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

Our Opinion

We like
Weighs less than one-tonne without compromise to safety, highly manoeuvrable, spacious interior, full-size spare
Room for improvement
Some hard plastics and other cheap touches, 1.2-litre three-cylinder ST offers better value

3 Mar 2011

EARLY in the second decade of the 21st Century the Nissan Micra looks like a step backwards into the future. It presents, feels and drives like a genuinely light car. There is no pretence to sophistication.

The Micra is one of very few cars on the local market that weighs significantly less than 1000kg even in premium Ti guise and yet does not skimp on safety. Design ingenuity announces itself in the curvature of the roof which helps to impart great strength to the structure while minimising weight.

The boomerang shaped grooves are a key element here and they also reduce the transmission of noise. The high roof confers outstanding headroom and contributes to the airy feel of the interior, while the wheel-at-each-corner design (reminiscent of Alec Issigonis’ original 1959 Mini) maximises wheelbase.

Like its Tiida sibling, the Micra offers more interior room than is expected in the sector. Impressively, this lightweight car comes with a full-size spare wheel which represents a triumph of real practicality over fashion and ease of design.

Go Auto was able to test the 1.2-litre ST manual immediately after spending a week with the 1.5-litre ST-L automatic, making it easier to assess the Micra’s potential within the burgeoning light-car market segment.

While the three-cylinder version recalls Daihatsu’s earlier efforts with the Charade and Sirion, the four-cylinder Micra is essentially mainstream. It is not an especially advanced design, barely improving on the performance or economy of the K12’s 1.4.

Even more to the point, the performance/economy comparison between the $12,990 ST and the $16,990 ST-L automatic was nicely in favour of the entry-level car: less can be more.

Enthusiasts will also prefer the throbby enthusiasm of the four-cylinder car. But market realities dictate the need for the availability of an automatic transmission (even if that happens to be an outmoded four-speed unit), so for perhaps a majority of buyers the Micra of choice will be the car under review here.

The combination of a 1.2-litre engine making 56 kW of power and 100Nm of torque with a four-speed gearbox would doubtless see the ST automatic struggling to provide acceptable levels of performance, so for those who must have a two-pedal variant, the ST-L will be the better choice.

The automatic transmission underlines its old-fashioned design with the presence of an overdrive button. Where the trend is towards offering a tiptronic-style manual mode, this is not yet expected in the light car segment, so this is only a minor criticism. You can obviously select ‘2’ or ‘1’ just by moving the lever in its gate just as you could have done in, say, a 1984 Pulsar (three-speed) auto.

In everyday driving, the ST-L automatic delivers no more urge than the base model car while typically using about an extra litre of fuel per 100 km. The fourth cylinder an additional engine capacity effectively make up for the presence of a torque converter as far as performance goes at a price to economy.

Really, the Micra automatic goes quite well and you never have the feeling that it is underpowered. This is down more to the 136Nm of torque than the 76kW of power. While a five-speed automatic would be an improvement, the four-speed hunts between ratios less than you expect and the little Nissan tackles hills bravely.

That low kerb weight is the key to its lively performance and, while 6.6 litres per 100 km is not class-leading, few owners will complain because this will doubtless be a far more frugal number than whatever car they traded on the Micra.

The Micra handles much better than you might expect a car of such upright stance and entry-level price to do. There is little feel in the steering, but the car goes where it is pointed and does not display any vices.

The turning circle is tighter than rivals, making it a cinch to reverse park. With good all-round vision as well, it is an ideal city car. The ride is very good for this segment, although a fair amount of suspension and road noise makes its way into the cabin. Like most vehicles in the price range, the Micra makes do with fairly cheap tyres and an upgrade would certainly improve its already quite good dynamics.

While the exterior design is relatively conservative (especially when compared with the previous in-your-face – if overly effeminate - Micra) and emphasises the functional with its wheel-at-each-corner stance, the interior has lots of character.

Roundness is the theme and there is an almost Noddy-car fun feel. The designers were given quite free rein and it is only some cheap hard plastics as expected in this price class that show the Micra was built down to a price rather than up to a quality level.

It has more interior space than most rivals and is a more comfortable vehicle in which to travel. You don’t expect cruise control at $12,990 but this feature is not even on the options list for the four-cylinder models. Welcome are Bluetooth connectivity and a trip computer and Nissan’s novel storage compartment under the front passenger’s seat.

No fewer than 10 colours, all named for international cities (suggesting the Micra’s farflung itinerary), but eight are metallics and add to the cost.

Mostly thus far it’s been good news. Even better though is the Micra’s high level of safety. Electronic stability control, traction control and multiple airbags are included even in the base model.

The Micra was never aimed at enthusiast drivers but at those wanting a lot of very safe and spacious little car for not much money. It pretty much follows from this that the greatest rival to the four-cylinder Micra is its less expensive three-cylinder sibling.

But with the latest model there is no doubt that Nissan Australia will carve out a larger chunk of the light-car segment. As the previous, relatively more expensive and radically styled Micras showed, most light-car buyers – in this country, at least – are not looking for innovation as much as value for their bucks.

The Micra makes great sense at $12,990 and looks fair at $14,990 which is the entry point for four-cylinder variants, but much less so at $18,990 for the Ti automatic.

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