Ungainly in looks, but 2012 Nissan Sunny ticks the budget boxes

Road Test After driving too many supercars, Kevin Hackett comes back to Earth in a less than Sunny saloon.

The Sunny is affordable, reliable and fairly spacious but its looks are a major turn-off and it feels like it could blow away in the wind. Lee Hoagland / The National
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The Nissan Sunny and its ilk exist to provide affordable, reliable transport for families on tight budgets. They are not here to excite on any level - I get that. My expectations are low, preconceived ideas are consigned to the mental dustbin and a reality check has already taken place. This will be nothing more than an ordinary car, but the problem with reviewing anything ordinary is that it's difficult to engage you, our readers, and give you something you might remember long after this newspaper has been recycled. Still, I'll give it a shot.

I do have experience when it comes to this end of the market. For six months I rented a Nissan Tiida saloon, before I realised I could own and drive a car I actually liked for less financial outlay. The Tiida never once let me down, was comfortable enough for the daily commute and its air conditioning was never anything other than ice-cold. It was all the car I could ever need for the mundane task of getting from A to B, yet I thought a car couldn't get any more basic. I was wrong.

The Sunny actually sits beneath the Tiida in Nissan's vast range of vehicles, between it and the diminutive Micra. And it shares the Micra's platform, which is where problems begin for the Sunny because, while the Micra is small, it's also ideally proportioned. It's a fun way of getting around the city, nippy and engaging to drive because its simple engineering is perfectly matched to its size and shape. What Nissan's designers have done with the Sunny, however, spoils that recipe.

Just look at it. Have you ever clapped eyes on a more ungainly hunk of metal than this? I doubt it. Its bug-eyed front end is grown up enough (more Altima than Micra) but its slab sides and high roofline make the wheels look totally lost. The one I'm driving is actually the range-topping SL model, with 15-inch alloys, while the others are fitted with 14-inch rims and plastic hubcaps. It looks like it could topple over in the next gust of wind and the cut of the rear doors has to be seen to be believed.

Yet those small wheels mean small tyres, which mean smaller bills when it comes to replacing them. And that bloated, stretched cabin design means more legroom for rear passengers and an airy ambience for all occupants, so the negatives can be spun into positives quite easily. See, I can be unbiased as well as opinionated.

The looks of a car will mean very little to those customers targeted by Nissan with this model - they'll be more interested in a low forecourt price, cheap insurance, maintenance and servicing costs. But they should also be aware that the Sunny's physical construction works against it once you've taken it out of the city backstreets, because its height relative to its wheel size makes it feel unstable at speed. Really unstable.

Obviously, when you're driving a car this size with an engine that develops just 99hp, you're going to get overtaken by other vehicles. All of them, actually. And when another car passes the Sunny, it rocks from side-to-side in the slipstream. It gets worse the faster you drive, and don't even think about taking a corner at anything more than a snail's pace, either. Even when the straight-ahead is nice and clear, at speeds of 120kph or more (I did get it to max out at 140) it starts to wander all over the place, requiring constant corrective inputs at the wheel.

It's softly sprung, which is part of the problem, but that in itself provides benefits in a comfortable experience for the occupants' derrières. The trade-off will always be this tendency to feel floaty but that won't really be an issue to those in the market for a Sunny, will it?

Put your foot flat on the accelerator and it gets a bit noisier, but doesn't seem to go any faster. The four-speed slush box shifts around without being obtrusive but the engine feels asthmatic, like it's being thrashed within an inch of its life, whenever you're driving at normal highway speeds.

Realistically though, Sunny customers don't hanker for speed or driving dynamics, do they? They just want to get themselves and the kids to Ikea without breaking down, and this humble Nissan will meet those requirements any day of the week.

Don't buy too much while you're there, though, because while the boot space is a fairly generous 490 litres, the rear seats don't fold down. A hatchback design would not only have probably looked more resolved, but that added practicality would have been a real bonus, too. But while the rear seats remain fixed in place, you can enjoy Bluetooth connectivity and adjust the stereo's volume on the steering wheel, which makes me question Nissan's priorities here.

The Sunny starts at Dh47,000 and that's not a lot of cash for a new car that seats four adults in relative comfort, but the SL I'm in costs Dh11,000 more. And while I see the point of this car and can, just about, look beyond its limitations, if it was my own money on the table I'd be heading for the Approved Used section at Nissan, where I'd be able to select a much better car (that's as good as new) for the same outlay. Either that or I'd get a Micra and tell the kids to stop moaning about the lack of leg room.

A Mazda 3 is not much more expensive, is much nicer to look at, is more powerful and better to drive. Guess where I'm heading with this?

Base price/as tested Dh47,000/Dh58,000

Engine 1.5L four-cylinder

Gearbox Four-speed automatic

Power 99hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque 134Nm @ 4,000rpm

Fuel economy, combined 6.3L/100km