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

Our Opinion

We like
Brilliant value, roomy and airy cabin, zesty engine, high economy, low emissions, fun to drive, high safety kit, secure handling, supple ride
Room for improvement
A tad noisy, loss of design nous

3 Jun 2011

WE were expecting Dannii. But we got Kylie instead.

The Nissan Micra is a classic example of how we thought we were getting one thing but ended up with something else quite remarkable.

But before we launch into how impressed we are with the all-new K13, let’s glance back to explain why we are so bitterly disappointed with its looks.

The less said about the 1983 original (never sold here) the better, but it did help begin the retro craze (think New Beetle, BMW Mini) when Nissan used it as the basis for the famous Figaro and S-cargo, as well as the less well-known Pao and Be-1, of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.

The succeeding 1992 K11 Micra set the tallboy design trend that has since been copied copiously. Built and engineered in Britain and possessing much of the Mini’s cheek, it won Euro Car of the Year (a Japanese first)… yet this model stiffed when sold in Oz from 1995 to 1997. Priced far too steeply, it seemed.

So it’s no surprise then that Nissan hesitated bringing in the 2002 K12 Down Under until December 2007. Still, this third-gen Micra has endured as a timeless icon the curvy turret, anthropomorphic face and good reliability somehow recalling the Morris Minor of almost 60 years ago.

We doubt anybody will say such nice things about the K13’s appearance. While inoffensive, it looks heavy-handed, derivative (Fiat Punto up front, anybody?), and wilfully middle-of-the-road. Nissan design ought to hang its head in shame after the previous model.

Obviously going after the Toyota Yaris was the sole intent, to the detriment of design innovation. We turned away downhearted and tried to forget it when Nissan pulled the covers off the K13 at the 2010 Geneva show.

Then, in October, Micra pricing was announced and we could hardly believe our ears: $12,990 for the base ST. Surely that’s for a stripped-out three-door with no air, power steering or ABS brakes! But no, it’s all there, and much more – and with five doors to boot!

So what’s the catch? When we ordered one for review, we half expected the K13 to arrive in lots of boxes, like a kit car. Somebody, pass us the instructions and some glue…

What we got was a big, dumb-looking smiley-faced ST manual finished in deliciously fruity Calippo green. Time to jump inside quickly, before anybody saw us!

One of the first big revelations is just how large and accommodating the Micra’s cabin is. It ain’t no sardine can in here. Bulbous in shape Nissan’s baby may be, but the resulting wide doors and big apertures allow for painless entry and egress. Shorter folk can almost walk straight in.

Once sat, initial impressions are mixed. The plastic on the dash seems cheapo shiny and hard and the seats feel flat at first, but then you instantly appreciate how spacious and light filled the cabin is. Aiding this are deep windows and a commanding driving position.

A few hours at the wheel reveals that those flat cushions aren’t at all uncomfortable while the low-fi fascia seems really well screwed together, is stupendously easy to fathom, operates beautifully and isn’t too hard on the eyes.

And then the penny drops. Is the ST really $12,990? The chunky steering wheel has remote audio controls and is height-adjustable. So is the driver’s seat. The instrumentation contains both a tacho and a decent trip computer, showing range, fuel consumption, time since start-up and outside temperature.

And not only is there an okay CD/MP3/AM/FM player, but an effective Bluetooth device to go with it. Icy-cold air-con is standard. The front windows move electrically. So do the exterior mirrors and door locks. And there are two gloveboxes to match a pair of vanity mirrors.

Weirdly though, our car had no ashtray or coin tray. Is this really a car made in Thailand by a Japanese car company owned by the French?

We appreciate some of the details inside too, such as the speaker that switches the audio sound off when a phone call comes through night-time illumination for all of the buttons and controls large multi-directional air ducts that help keep the Micra pleasantly ventilated and large mirrors that – along with the low rear window – really help make parking a breeze.

This car is extraordinarily well equipped for the money.

The back seat is roomier than some more expensive models in the next segment up. Three can fit at a squeeze. And while it isn’t exactly luxurious, there are overhead grab handles, flush-fitting head restraints (but for outboard passengers only), two small receptacles for mobiles and a lone cupholder.

If there are only two souls back there nobody except for the Long Tall Sally types will complain about leg, head or knee room, while there is ample space for feet to tuck beneath the front seats. Great packaging job, Nissan.

