AFTER VIEWING Defending the Caveman, I thought I had a slightly better understanding of how the minds of the opposite sex actually work. All that got tossed when my better half expressed her opinion on the new Micra’s styling. Other women reacted in a similar way, confirming her view. It starts with a wry smile after they first see it, moving to a pitiful head tilt, then a final soft swoon and one consistent reply, ‘it’s cute’.
Cute? For me and most other guys in our early thirties, if you were referred to as ‘cute’ in your varsity years, it was a kind way of saying you were fugly but passable after a good few drinks. Most of us like to believe that our superior charm and snappy wit helped us survive beyond that first drink though. Truth is, the girls just had to drink us pretty. So does the new Micra have enough character and personality to make it through to second base?
We’ve established that no car has polarised opinion more (between sexes) than the new Micra, with the previous third generation’s animated, Pokemon-like character endearing it to most female buyers. While styling is a subjective thing, even these existing customers can’t deny that Nissan’s design team looked more at Hello Kitty than Jimmy Choo for inspiration when scribbling the newcomer.
The latest version is less quirky and more rounded, but decidedly more generous, having grown 61mm longer with another 20mm in the wheelbase. Its all-new V platform (Versatile platform) is designed to be structurally rigid yet as light as possible, says Nissan. Its centre of gravity is also lower due to it being 10mm closer to the Tarmac than the previous version.
Like the exterior, the cabin is uninspiring but inoffensive, with much of the animated dashboard layout centering on the instrument cluster. Our range-topping 1.5 Tekna test unit, priced at R143 400, represents great value considering that six airbags, a six-CD shuttle stereo with hands-free Bluetooth and steering controls are standard fare. The Micra’s biggest rival, Volkswagen’s Polo Vivo 1.6 Trendline (R150 320), only offers two front airbags and a CD sound system with Bluetooth is a R930 option. The Micra also offers standard 15-inch alloys to the Polo’s 14s. The Polo does have more comfortable seats though, with a marginal five additional litres of luggage space with the seats up. The Nissan’s rear seats don’t fold totally flat, offering 124 litres less load space than the VW. Still, the Nissan’s enlarged platform offers good head and leg room for front and rear passengers (though rear shoulder room could be better) as well as wide opening doors which make it easy to get in and out. On the downside, some of the interior plastics felt cheap and some even started falling off while the car was in our tenure. For a unit with less than 2000km on clock, this raised an eyebrow or two regarding the Micra’s long-term reliability.
Looks can be deceiving and when hooked up to our test equipment the Micra returned a perky 0-100kph time of 9.78secs, beating Nissan’s own claim of 11.0 seconds. Maybe the Micra is hotter than we thought. Delve a little deeper and you realize that in addition to a free-revving 1.5-litre petrol engine (dubbed the HR15DE, and at 73kW/138Nm some way up on the previous 1.4’s 65kW/128Nm), the Micra also has a better power-to-weight ratio. Nissan shaved 35kg from the previous gen’s kerb weight to start the range at 915kg, and this model at 954kg undercuts the Polo 1.6 by 135kg and Suzuki’s new Swift 1.4 by 71kg. This was achieved by adopting lighter engine components, seats and fuel tank, and by using fewer parts in the dashboard. All well and good, though quality seems to have been compromised. Less so ability. The five-speed manual feels slick, if a bit brittle. On the open road, in a mixture of town traffic and open road cruising our unit returned an average of 8.2ℓ/100km over our designated test route, which was heavier than expected and some way off the 6.3ℓ/100km claim.
Nissan’s engineers got the dynamic balance right though, dialling in a comfortable, well damped ride over undulations thanks to long-travel dampers, with a surprisingly healthy dollop of entertainment on track. Although roll and lean mid-turn is above average, the low kerb weight gifts the Micra with agility, making it feel nimble and chuckable. The 1.5’s modest outputs never overly stretch the car’s dynamic limits, though one gets the feeling that more underfoot would demand stiffer spring rates. The everyday commute is, as expected, unflustered and uneventful. The power steering is characteristically light, making for manoeuvrability around town, helped by a class-leading turning circle of 4.6m. Standard safety fare, in line with the rivals, includes ABS, EBD and brake assist, allowing for consistent stopping and good pedal modulation.
With VW, Toyota, Ford and Suzuki offering up some fairly, erm, weighty competition in this segment, the new Micra fares well, but ultimately isn’t the standout choice. It’s just another option, as opposed to THE option, which will no doubt score more than the average undergrad with the fairer sex due to its ‘cute’ styling, strong performance, agile handling and good value for money. The longevity of one’s relationship with the Micra will be tested by its quality though, as the small niggles we encountered slightly tainted our overall perception and may just leave some owners with regret the morning after.