Forget the previous Micra; Nissan has far loftier ambitions for its new supermini
The Micra was once so integral to Nissan’s success that there was higher public awareness of the name ‘Micra’ than there was of the word ‘Nissan’.
But, well, the Micra hasn’t exactly had things all its own way of late.
For a start, because of the Qashqai, it’s not so pivotal to the Nissan range. And then came the just-gone- generation Micra, built to sell in major world markets and given only minimal alterations before its arrival in Europe, where the best superminis were far, far better than it. Heck, even the generation-before Micra was better than it.
But now there’s a new Micra, heralded by some pretty bold claims by Nissan that it doesn’t just want to make the Micra competitive with the best in class again; it wants to make the Micra the best supermini on sale. Better than a Ford Fiesta. Better than a Volkswagen Polo. Which means it’ll be better than all the others, too. As ambitions go, that’s pretty lofty.
To do it, Nissan hasn’t replaced the Micra’s platform, surprisingly. The Renault-Nissan Alliance is working on a new supermini platform, but making the Micra from it would have delayed the next-generation Renault Clio, so the Micra’s is a thorough re-engineering of the existing V-platform. If you think that’s a worry, don’t. In the shape of the Nissan Note, it already underpins a decent car, so it was the individual execution of the outgoing Micra that was the problem, rather than an indication that the hardware simply wasn’t up to it.
Nonetheless, Nissan has gone to town on it. There is new suspension front and rear and a body that’s unrecognisable from the previous one. And this made-for-Europe model is now to be built at a Renault factory in France, rather than in Thailand and India, as before.
We’ve spent a bit of time in an 89bhp 1.5-litre diesel model and quite a lot of time in an 89bhp 0.9-litre petrol model. Prices will be announced in January 2017 – and you can expect them to be competitive with the likes of the Fiesta and Polo – before the car goes on sale in March.
Inside, the new Micra is light years better than the car it replaces. All models get a two-tone interior, but in higher-spec models like our test car there’s some faux leather, and that means the inside feels as good as anything in the class. But all variants will apparently get soft-feel plastics in crucial places, and a lot of features are standard to all models.
In return, Nissan has saved the odd quid elsewhere but is pitching this as a virtue. Open the boot and where a Polo would have flat boot sides for better perceived quality, there are rough panels that follow the contours of the wheel arches. The luggage cover gets string hooks rather than plastic clips and just rests on a perch rather than clipping in and out.
But Nissan says this helps to make the boot bigger and the load cover quicker to remove and replace. That maybe a fair point. Rear passengers have to wind their own windows, too.
The pay-off comes in the front, where the Micra feels great. The driving position is sound, the pedals are spaced perfectly, the seatback is adjusted by a rotary dial rather than a ratchet and there’s a central multimedia touchscreen that’s certainly easier to operate than Ford’s infotainment system, if not VW’s.
If we keep mentioning the Fiesta and Polo, it’s because Nissan, not just us, regards those cars as the current class benchmarks – dynamically, as well as anything else. Broadly speaking, the VW is one of the most comfortable-riding cars in the class and the Ford is the best-handling. Nissan has aimed the Micra somewhere between the two, and it has hit the target. The ride is smooth, even on 17in wheels with 45-profile tyres, and the steering is precise and responsive, if light.
Science bit All Micras come with Chassis Control, which includes Active Trace Control and Active Ride Control. Ride Control can gently apply a brake – usually a rear one – after you’ve hit a speed bump to ease backbody pitch. Active Trace Control works in corners, above 0.4g. It, too, applies a brake gently – very gently, given that it’s about three or four bar, when an emergency stop is 120 bar – to keep the car on your intended line.
It’s operating comfortably within the realms of grip, well before the stability control kicks in, so you don’t have to drive as if your pants are on fire. It just maintains a sense of agility and security, and the stability control operates so subtly that you really don’t know it’s there, until you try it back to back with the system on and off. Even with it off, though, Nissan has set up the Micra to be agile and trust worthy. A Fiesta still remains the more compelling car to drive, in our eyes, but the Micra probably runs it second in the class while offering better bump absorption. It’s that good, this car.
The 0.9-litre three-cylinder petrol engine is smooth, although it offers nothing below 2000rpm and not a great deal for a few hundred revs more. It thrums along sweetly enough, though, aided by a very slick five-speed manual gearbox. Over two days’ driving, we didn’t return any more than 40mpg, but consider that worst-case consumption.
Our drive in the four-cylinder 1.5 dCi Micra was much briefer. It has a broad spread of power low down, but the extra 80kg it carries blunts the dynamics. The petrol version is probably preferable.
For too long, the Micra has been completely forgettable in this class – a two-star car at best – and Nissan Europe knew it. The new Micra has been shifted way up the scale, to the point that we’re confident it’s right up there with the best cars in the class. Assuming the pricing is competitive, it might even be the very best.
The Micra’s fortunes have turned: the new supermini is as terrific as the old one was forgettable
Nissan Micra 0.9T
Price: £ 15,000 (est)
Engine: 3cyls, 898cc, turbo, petrol
Power: 89bhp at 5500rpm
Torque: 104lb ft at 2250rpm
Gearbox: 5-spd manual
Kerb weight: 1001kg
Top speed: 109mph
CO2/tax band: 99g/km (est), 16%
Rivals: Ford Fiesta 1.0T Ecoboost, Volkswagen Polo 1.2 TSI