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

Launch Story

Nissan logo3 Jun 2011

By MARTON PETTENDY

THE K12 Micra always fought above its weight in the three years it represented Nissan in Australia’s super-competitive light-car segment, both on the road and in the sales charts.

Despite its overly feminine styling, lack of a manual transmission, single 1.4-litre specification and only-average $14,990 pricetag, a solid chassis with rewarding steering and clever packaging made it a consistent top ten player and, towards the end of its life, saw it achieve unrivalled sales growth.

So we’re happy to report that beneath its more masculine five-door exterior, which remains instantly recognisable as a Micra and will undoubtedly attract a broader audience than before but does away with its predecessor’s cut individualism, the new model takes no backwards step in any of these areas.

Bigger in all key dimensions than before – making it surprisingly spacious in terms of headroom and rear legroom – yet lighter than before with a base kerb weight of less than 950kg (despite the fitment of a full-size spare wheel), the new Micra has lost none of its forebear’s chassis rigidity or alacrity.

Indeed, as evidenced by a makeshift motorkhana course set up on a rooftop carpark, manoeuvrability remains a Micra highlight, with super-short front and rear overhangs, compact overall dimensions and good visibility in all directions making light work of reverse parking and three-point turns in confined spaces.

At just nine metres, the Micra’s turning circle remains the tightest in the business, matched only by the likes of Suzuki’s 280mm-shorter Alto.

From what we could experience on the exclusively inner-city launch drive, the Micra’s steering also remains vice-free, offering precise turn-in at low and medium speeds without being unduly affected by steering rack rattle or kickback, even over the sharpest of urban road lumps and pot-holes.

However, although its steering is livelier and more rewarding than the tillers in chief rivals like the Holden Spark and Hyundai Getz, its power hydraulic steering does load up a little inconsistently at low speed, when rapid steering movements can also induce sidewall squish in the base model’s 14-inch tyres.

Overall, while the ride/handling compromise treads a finer balance between low-speed compliance and high-speed stability - without undue bodyroll – than many of its Japanese and Korean light-car rivals, the Micra doesn’t set new dynamic standards in a class that remains dominated in this respect by the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and Suzuki Swift.

Inside, the Micra’s modern, stylish interior design – particularly in the premium Ti version, which gets a classy circular climate-control unit with more upmarket LCD screen - looks as avant-garde as anything in the light-car class.

But while it is eons ahead of the Getz and even Hyundai’s newer i20 in terms of design and material quality, hard plastic surfaces still abound in the Micra cabin, even on close-at-hand components like the dashboard and door armrests.

Other cost-cutting evidence appears in the form of exposed bolt heads in the door armrests and nor does the new Micra seem quite as quiet as the outgoing model, with a degree of suspension noise that didn’t exist before.

As expected, however, the Micra excels in the area of standard equipment, with a full compliment of safety gear including stability/traction control, ABS brakes and twin front, front-side and curtain airbags, plus standard Bluetooth connectivity, remote audio controls, a full trip computer and driver’s seat height adjustment.

The top-spec Ti goes further than most light-car flagships too, with keyless push-button starting, climate-control and a clever front passenger seat storage system.

However, there are some major omissions, like cruise control (though the Micra isn’t alone in its class with this oversight), a digital speedo (as seen on many light-cars), a centre rear head restraint (as fitted to the smaller and cheaper Spark), front seatback map pockets and a reach-adjustable steering wheel, which both the facelifted Mazda2 and Fiesta have lost since being sourced from Thailand.

The entry ST model’s new 1.2-litre triple is a delight, however. A good match for both the standard five-speed manual and conventional Jatco four-speed auto (which does without a manual-shift gate but features a handy overdrive-off button), the 1.2 is stronger and more refined than the Alto’s 1.0-litre triple, even if it gets a bit raucous near its 6500rpm rev limit.

Of course, the new 1.5-litre four in the mid-range ST-L and Ti flagship feels more muscular throughout its rev range, even if it brings no discernible advantages over the 1.4 it replaces and doesn’t deliver outstanding fuel economy in its class, but neither engine offers what you’d describe as spritely performance.

Nissan says Europe’s supercharged three-cylinder engine is under consideration for Australia, but has ruled out the diesel version sold overseas, meaning the Micra won’t have an answer for the Fiesta’s punchy diesel, let alone for more expensive light-sized oil-burners like the VW Polo or Peugeot 207.

No, it does not set new class standards for styling, handling, steering, refinement, performance of fuel-efficiency, but the Micra’s trumpcard is bargain-basement pricing.

Undercutting its full-size light-car rivals and all but matching smaller models like the Alto and Spark without compromising on safety or infotainment features, the Micra sets a new value benchmark when it comes to size and features.

Throw in its vastly broader styling appeal and a complete range of engine, transmission and specification choices and there’s no reason the Micra won’t have the mass-market reach to become a top-three player in the booming light-car class.

City-car buyers have never had it so good.

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