to put Nissan India back on the growth path.

Enthusiastic company officials are kicked about the Magnite’s prospects, and are confident that it will make the cut. With the brand’s first sub-compact SUV expected to be priced well within the range of ₹6 lakh to ₹10 lakh, their excitement could be justified if the Magnite can prove to be a reliable, value-for-money option. It certainly looked the part when I walked up to the final production version at the test drive venue. But, behind that glossy paint job, how is the build quality, and how is it to drive? Here are my initial impressions.

Deja vu design

There is an inevitable feeling of walking up to a Datsun, not because the Magnite has been built on a derived, shared platform, but because of the design of the large, very Datsun-like bonnet grille. But, getting closer reveals the differences even within the grille. The sleek headlamps and the ‘light-saber’ turn indicators, and the L-shaped DRLs in the chunky front fender are a matching set in terms of design and their use of LEDs. There is an unmistakable SUV character to the Magnite’s design. The high hood, raised stance with a 205mm ground clearance and the square wheel arches deliver a lot of visual impact, making it seem bigger than its sub-4-metre size.

 

In the top variant that I was testing, there were quite a few chrome trim used for the door handles, the grille surround and the window line graphic. The contrast black cladding for the wheel arches, extending into the fenders, also add a touch of sturdiness to the vehicle’s character, as does the strong haunches at the rear. The tail-lamps extend into and sit at the top of the haunches creating horizontal segmentation that is another SUV trait. The split tail-lamps add to the perception of width and Nissan engineers have used a mix of plastic and metal panels for the tailgate so that the lamps can be accommodated. The tailgate itself is fairly large and features a unique split roof-spoiler at the top. Boot offers 336litres of luggage space.

Nissan designers have got the Magnite’s looks spot on, frankly making it a fairly sophisticated design. There are a few spots where the panel gaps and integration is inconsistent. But overall, the fit finish of the exterior design is also very good. We will have to wait and see if the materials used age well and can handle our tough ambient conditions.

Cabin

The first feature that caught my eye in the interior of the Magnite was the hexagonal aircon vent. They are just an interesting shape and don’t really follow some sort of theme for the cabin. The dashboard layout has a SUV-like vertical orientation. The flat-bottom steering wheel with its stitched faux leather finish and featuring multiple controls, including cruise control, is the other feature that adds a special touch to the cabin. My top-trim test mule also had a 8-inch touchscreen for the infotainment and automatic climate control. Both of these take up much of the centre stack, which is angled just lightly (5-degree tilt) to offer the driver better reach. Just below these is a wireless phone charger and the engine start-stop button.

 

The instrument cluster is a digital screen too, with the option of toggling between multiple variations to the animated display of the speedo and odo meters. The seats in the Magnite are fairly comfortable, with squabs that have been built to mimic cars that are higher up in the price segment. I’d have liked them to be a bit firmer. Space in the cabin is, however, better than what is offered by many competitors in the segment. Nissan claims a segment-best couple seat distance of 700mm at the front.

The Magnite’s cabin build quality is good, though not great. The knobs and controls, textured plastic panels, fabric inserts in the door panels, and even the touchscreen, do their job well and are all finished clean. But leave me wondering if the underlying material quality could have been better. Like the few spots on the exterior, there are a few inconsistencies in panel integration on the dashboard. No soft-touch plastic panels on the dashboard, the rear-view mirror is too small and I also think a darker grey colour theme would have helped make the cabin feel a bit more upmarket. Yet, it is to the credit of Nissan’s team of designers and engineers that the Magnite’s cabin doesn’t feel like it has been built to a price. Another smart move is to load up the cabin with inexpensive, and usable tech, while avoiding ones that will need more sensors and hardware. But, customers in this segment will miss kit like rain-sensing wipers, auto headlamps and a sunroof.

Performance

The Magnite is offered with two engine options, both are one-litre petrol mills. One is the B4D NA (naturally aspirated) 1.0L, 3-cylinder that is also in the Renault Triber and in the same state of tune; producing 72PS of power and 96Nm of torque. This is also paired with the same 5-speed manual gearbox as in the Triber. The other power unit is the newly developed HRAO 999cc, 3-cylinder, turbocharged petrol engine that delivers 100PS of peak power and 160Nm of torque (152Nm with the CVT). The engine is offered with a choice of a 5-speed manual and a CVT gearbox. I tested this engine with both the gearbox options.

The engine starts gruff, but has only a hint of being a 3-pot unit while cruising on the highway. Though both the gearbox versions are said to feature similar levels of NVH packaging, my test mule CVT seemed to be more refined than the MT. Higher levels of vibration could be felt at the wheel, pedals and door panels in the manual, compared to the almost imperceptible levels in the CVT. Gear shift quality in the CVT auto was good and there is very little rubberband shift effect during steady throttle. There is the option of choosing sport mode with the press of a button on the stick. The manual box’s shifts are clean too, the gating though is a bit notchy and there is also powertrain lash feedback.

However, this new engine is a bit of a revelation, and I believe has the power to alter the perception that affordable 3-cylinders can’t be refined and that they’ll feel underpowered. Rated mileage is 20kmpl for the CVT and 18.5kmpl for the MT.

The CMF-A+ platform’s strength shines through in the Magnite’s straight-line stability. Remarkably, in closed sections of the road, my test mule managed to cross 160kmph without feeling pushed or unstable. I’m certainly not recommending that you try touching those kinds of speeds, but am just pointing to its road manners. Yet, the Magnite’s inert steering and considerable body roll cuts out the joy while taking corners. Even return assistance is poor while executing u-turns. Ride quality is good over bad roads, though there is quite a bit of suspension noise that seeps into the cabin.

Bottom line

The Magnite doesn’t feel like a compromise. It is fairly clear that it is the coming together of a number of learnings from the early days of the Datsun brand. Confused? In my view, a lot of the improved features in this sub-compact is the result of fine-tuning the mix between acceptable levels of quality and low-cost manufacturing that Nissan has probably learnt from its Datsun experience. According to company officials, a lot of what we see in the Magnite has been influenced by customer feedback. It certainly seems to have helped create an extremely competitive new vehicle. Yet, it is not exactly a comparison to the sub-compact SUVs that are currently leading the segment.

It is remarkable that Nissan has managed to pack so much into the Magnite for what could turn out to be a very affordable price tag. But, the hardware still lacks the refinement that the more expensive segment leaders offer in their models. The Magnite has its rough edges, but that doesn’t take away its appeal for the buyer looking for a VFM option within the sub-compact SUV space.

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Published on November 26, 2020
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