The little car that does what it says
Nissan’s Micra makes a virtue out of being exactly what it says on the packet, writes DAVE MOORE.
Just about every driving school in Britain uses the Nissan Micra as its staple learning tool. That’s not only because it’s the most popular British-made small car, but because it’s cheap and does what all cars should do, with positive handling habits, a decent ride, good visibility, fair access – even for larger drivers – and the reliability of a clock.
The Micra dominance of driving schools has been the case in Britain for at least three generations of the model, and through all that time Nissan has even given the car a cute, rounded, organic look to match its market friendliness while everything else in its segment had become wedge-like and perhaps a little cold.
The latest Micra, which arrived in New Zealand late last year, sourced from Japan, has grown by 85 millimetres in length and 5mm in width and has lost a little of its bulbous charm to provide improvements in interior space, particularly at the rear and in the load area which now offers 251 litres of volume, seats up.
It looks more grown-up, too, with a more emphatic, singleintake nose treatment, replacing the previous wide split grille look, and a rising front to rear sidecrease that gives the car more visual tension in profile than its mildly toyish predecessor.
Unlike the driving school cars, which are generally manuals, all New Zealand Micras will be fourspeed automatics, as there simply were not sufficient manual aspirants here to make their availability worthwhile.
All Micras here have a twincam 16-valve 1.5-litre engine, with a useful 75 kilowatt and 136 newton metres on tap, the only real choice in the range being that of ST or Ti specification.
Both specs get front, side and curtain airbags; ABS; vehicle dynamic control – Nissan-speak for stability control; brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution; air conditioning; a multifunction drive computer; a singleCD AM/FM sound system with four speakers; and MP3 and auxiliary input.
Not too bad in any price segment.
The top Ti model adds a bit of chrome around the air intake, with body-coloured door handles and mirrors to note the cosmetic items.
More useful elements in the Ti include a driver’s left-side armrest, alloy wheels, climate control, and a stowage element in the passenger seat called integrated bag assist.
I found it great for keeping a small laptop from flying around when I was driving the car, and away from prying eyes when it was parked.
The whole driving environment shows considerable thought.
On the left there are three levels of storage, with secure upper and lower lidded gloveboxes separated by a shelf for items requiring quicker access.
The centre console area has a doughnut-shaped cluster of heater and airconditioning controls – a pleasing, compact design with big prod-friendly buttons impossible to fumble.
In the middle of the doughnut is a circular temperature, fan-speed and mode readout, very neat indeed.
The doughnut design is twice repeated in much smaller scale above the heater for the sound system controls, and you would have to be wearing boxing gloves to fumble these too.
If you prefer to keep your hands on the wheel, both specification levels of the Micra also get sound, channel and wavelength controls on the left spoke of the steering wheel.
Considering the Micra’s innate ‘‘chuckability’’ it’s a pity the front seats don’t offer a bit more sidesupport.
There’s a good range of rake, reach and seat-slide adjustments but if you’re cornering hard, you will be glad to have a steering wheel to hang onto, unlike your passenger.
It’s a shame because up front there is plenty of space and lots of thoughtful operational touches.
In the back, the new Micra is a huge improvement on the old model, with more leg and shoulder room than before.
The rear bench is shaped for two and belted for three and the back can be 60:40 split-folded for those who need to complement the standard load space, which as I found could take a large hardshell suitcase even without doing any folding, something I did not have a prayer of achieving with the old car.
In terms of driving, the Micra does exactly what you expect of it.
Being an automatic, commuting is as dramatic and engaging as using a washing machine, only simpler.
You just point the car and like white goods, off it goes, press the pedal on the left and it stops.
‘‘No muss, no fuss’’, as the old ad used to say.
Being a four-speed automatic in a segment which now makes five, six and even seven ratios something of a norm, the Micra tends to ‘‘hunt’’ between ratios a bit more than I would like, as it looks for the best gear.
Considering Nissan’s experience in producing excellent continuously variable transmissions – it uses CVTs for its Juke, Qashqai, X-trail, Maxima and Murano models, not to mention the Japanese Government’s luxury V8 Cima sedans – I’m surprised the Micra doesn’t have it here.
As it is, the four-speed automatic does not do the willing 1.5-litre power unit justice.
The car will maintain a quiet open-road speed limit cruise all day long, but a CVT unit would add refinement to the car at all other times too.
I am told a 1.2-litre Micra CVT exists, and maybe that model would do the trick.
The Micra’s rack and pinion steering is linear and predictable and though the suspension is somewhat generic, with MacPherson struts at the front and a coil-sprung torsion beam at the rear, it was unfazed by the rippled and rutted roads and alarmingly protruding manholes of earthquake-ravaged Christchurch. Maybe all cars should be tested on a Christchurch road.
Familiar lines: The new Micra has grown up into a smarter, more capacious small car.