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Car reviews - Nissan - Micra - City 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Design, ease of entry and egress, value for money, interior presentation, fuel economy, user-friendliness
Room for improvement
Staid performance, no rear centre lap/sash seatbelt, no manual, no stability control option, four-speed auto against previous Micra’s more efficient CVT

22 Feb 2008

IT MAY be older than you think, a little strange in appearance initially, lacking a proper rear-centre seatbelt, missing the availability of stability and infuriatingly named (it just isn’t tiny – somebody asked if it competes against the Smart ForTwo!), but the Micra does have something special to offer.

For a tenner under $15K (not including on-road costs), Nissan is selling a car that offers: excellent design, Japanese build quality, a thoroughly modern front-wheel drive platform (the new Renault Clio uses much the same hardware), and a full four-speed automatic gearbox.

Now this is quite unbelievable value for money.

Unbelievable? The equivalent five-door auto Toyota Yaris YR, Suzuki Swift and Honda Jazz cost around $3000 more Holden Barina: $2200 and Mitsubishi Colt, Hyundai Getz and Kia Rio: $2000.

Only the Proton Savvy matches the Micra’s price, and then that’s with a smaller car with a smaller engine and half an automatic gearbox.

And the Mazda2 may as well be a Mazda3 as far as affordability for many light-car buyers are concerned, while the Peugeot 207 and VW Polo are in a higher league of their own – but only when it comes to price.

Only the fact that the Nissan lacks a rear centre lap/sash seatbelt stops it from being the consummate urban city car.

So the Micra is a bargain. We get that. But it is an interesting design to feast your eyes upon, from the anthropomorphic nose to the 1960s BMC-era rear that instantly recalls the original Mini and Morris Minor but without self-consciously doing so like too many ‘retro’ cars.

We reckon it’s Nissan’s best design in years. The fact that it has been around in Europe and Japan for more than five seasons is proof of that. And with the company’s follow-up styling track record (Datsun 1200 to 120Y, 1600 to 180B, X-Trail to X-Trail II), we are afraid that it will visually stuff the next Micra up as well.

But that’s sometime later next year at the very earliest. Right now light-car buyers can enjoy a baby car with real class and presence.

And like all truly smart car design, interior packaging benefits.

Yes, the tallboy design makes the Micra a cinch to enter and egress, with sufficient (but not great) legroom available as a result of a generous wheelbase length.

Yet Nissan has tried harder. The interior door skins have a ledge for lazy drivers to hang the right arm out from, while a left-hand side armrest does the same for the other elbow. Plus it helps keep the driver more secure by acting as a brace when cornering enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, and remember the Micra is pitched as a city car, the bulbous headlights act as proximity points to aid parking. Brilliant. Throw in a pert rear and a relatively deep glass area are a boon for rear vision, as well as an incredibly tight turning circle, and Nissan’s claims about the urban friendliness of this car is not a load of baloney.

New car showroom junkies are going to love the large draw underneath the front passenger seat, the smaller one that lives in the reasonably sized glovebox, the map pockets located behind the front seats, the front door pockets and the plethora of dash-sited shelving areas.

But wait, there’s more, like four power windows that fully retract at the back, remote central locking, power mirrors and an iPod/MP3 connector, although this is inconveniently located in the glovebox, and is on a too-short chord. And how refreshing is the chocolate brown trim – especially with the ivory detailing on the dash?

The rear 251-litre boot isn’t huge, but it isn’t disgraced among most of its competitors (and beats the Suzuki Swift) since a bicycle can be fitted with the aid of the split/fold rear seats, which increase the cargo area to 584 litres. That they don’t fold flush, or slide as the Toyota Yaris’ do, is where the Micra falls behind.

Four head restraints (with the front ones see-through), three grab-handles, two standard airbags and a pair of rear-sited flip-out cupholders are included, while the CD/MP3/radio unit is one of the best audio interfaces we have used in a long time.

More money buys the City Collection edition Micra tested here, which also includes a six-stacker CD, larger wheels with alloys wheels and side and curtain airbags.

The driver’s seat has a height adjuster, but we found the chair itself a little too flat and lacking in support for it to be considered truly comfortable.

Otherwise, the view out is easy, with further marks gained for excellent ventilation, easy switch and button access, legible instrumentation (that includes an outside temperature gauge) and a spunky little steering wheel.

The latter communicates the actions of the front wheels below surprisingly clearly, although the Micra is not in the same keen driver’s league as the Fiesta, Mazda2 or Swift.

Take a corner fast and there is some leaning associated with the Micra’s safe and predictable understeer, but the chosen line will be faithfully adhered too – at least it is on the Dunlop Sport 175/60/R15 rubber that also does an okay job of gripping in the wet.

The brakes seem to also be up to the job, with a fine, progressive action to them, and the ride is nice and absorbent too – although larger speed humps can catch the car out at times.

Speaking of speed, this little Nissan’s sprightliness may surprise with how quickly and easily it can reach the upper reaches of the national speed limit.

Its 1.4-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine is a lusty little unit, eager to rev and not sounding too harsh in doing so.

But strong winds are reminders of how tall this is, and there always seems to be wind, engine and road noise permeating the cabin once you exceed 80km/h. This, more than anything, is a reminder of the Nissan light-car’s place in the world.

However, the most disappointing thing for us is one of the items that will appeal to most people.

While it shifts smoothly and isn’t quite the complete performance or economy vampire that four-speed automatic gearboxes in light cars can be, we know that Nissan can do much better in the guise of a CVT gearbox – one of the previous-generation Micra’s strongest attributes.

It also has an annoying tendency to upshift to top only when you exceed about 65km/h, although it will hold on to top for quite a bit under that speed.

We have driven several 1.4-litre petrol Micras in the UK and Europe and find the standard – and as-yet unavailable five-speed manual gearbox – a far better transmission.

Drive the Micra as the frugal and capable city car that it has been designed to be, however, and the auto does its job well.

Better yet, look at this Nissan as an amalgam of some of the individual things that impress us about some of its competitors, such as value for money (Getz), standout style (Swift), comfort and ease (Colt) and quality (Yaris), and the Micra is undeniably a very well-rounded car.

That it also possesses real design integrity and personality is what makes the Nissan just that little bit special.

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