Chihuahuas are considered cute, even laughably so, right up till the moment they bite you. Once those pin-like teeth are nibbling on your leg, there is no doubt left in your mind that however harmless the Chihuahua looks it’s still an animal. What Chihuahuas are to the dog kingdom the Nissan Micra is the same for the automotive world, it’s compact, it’s cute but it still has the most of the same abilities and bite as any other car. The Micra story began back in 1982 when a boxy first-generation model was built to battle the Honda City. It would go on to have two more generations and become known for its budget price tag and quirky styling. Now, for its fourth generation this super-mini has toned down its radical design and is baring its teeth to its competitors in the light segment through strong equipment levels and improved practicality. Car and SUV took the new top-spec Micra Ti for a run to see if it has the bite to match its bark.
The new Micra is set to be a true global car for Nissan, with sales planned for 160 countries worldwide and production at four different factories. With this broad focus in mind, the Micra design is now much more conventional. The bug eyes remain but are better molded into the bonnet line and there’s a more discrete single-bar grille. A wider lower air dam and fog lights on the Ti spec model give it a sporty, more purposeful face. Along the flanks it’s fairly tame with nice colour coding on the wing mirrors and door handles, with 15-inch 7-spoke alloys filling the guards. Out back there’s an integrated hatch spoiler with stop lamp, vertical taillights and a wide-opening hatch. The new styling slims the Micra down compared to its bulbous predecessor but a keen eye will notice that the new model is larger in wheelbase, width and length. Even with the more subdued styling the Micra won’t blend into the background, particularly when finished in ‘Spring Green’ like our extroverted test vehicle.
Inside, the dash layout has a fun appearance with plenty of circular detailing in the switchgear and air vents. It’s unconventional but the buttons are nicely separated between audio and climate controls with thoughtful ergonomics. The instrumentation is presented in a compact cluster but is easily read and has a drive computer that displays vehicle information and even offers programmable reminders. There are plenty of small storage options including a lift up passenger seat squab that provides secure space for a handbag, a small dog or any item you don’t want moving around the cabin. The interior plastics aren’t of an especially high grade with the silver trim feeling particularly hard, but at this low price point they’re no worse than most competitors. Build quality is very good with precise shut lines and everything is tightly screwed together.
The Micra seats are finished in a soft black and grey cloth that looks smart and should prove durable in the long term. While the seats are quite small they are gently bolstered and with a high roofline occupants of all sizes and shapes can get comfortable. In Ti spec there’s also a handy armrest for the driver. Legroom is limited in the rear seats but with generous adjustment of the front seats it’s not hard to get sorted. The back doors are narrow for entry and exit, but certainly beat climbing over the passenger seat, which a two-door body style would demand. The hatch loading area is on the small side offering a 251-litre capacity, but with a 60:40 split rear seat back you can make practical use of the Micra’s limited space.
In terms of standard equipment the Micra Ti trumps more expensive competitors with some attractive features. Keyless entry and start, climate air-conditioning, a CD player with Auxiliary port for iPods, steering wheel mounted audio controls, folding power mirrors, power windows, height adjustable drivers’ seat and automatic headlights are all included. It’s an impressive haul for a car in this price bracket.
Under the stumpy bonnet lies Nissan’s well-proven 1.5-litre 4-cylinder engine, it outputs 75kW and 136Nm of torque. While it’s not a big motor it is larger than many competitors in the light segment and is sufficiently peppy. It moves the Micra off the line well and the torque output is enough to make the small hatch capable at mid-range speeds. It’s also surprisingly confident during open road and motorway cruising and is nicely settled at 100kph with ability to push itself faster. If you’re fully loaded with four occupants and some baggage the Micra’s pace will slow, but it will still get there.
For the NZ market the Micra comes exclusively mated to a four-speed automatic gearbox. With only four ratios it’s not the most advanced transmission around and can be caught hunting for gears on steep and windy roads but around town it functions without issue. It’s not as fuel efficient as newer 5-speed or CVT gearboxes but the Micra is far from thirsty returning a 6.6l/100km combined economy figure.
Dynamically the Micra would struggle to match the Ford Fiesta or Suzuki Swift on twisted roads, however it does have a reassuring level of grip and only breaks into understeer when pushed harder than most owners would attempt. There is some body roll when cornering at higher speeds but there’s not too much to put owners off taking the Micra out of town for a weekend. That said, it’s in the city that the Micra is most at home. Like the Chihuahua, the Micra can fit into spaces and go places that others simply can’t. It’s short enough to claim parking spots larger cars wouldn’t attempt and with a very tight 9m turning circle, U-turns can be performed nearly anywhere. The power-assisted steering is light on the arms and the ride is compliant, especially at urban speeds, absorbing most bumps and dips in the road.
Overall refinement is a mixed bag with the Micra being fairly quiet during city duties but when pushed the engine can sound coarse and tyre noise is audible over 80kph. You can’t expect it to ride like a luxury sedan and while the Micra can feel lightweight at times it’s never to the point of being unlivable.
Safety credentials are up-to-date and the Micra is equipped with front, side and curtain airbags, ABS brakes and stability control systems. There are also three-point belts for all occupants and pretensioners at the front.
The Micra is small but it’s got some fight, its biggest strength comes through a high equipment level and like most of Nissan’s range – drivability. The drivetrain and on road dynamics are competent but not groundbreaking, it’s in the suburbs where the Micra makes most sense. The exterior styling has increased appeal and the interior greater practicality. If you’re in the market for a second ‘round-town’ car and you dig the styling then the Micra is a solid choice.
Price: from $22,600, as tested Ti – $24,100
What we like:
- High standard equipment level
- Much improved design
- Moves very well around town
What we don’t like:
- Powertrain isn’t as modern as some competitors
- Hard interior plastics
- Could offer more dynamically
Who will buy this car: Mums who need a cheap, reliable round town runabout and share their partner’s sedan/SUV for longer distance jaunts.
Cool Factor: Not great, it sure looks a lot better but teenage boys will think twice before borrowing mum’s Micra.
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo