Nissan Micra: Where's the charm gone?
The Nissan Micra was once synonymous with charm and likeability. William Scholes finds out how the current car stacks up
MY time with the Nissan Micra got off to an unpromising start but gradually improved as the week went on, allowing things to end on a brighter note, writes William Scholes.
The main problem was - and this is a slightly embarrassing confession for a motoring writer... - that I had forgotten the Micra existed.
Of course, I knew that there was, once, such a thing as a Micra, not least because one of my sisters used to have one.
That particular Micra was small and blue, had very flat seats and looked like a cloud. It moved about as fast as a cloud on a still summer's day, too, but she was very fond of it and gave it a name - Maggie, if I remember correctly, possibly in honour of one of her favourite prime ministers (she now drives a Mazda Boris).
This illustrates the point that, for a time, the Micra was a quirky, characterful little thing. People don't name and become fond of every car; the Micra had charm and personality, of the sort that is easily associated now with something like a Fiat 500 or Mini.
Things went awry for the Micra from around 2010 when Nissan, for some reason, replaced it with a bland, characterless blob, thus losing all that hard-won brand capital and good will.
No-one was going to give that a car a nickname; the Micra went from being a somebody to being a nobody.
And after that, it was a bit of a blank for me on the Micra front. So when my colleague told me a Nissan Micra was heading my way, I really couldn't recall what it looked like; I could picture the Juke and the Qashqai, because you see them everywhere. But a Micra...?
Anyway, the day duly arrived and a five-door hatchback with the appropriate Ford Fiesta/Renault Clio/Peugeot 208-sized footprint appeared on the driveway.
The main problem was that I had forgotten the Micra existed. I knew that there was, once, such a thing as a Micra, not least because one of my sisters used to have one
It's a handsome, good looking little car. It looks a lot like a Renault Clio, in fact.
Some journalistic endeavour helped me to the discovery that the Micra and the Clio are, in fact, closely related and share much hardware... though the Clio in question has since been replaced.
My Micra was in what Nissan calls 'Tekna' trim and finished in optional 'passion red' metallic paint and sat atop some tasty 17-inch alloys, lending it a stance that was more sporty than sedate.
The boot (with a volume of 300 litres, swelling to 1,004 litres with the seats folded) and rear seat space are average - there's nothing special here but nor is there anything to immediately put off a prospective buyer. Sure, there are rivals with more rear legroom and bigger boots, but there are also those that are smaller. Neither would seem to be a deal-breaker for the Micra.
One neat touch, that the 11-year-old focus group particularly enjoyed, are rear door handles located beside the window rather than in the door skin... much like a Clio, then.
Those travelling in the front get plenty of space and comfortable seats. There's no real wow factor about the dashboard but everything you see and touch feels of high quality and solidly constructed. The instruments are clear and all the switches are logically laid out.
The infotainment system can talk to your smartphone and it's one of the more straightforward touchscreens to operate.
A word for the sound system, which is an upgraded Bose set-up on the Tekna grade and includes - wait for it - speakers in the headrests. It's a really good system - it can be had on the Juke as well, and Mazda fits it to the MX-5 - and rather makes you wonder why more manufacturers don't offer it.
So far, so good, then. I was rather warming to the Micra on my reintroduction to the nameplate.
The test car was fitted with a turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine. There are a bunch of similar engines out there, from Ford and Volkswagen to Citroen and Hyundai, and the one fitted to the Micra is as smooth and punchy as any of them.
In the guise tested, it was good for 99bhp and 106lb ft - not a lot in absolute terms but more than sufficient for everyday Micra-ing duties. It is notably refined and quiet, too; I came to the Micra from an electric car, and generally speaking the Nissan was at least as quiet, despite having an actual engine under the bonnet and not an electric motor.
A gold star, too, for the car's ride - which felt plush and took the worse edges of several familiar and notorious bumps in my neighbourhood.
In fact, there's a nice balance to the chassis set-up, for this disposition towards comfort doesn't also mean that the Micra goes all soft and floppy in the bends.
A Ford Fiesta, Suzuki Swift or Mazda 2 might encourage you to throw them into corners with more vigour, but the Nissan is by no means far behind.
There are two black marks to report, however.
First, the test car was an automatic, meaning in the Micra's case a continuously variable transmission.
This shared the worst trait common to these arrangements, namely a sudden rise in engine revs - and engine noise - in response to anything other than gentle throttle inputs.
There was also a curious, and at times even alarming, tendency for the car to feel as if it was continuing to maintain a certain engine speed even after coming off the accelerator; this created the sensation that the car wanted to keep going for a split second, when you didn't.
Second, on certain road surfaces, at speeds above 50mph or 60mph, the Micra was very noisy. I've already praised the engine for its quiet refinement, but wind and, in particular, road noise could be very intrusive. The rougher-surfaced stretches of the M1, for example, were a proper racket.
As someone who routinely uses the aforementioned noisy bits of the M1, this understandably took the shine off what was otherwise a thoroughly competent performance from the Micra.
Today's Micra is a solidly conventional proposition compared to its quirkier and much-loved predecessors.
It's also more broadly talented and certainly less 'love it or loathe it' than those earlier models that looked like fluffy little clouds.
But when rivals include the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio - now a generation ahead of the version that the Micra is related to - and Peugeot 208, it's hard to make a case for the Micra being a class-leader - especially when it lacks in character.
Nissan knows how to build cars with personality - the Juke springs to mind, and owners love their Qashqais. The Micra, on the other hand, might not deserve to be forgotten, but you probably will.
AT A GLANCE
Nissan Micra Tekna IG-T 100 CVT
Price: £19,405. £20,530 as tested, with metallic paint £575 and 'exterior pack plus', including 17-inch alloy wheels, £550
Engine and transmission: 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol turbo, front-wheel-drive, continuously variable automatic transmission; 99bhp, 106lb ft
Performance: Top speed 114mph, 0-62mph in 10.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: 50.4mpg (WLTP combined), 45.4mpg ('real world', during test period)
CO2 emissions: 105g/km
Car tax: £155 in first year, then £150 annually
Benefit in kind: 24 per cent
Euro NCap safety rating: Five stars (91/79/79/72), 2017
NEW ENGINE FOR UPDATED MICRA
SINCE I drove the Micra, Nissan has given the car an update, writes William Scholes.
Trim levels still follow a hierarchy that rises from Visia, Acenta and N-Sport to the range-topping Tekna, but equipment levels have been improved overall.
LED headlamps are now standard on the N-Sport and Tekna, for example.
Standard equipment on all versions includes hill start assist, intelligent ride control and intelligent trace control for, says Nissan, "improved handling in difficult conditions".
A 'safety pack' option includes high beam assist, intelligent lane intervention, traffic sign recognition and intelligent forward emergency braking with pedestrian recognition.
Just one engine is now offered. It's a 1.0-litre petrol engine with 91bhp - down on the 99bhp output of the car we tested, though the trade off should be stronger fuel economy and emissions performance.
The refreshed Micra is priced from £14,000.