DOMINO’S EFFECT A million pizza delivery drivers can’t be wrong – cute, mechanically unbreakable and quite a lot of fun, the K11 Nissan Micra is a simply brilliant car.
It might have ceased production in 2002, but every so often you still see a K11 Micra delivering fast food. There is one not far from my home which careers around on a daily basis, enriching peoples’ lives with doses of curry. A few years ago, the second-generation Nissan Micra – K11 in Nissanspeak – was an everyday sight amid the urban landscape, flying at high velocity off traffic- calming humps, doing sterling work keeping the nation’s population fed. It was also the transport of choice for young and old alike, and it enjoyed enormous sales success in the UK.
The Micra name had been around since 1982, when Nissan put into production a car originally intended for Fiat. It was a no-frills machine that – rather unlike the Uno that the Italian giant chose instead – combined good engineering with decent manufacturing processes. Over its ten-year production life it gained a reputation for reliability and fuel- efficiency, and sold a solid 50,000 examples in the UK.
Although it was a clean-limbed vehicle, the original Micra was no great looker. It was functional rather than attractive, drawn mostly with straight lines and little adornment, an essay in 1980s utilitarianism. Ten years later, Nissan changed direction radically with the K11. Suddenly, its supermini was round-edged and cute. It looked as much about fun as functionality. The early 1990s was a time of great optimism in the UK, and amid this we responded very positively to the charmingly blobby K11. ‘For once,’ cheered Auto Express in 1983, ‘Nissan has built a car with real personality.’ Even better, its European production plant was in Sunderland, making the Micra almost a British car.
It was fundamentally Japanese, though. This meant that underneath, the Micra wasn’t particularly revolutionary, but it was very well-made. And its engines were really good. They were all-alloy, 16-valve, fourcylinder units, 998 and 1275cc in volume. Their power and torque outputs weren’t remarkable
– the 1.0-litre engine gave 54bhp and 58lb.ft while the 1.3 produced 74bhp and 76lb.ft – but they were designed and built with such fine tolerances that they would power a reputation for efficiency and reliability that still endures three decades later. They were also chain-driven, a refreshing commitment to dependability when most rivals used cambelts.
As part of a facelift and refresh in 1997, the Micra’s engines were lightly revised, the 1.0-litre unit’s output rising slightly to 59bhp and 59lb.ft of torque, and the larger motor becoming a 1.4 (1348cc) which poured forth 80bhp and 80lbf.ft of torque.
The smaller-engined Micra has always been regarded as quite a slow car, although around town the unit’s eager nature made it perfectly adequate, even rather nippy. But the sub one-litre capacity had its uses. In Japan,
it kept the Micra in a low tax bracket. In the UK, it provided learner and new drivers with a car that was feasible to insure. The 1.0-litre K11 also proved popular with older drivers, whose list of priorities favoured practicality, fuel- efficiency, ease of use and reliability over outright speed. The Micra, it is fair to say, appealed to a broad demographic. The 1.3 and 1.4-litre versions provided quite respectable performance, too.
Many Micras come with a five-speed manual gearbox that is light in operation and has well-spaced ratios. However, a very competent four-speed automatic can be found, as well as a CVT option. Most examples are manuals, although there are more autos tucked away than one might think, thanks to their popularity with pensioners.
There was nothing revolutionary about the Micra’s chassis. Front-wheel drive, it features MacPherson struts at the front and a beam axle plus Panhard rod at the rear, but with this time-proven combination came simplicity. Combined with Nissan’s high-quality approach to manufacture, the result was vice-free handling and notable longevity. In fact, since car makers have spent the last few decades insulating us from the cars that we drive in the name of reducing noise, vibration and harshness, a K11 feels like something of a go-kart by today’s standards. It turns in nicely and provides the kind of fun, responsive handling likely to put a massive smile on your face. Earlier cars featured notable body roll in spirited cornering, but the fitment of anti-roll bars from 1996 helped curb this.
Inside, a Micra is very much of its time. The cabin is rendered in a variety of grey plastics, enlivened by cloth seat facings in rather questionable colour and pattern combinations. But unlike some Japanese offerings of its era, the Micra’s dash is well laid- out, interesting to look at and well put together. Like the rest of the car, it is a quality item which, given the car’s longevity, is a very good thing. Narrowsection A and B pillars combine with a generous glass area and high roof to make this an airy cabin, although room in the rear isn’t particularly generous and the boot is quite small.
For a car that came out at a time when small cars had quite spartan tendencies, the K11 could be well-equipped. Alongside equipment that couldn’t be seen such as reinforced passenger cell and side impact bars, Micras can be found with electric windows, central locking, air bags and ABS braking. The 1997 facelift brought standard power steering to the party.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that given the Micra 1.0-litre’s affordability for young drivers, a small-but-significant modification scene has sprung up around it. As a refreshing adjunct to the ubiquitous VW fetish, a hard core of young enthusiasts is bringing the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) look to the tiny Nissan. And even to my middleaged eyes, some of the results can be great fun. The K11’s dumpy cuteness lends itself well to lowering, wide wheels and bulbous arches.
Over in Japan the Micra was swiftly earmarked for adaption, not least by Nissan itself. It produced the March Box, a five-door estate version. Nissan also created the leather-seated Bolero, which looked rather like the result of a liaison between the K11 and a Vanden Plas 1100. Mitsuoka, a small, eccentric coachbuilding company in Toyama, Japan, even took the K11 and turned it into a scaleddown homage to the Mk2 Jaguar. This is a very niche car, the product of a predilection in Japan for aping old British cars. All of these can be found in the UK as imports, of definite interest if your tastes are esoteric.
For a while, inevitably, the K11 Micra was very cheap indeed. It still can be, if you can find a seller who isn’t aware of its growing appeal. A friend of mine recently bought a very tidy, 29,000-mile 1.0-litre automatic for just £350. It had a starting problem, which turned out to be dirty contacts on the ignition barrel.
Although the K11 sold well in the UK and is a very robust car, inevitably its numbers were thinned dramatically during its low-priced years when a medium-priced repair could prove uneconomic to carry out. The sills and front crossmember can rot on these cars, which proved toxic when combined with the vivacious piloting style pizza delivery drivers are noted for. As a result, prices of these Micras are now rising, even more during the current economic troubles when people are turning to old, cheap and bombproof cars rather than taking out new leases. The take-away from the take-aways is that the K11 is very definitely on that menu.