Micra’s unimaginable return to top form

Time was when the Nissan Micra was a staple in the supermini segment, competing successfully against the kingpins in the segment and being produced by the zillion — all over the world.

Its popularity was based on the fact it was compact but practical, economic, cheap and largely bombproof when it came to mechanical reliability.

It was not quite the Cherry, which broke the company (then Datsun) onto the Irish market, what with radical gear like a radio or a heater — as standard. Imagine.

No, Micra came along later — like the name change — and over the years it developed various different personalities.

Sometimes it was cutesy or on other occasions it tried to be a bit radical. Somewhere along the line, it vanished off the radar when it came to people’s purchasing preferences.

Quite why a car this popular could plummet so thoroughly was one of those automotive X File moments; it seemed to be an impossible feat, but it was true, despite the fact that the Micra had not stopped being reasonable enough value for money and was still an economic and practical choice for many people.

But, for many buyers, the Micra no longer appealed to the masses like it once did.

Having stopped production of the car at their plant at Sunderland in the UK (from where more than 2.3m had been built between 1992 and 2010) Nissan moved Micra production to factories in Mexico, India, China and Thailand, with the cars destined for Europe being built in Chennai, India. It turned out to be a big mistake.

Just three years later Micra sales in Europe had fallen from a career high of over 170,000 units in 2003 to less than 50,000 units and while the Nissan designers and engineers undoubtedly did their best to make a nice, fashionable car, their efforts were singularly unrewarded by the buying public. There was a good reason for this: it was terrible.

Having gone from having hugely successful appeal with everyone from pensioners to learner drivers — and all in between, sales of the fourth generation Micra went downhill rapidly as the car had little appeal to anyone.

Nissan quickly realised that it had to do something pretty radical to breathe new life into what was rapidly becoming a moribund nameplate.

The result is the fifth generation Micra and it is one of the best ever. Endowed with slick, youthful styling, a choice of two petrols and one diesel engine, a range of personalisation options (a must these days), funky interiors, great driving characteristics and a price which puts it bang in line with the premium contenders in the segment (Fiesta, Polo, Yaris, etc.)

Now, while the car does not contend with those at the more bargain-basement end of the supermini scale (Fabia, Ibiza, etc) Nissan was not aiming it at that market anyway and was counting on the fact that the combination of all the factors outlined above, along with top-line infotainment and connectivity characteristics and a raft of safety features would re-ignite appeal.

The design team also realised that the interior décor of the Mk 4 Micra (all scratchy, unpleasant plastics and unremitting dreariness) had to be addressed and this is one of the big successes of the new car. Sit in and you will find swathes of soft-touch quasi leather across the dashboard, door inserts and so forth.

The use of these materials, in combination with decent upholstery (albeit in the ‘Energy Orange’ which matches the inserts and the flashing which adorns the exterior) adds a sense of class which, in fairness, was never a Micra characteristic, except in the Mk II which did a good job with the limited materials to hand.

This thing looks jivie and funky — and that’s just from the drivers’ perspective. Undoubtedly, from the covetous eyes of those youthful souls who can’t wait to get behind the wheel of anything other than their old dear’s motor, Micra is a thing to aspire to.

The knack with this car is that it has rather more appeal than anything with a Micra nameplate of recent memory and, as such will have a considerably greater reach than its’ immediate predecessor and may even touch the sales heights of its’ predecessors.

On the road, it is an exercise in how to pull the fat from the fire. The previous version had the handling of an ox and cart. This one is sharp. Tight. Like a good supermini should be.

We often waffle in these quarters about how fantastic small cars are. Unfortunately, a lot of people would rather the social status of a luxobarge to impress the crowd in the golf club, rather than picking a car which actually suits their needs and doesn’t kill the planet too.

Many may ‘pfff’ at the thought of anything less than a two-litre engine to get them around the place, but here we have yet another great small capacity petrol engine with good oomph and diddly squat economy, emissions and tax rating. What’s not to like?

The 900cc turbocharged engine outputs some 90 bhp, has a 12.1 second 0-100 kph time and a top speed of 175 kph. It emits 90 g/km for an annual tax bill of €180 and the claimed consumption is 4.4 l/100 km or 64mpg in old money.

Now, while this engine is a simple three cylinder with turbocharging, some of you will have noted that it is not quite as strong a performer as similar units from Ford or the PSA Group — on paper. On the road you will not notice, however, any serious deficiencies here. There is plenty of punch and wheel-spinning antics are never far away, if you feel that way inclined.

But the engine is just one element of this re-birth. The amount of kit Nissan has thrown at the car — admittedly the tester was the top spec SVE version — is very impressive indeed and with everything from cruise control, blind spot warning systems, lane departure warnings, etc, it is a very sophisticated little machine indeed.

Back in 1993 the Micra famously became the first Japanese car to win the European Car Of The Year award and while this current one did not quite manage to repeat the feat at the Geneva Show this year, the mere fact it was considered a worthy contender for the prize, is a firm indication of just how much Nissan has pulled the name-plate back from the brink.

It is a return to form in every way imaginable.



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