Only the wind-up windows (that go all the way down despite their relative depth) and lack of map pockets betray the ST’s bottom rung status.

There are quieter places to be, frankly, than riding in the back of a Micra, for you hear (rather than necessarily always feel) the suspension and tyres working. Yet conversation isn’t difficult and the constant droning from the road and engine up front do fade into the background after a while.

The hatch area is reasonably commodious, much more so than the next-size-down Suzuki Alto and Holden Spark, with a pair of Isofix child seat anchor points immediately behind the rear fixed cushion (only the backrests split, but thanks to the high ceiling there’s sufficient loading space anyway). A sole child restraint tether catch is located below the tailgate latch.

Lift the floor lining and you will find a full-sized spare wheel complete with a jack, and more small oddment storage opportunities. And there’s a rear wiper/washer installed too (don’t scoff – Porsche charges extra for one in the $200K-plus Panamera!).

Speaking of safety items, Nissan also includes six airbags. And ABS brakes. And EBD. But only front brakes have discs. Still, they have no problem keeping the feisty little Micra under control.

Feisty? Fiery, frisky and even fast also describe the 1198cc three-cylinder engine’s energetic performance.

Crucially for a city-car, step-off acceleration is always eager, to the point where the front wheels will squeal if you’re careless, meaning there’s plenty of torque down low for you to tootle around town on.

But there are a few things worth remembering when driving a three-pot petrol engine.

One: don’t be afraid to visit the 6000rpm-plus redline area, for – despite the oddball exhaust thrum – this sort of engine thrives on revs. Two: be ready to downshift a gear ratio or two if you need sudden a sudden burst of forward thrust, because this is a tiny powerplant after all. Lucky, then, that the gear lever is a cinch to operate. And three: revel in that ‘half-a-911’ sound.

Yet there’s another unexpected bonus to this new 1.2 too as well. Flick it into fifth on the freeway and the ST will happily cruise along all day, settling down to a reasonably quiet thrum as the miles pile up. It’s too bad that Nissan doesn’t offer cruise control.

Again, if you are prepared to slot the gear lever down a couple of cogs, overtaking oomph is there for the taking, but your (and passengers’) ears will notice the engine’s roar.

Our only issue is that – if you’re not willing to rev the thing – you might find a flat spot between 3000 and 4000rpm, particularly when the car is loaded and the air-con is on. But you can simply drive through this by changing gears slightly later than you might be used to.

Throughout our time, with plenty of hard driving, we averaged a very commendable 6.6 litres per 100km.

Anyway, don’t put off by the uneven number of cylinders. This is a fine, seemingly unburstable little unit that does Nissan proud.

Another unexpected treat is the chassis. Even on smallish 165/70R14 tyres, the Micra is up for being thrown into a corner – slow or fast – without losing its composure or chosen line of travel.

The steering is a major ally here, for while it isn’t especially sharp or communicative, there’s moderate weighting and sufficient feedback to help make for easy, enjoyable and involving handling. And you would be hard pressed to find anything with a tighter turning circle than this.

Obviously, pushing hard enough in a turn will result in the Micra running wide, and there’s plenty of bodyroll to go with that too, but there’s real fun to be had punting this little pint-sized economy car around. We were shocked and delighted in equal measure.

There’s more good news too. Why can’t all small cars ride as well? There’s a loping, almost old-school French suppleness to the way speed bumps are dealt with. Again, it’s an ideal set-up for a city car.

We wonder if Nissan fitted more noise deadening material – you hear more than feel the suspension working – whether the Micra might embarrass some so-called luxury cars for ride comfort?

What we have here is a remarkably complete light car.

While not pushing any boundaries for performance and dynamics (like Fiesta), economy (Alto), packaging (Jazz), warranty (i20) or refinement and ANCAP safety (Polo) – it still rates strongly in all these departments, and is absolutely without peer for value.

Make no mistake the $12,990 ST shifts the light-car paradigm in a way that nobody saw coming, especially after those first dowdy pictures surfaced a year ago.

It is far from perfect of course, but almost a thousand kilometres of thorough testing later we would barely have been less impressed if Nissan had priced it at $15K.

If only the Micra possessed the same level of innovative design as its forebears. We should be so lucky!

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