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Car reviews - Nissan - Micra - 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Value, quality, appearance, ride comfort, classy cabin, spacious and versatile, smooth in traffic, decent dynamics
Room for improvement
Centre rear lap-belt, no ESP stability control availability, no manual, no tachometer, no cruise control option

13 Dec 2007

THE middle of 1995 saw two highly rated Europeans arrive in Australia within weeks of each other, only for both to sink after especially sad sales performances.

One wore the Ford Mondeo moniker (HA to HE series: d.2000 RIP), and the other was Nissan’s second-generation Micra (K11: d.1997 RIP).

Lost in translation? Victims of circumstance? Inadequate marketing? Consumer indifference? Or maybe both were just too oddball for Australians on the cusp of re-electing a conservative Federal Government? Perhaps all apply.

But you cannot help but wonder what wider forces are at work when the Mondeo and Micra resurface locally within weeks of each other in late 2007.

And you know what else? Both are rewriting the value-for-money formula for their respective classes – in contrast to their expensive predecessors.

In the Micra’s case, the bottom line is tops: $14,990.

Perspective time: In 1995, that unmicro amount was still $650 short for the cheapest Micra manual with two fewer doors, no airbags, no ABS brakes, no power steering, no air-conditioning, no electric windows, no electric mirrors, no remote door locking, no immobiliser, no split/fold rear seats, no rear head restraints... and one radio/cassette player.

Holden once worked out that if it were possible to add such items to a new $15,000 light-car in the 1990s, the price would have ballooned to in excess of $25,000.

In this light, and considering that the Micra does not enjoy a low-cost source-based price advantage like its rivals from Thailand (Honda Jazz) and Korea (Holden Barina, Hyundai Accent and Getz, Kia Rio), the Nissan’s case is very compelling indeed.

We only spotted two AWOL items: no passenger-side sun-visor mirror (the predominantly female – and gay male – target audience might get cross) and no tachometer, while we can live with body coloured door-handles and 14-inch wheels (some rivals now sport 15s).

In fact, considering the surprise-and-delight MP3 plug-in and driver’s seat double armrests nestled among all the other essentials the Micra brings, it certainly does not feel like ‘povvo’ to paraphrase Ms Ja’mie King.

Nissan’s decision to choose Belgian Chocolate-coloured seat and dash trim also lends an air of quality and freshness to an interior that is impressively well-made and functional to use. We particularly liked the cream knobs and white-faced dials.

And the basics like seat comfort, the driver/car interface and space utilisation all rank highly.

So does the exterior, for that matter. Nissan is offering more than 10 colours, and most do suit the Micra, making for a pleasing break from the myriad of silver-derived grey hues that most car-makers are currently obsessing over.

Plus there is just no way most punters will pick this as a five-year-old design. There’s a lesson here for all manufacturers – going bold or individual gives a car longer legs stylistically.

Keeping in mind that this is an auto-only affair, as a driver’s car, the Micra seems to sit somewhere between the comfort-biased Yaris and the sportiness of the Swift – the Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta are safe as the keen driver’s choices.

The steering is light but nicely progressive and adequate in its communication and feel the handling is not as top-heavy as the styling might suggest, imbuing the Micra with smooth and unruffled cornering capabilities and the ride – tested on the optional 15-inch alloy wheels – is unexpectedly compliant... supple even.

Nissan’s launch test route took us through some pretty tight Melbourne lanes and alleyways, where we could revel in the Micra’s impressive turning circle, steering feedback, manoeuvrability and bump absorption properties.

On more open urban roads, we doubt anybody is going to complain about how straight and true this thing tracks either.

Perhaps the biggest issue is with noise and harshness.

On one hand, the 1.4-litre engine is adequately responsive from launch and amply powerful around town.

But put the pedal to the metal and it can turn raucous, as the automatic gearbox explores the upper regions of the rev range to eek out as much power as possible. And let’s face it – though lively low down, hit the highway and the fact remains that the Micra is not powerful.

Most small-engined rivals with conventional four-speed automatic transmissions suffer similarly, but the original Australian-bound Micra of 1995 came with an advanced and brilliantly efficient CVT automatic, so its absence here is a backward step for Nissan – a company committed to the concept on most of its products. The Jazz and Mitsubishi Colt show how good the modern CVT has become.

While we’re whinging, no rear centre lap/sash seatbelt means that this Nissan can only safely be regarded as a four-seater, while the non-availability of ESC stability control even as an option is out of step with the times. European Micras do. And the older Hyundai Getz has offered it for well over two years now.

And a note to Nissan: we think this car’s anthropomorphic face and cheeky character gives it a bit of a classless appeal – especially as the latest Mini has become a bit too self-conscious. Maybe bring in a few with (much-needed) cruise control, a sunroof, leather trim, and even satellite-navigation. We think it has the personality to succeed.

Even as it stands, the fact that the Micra does nothing badly and many things well – while being priced like a Korean Holden Barina but as capable as the fine Toyota Yaris (yet with more charm) – proves just how serious Nissan is about making its mark in the light-car class.

The 1995 Micra became a cult only as a used car a dozen years on and this one deserves to be appreciated straight from the outset.

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