Nissan Micra Turns To Its Supermini Rivals

Fifth-generation supermini to shift upmarket with improved refinement, increased equipment levels and more agile handling; on sale next March

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Nissan’s Laurent Marion says the new Micra is a flagship

After 33years, Nissan is at last launching an all-new European-designed Micra with the unabashed aim of beating the supermini class leaders at their own game.

Over four previous generations, Nissan has been content to target middle-rank rivals such as the Toyota Yaris and Suzuki Swift but without ever topping the sector, and the strategy has had some success. More than seven million Micras have been sold so far, half in Europe.

Now, using more modern proportions, dynamic styling and hardware shared with the next-generation Renault Clio (with which the Micra will also share a production line), the company wants to challenge the market-leading Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo and won’t mind if it also steals Clio sales.

“This Micra has been created to be a flagship,” said product manager Laurent Marion, a five-year veteran of the project. “Nissan has launched plenty of progressive cars – Juke, Note and Qashqai are great examples – but now it’s time to prove we can do well in the toughest sector of all.”

CONCEPT, DIMENSIONS

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Micra’s overall length is up by 170mm to 3995mm

The Micra name has better recognition in Europe than Nissan itself, according to project boss Keno Kato, so the decision to keep the name was an easy one.

Early on, the company identified what it calls the three key attractors of European buyers to superminis: expressive design, an inviting interior and what it calls confident (meaning stable and agile) handling.

The new Micra’s dimensions are different from those of the outgoing model, placing it in the mainstream of European B-segment hatchbacks for the first time. Length is now 3995mm (up by 170mm), while a width of 1742mm (up 77mm) makes the new model the widest in its class.

Height is reduced by 69mm to a class average 1452mm (the previous Indian-built edition made head room for turban-wearing owners a priority), while the wheelbase is 75mm longer at a class-competitive 2525mm, which benefits boot space in particular.

“Our research shows luggage room is even more important to buyers than rear seat space,” said Kato.

STYLING

Nissan’s route to expressive styling is to adopt the look of the Sway concept, which won approval at the Geneva motor show 18 months ago. Its key features are a short bonnet, a more raked windscreen than that of previous Micras, a lower, floating roof and a small boot bustle. Prominent is an extravagant character line that runs uninterrupted from front to rear, giving both a rising waist and impressive front and rear wings. Jewel-like front and rear lights complete the picture of a grown-up Micra.

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To go with its shape, the Micra gets big wheels (16in as standard, 17s optional), available in a large variety of styles, plus an array of decals and colour combinations to allow owners to personalise their cars.

EQUIPMENT

Much of the equipment specification was decided at the company’s UK technical centre at Cranfield, whose experts worked on the premise that the car had to appeal both to style-conscious young couples and empty nesters who were downsizing and would tolerate no reduction in quality.

As a result, the Micra uses soft trim materials from the pricier Qashqai, has a 5.0in instrument screen instead of the 3.5in item first proposed, has door pockets that can hold a 1.5-litre water bottle, a 10-litre glovebox and wheel adjusters instead of levers for its front seat backrests. Europeans prefer them all.

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Cabin trim is now of a higher quality; kit includes a 7.0in screen

Cranfield research also decreed that the Micra’s steering column should be adjustable for reach as well as rake, which is unusual in a B-segment hatch. It was also decided that buyers needed a 7.0in infotainment screen and class-leading connectivity, plus a Bose audio system with speakers in the driver’s headrest on top-end versions.

Depending on equipment level (there are five, including Youth, Racing and Mature), the Micra has most of the electronic aids found in pricier cars, including lane departure and blind spot warning, forward city braking (with optional pedestrian recognition), surround-view cameras and traffic sign recognition.

CHASSIS, POWERTRAIN

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New micra will offer more scope for personalisation

The Micra will have a specially configured version of the 89bhp1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel found in smaller Renaults, plus a turbocharged 0.9-litre three-cylinder petrol engine of the same output. A 69bhp, non-turbo petrol triple will arrive later, and a 120bhp version of the 0.9 turbo will follow that. All engines get standard manual gearboxes, but Nissan is likely to offer a CVT auto in at least one model.

Insiders admit there will be a close underskin relationship between the Micra and the next Clio, but for now the two are built on different platforms.

The two cars’ suspensions (front struts, twist beam behind) differ in detail, but even when the Clio moves to Micra hardware, Nissan engineers say enough variation will be available to provide differences in what drivers feel.

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Nissan engineers have tested the Micra all over Europe to reach settings for brakes, wheel dimensions, tyre brand and size, steering and suspension rates. They have also tuned the electronic systems that govern dynamics: Active Trace Control (which uses brake applications to keep the car on line in corners) and Active Ride Control (which uses nose dive from imperceptible brake applications to improve body control over large bumps).

LAUNCH DETAILS, PRICING

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Nissan will start building Micras in December and plans to have them on sale in both right and left-hand drive next March. There’s no indication of anticipated volume, but an insider revealed that Micra sales topped 170,000 a year for a while in the early 1990s.

It’s too early to discuss pricing, Nissan says, but the plan is to “compete hard” with the established players such as the Polo, which starts at about £11,500.

DRIVING THE NEW MICRA AND COMPARING IT WITH ITS RIVALS

At an exclusive pre-launch event near Barcelona, Nissan took the unusual step of allowing to drive two near-production prototypes in the company of their major opposition: a 1.2-litre four- cylinder Volkswagen Polo (the class refinement standard) and a Renault Clio powered by a 0.9-litre petrol triple (the powertrain standard).

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The Micras were a basic- spec 1.5-litre diesel and a mid- spec model using the same 0.9-litre turbo as the Clio.

The route was a decent test: it started with some ragged, crowned blacktop pocked with the kind of bumps you normally drive around (we didn’t), plus faster, bumpier asphalt that tested the body control over the suspension’s entire stroke. There were bumpy corners, both quick and slow, plus a fast and evil blind one with a closing radius, then a few miles of smooth motorway to test wind noise.

The Polo was soft, so it bounced rather untidily, but it was safe and quiet over broken surfaces. Its steering was nicely weighted and had that typical VW feeling of unburstability, and the four- cylinder engine was capable but definitely nothing special.

The Clio felt instantly sportier, helped by its zingy little motor, but its gearchange was gravelly and its suspension felt distinctly busy. And it was not as quiet as the Polo over busy bumps.

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Both of the Micras were impressively capable from the off: poised over the bumps, flat-riding, easy to steer (the wheel seems smaller in diameter than the Clio’s) and with a sweeter gearchange. The petrol car’s engine was poorly calibrated, which put it out of the game, but if it comes as good as the Clio’s iteration (Micra engineering manager Norman Snowdon reckons it’ll be better), the petrol Micra will be a proper fun car. The diesel was all of that, but with a torquey, long-legged and very smooth power delivery and no feeling of nose-heaviness.

Of course, this was far from being the final test. But there was no doubting that in the fight to be supermini top tog, the new Micra will be a serious contender.

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