The original version of Nissan's fourth generation Micra supermini singularly failed to hit the spot with UK buyers. That model has been treated to some hefty revisions to bring it up to scratch. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
With slicker exterior styling, a much-improved interior, more equipment and better value for money, Nissan's latest MK4 Micra supermini has turned over a new leaf. Some would say that there was quite some scope for improvement and they wouldn't be wrong, but the truth is that this vastly improved Micra has quietly morphed into a wholly respectable supermini contender.
The little Micra is a very significant car in Nissan's history. Originally launched in the early Eighties, in second generation form it became the very first Japanese model to win the European Car of the Year award, the first Far Eastern supermini purpose-built for Western tastes. To make absolutely sure, Nissan decided to build the car in Britain and style the second and third generation models with a daring flair that perfectly suited a small car market becoming ever-more image-conscious. These were cars perfectly in tune with their times. That's been less the case though, with this fourth generation version, which arrived here at the very end of 2010. Out-sourced for build in India, the original MK4 model was intended to be cheap as a result. The problem was that it rather felt it. And as a result, sales were disappointing. The Micra should have been one of Nissan UK's top sellers. Instead, it lagged behind the company's niche Qashqai, Juke and Note models. By 2013, it was clear that this design didn't just need a refresh. It needed a root and branch rethink. Here we take a look at the result of just such an exercise.
Of all the aspects of the original version of this MK4 Micra, the one that probably needed the least work was the way it went down the road. It was always good fun to drive and its light weight gave it some pretty nimble reflexes. The latest model doesn't change a whole lot here, instead tuning the details. The big draw remains the DIG-S engine and this is really the model you need to be targeting. The heart of the Micra DIG-S is a direct injection engine teamed with a supercharger - hence the car's name: Direct Injection Gasoline-Supercharger. Although it has clearly been designed to cap emissions and fuel consumption, the lightweight, low-friction 1,198cc three-cylinder unit produces the power expected from a conventional 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine. With 98PS on tap, it'll get to 60mph in less than 11 seconds and feels quicker. A five-speed manual gearbox is fitted as standard but there's also the option of a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) automatic which makes town driving easier. You can also buy the Micra with an 80PS 1.2-litre normally aspirated engine should you wish to save around £1,500 model for model. There's no diesel option. Whichever version you choose, you'll find the suspension designed to be particularly compact at the rear, minimising intrusion into the boot area and Nissan has endowed the Micra with an unusually tight 4.5m turning radius. Also enhancing the ease with which this Nissan can be manoeuvred are electrically-assisted power steering, a large glass area and the fact that the nose of the car is visible from the cabin.
Design and Build
The Micra's most obvious changes are to the exterior. The entire 'face' has changed with a redesigned grille re-establishing a stronger link to Nissan's corporate look with the familiar circular badge 'held' within a chromed extended V-shaped motif. The bonnet, wings, headlamps and front bumper are also changed. And where fitted, the front fog lamps have been given a bit more prominence with chrome edging. The rear features a resculpted bumper, LED tail lamps and a panel at the bottom of the tailgate. The fresher look is complemented by different 15 and 16-inch alloy wheel designs. The colour palette now includes pearl metallic Pacific Blue (a predominantly turquoise shade) and metallic Platinum Sage. These join the eight existing colours. The interior has come in for a rethink too, with the instrument graphics ahead of the driver improved for greater clarity, while there's a totally new centre console with restyled air vents. Gloss black finish on the centre console and a silver look to the gear selector finisher combine with retextured door armrests and better quality seat and door pad fabrics. Visia and Acenta grades have a durable tricot mesh woven fabric - a material often used for sports clothing - while top Tekna models have a suede-like fabric with double stitching. Rear leg and headroom remain generous and the boot is a respectable size, but the seat backs aren't split and flip forward in one section. Storage space elsewhere in the cabin is generous with no shortage of pockets, boxes and cubbies.
Market and Model
Prices haven't changed much, which means you'll pay somewhere in the £10,000 to £15,000 bracket. The Micra has been designed to be one of the safest small cars around, with ESP stability control fitted as standard alongside ABS brakes and six airbags. Seatbelt pretensioners also make the equipment list on all models, while Nissan's V-platform architecture offers top level impact protection. A wide range of personalisation options is available from Acenta grade, so owners can now specify their preferred colour of wheel centre caps and door mirrors on the exterior, while inside they can personalise their gear knob, air-vent, gear stick surround and velour mats to make their car unique. The interior also now benefits from dash-mounted AUX-in and USB slots linked to all audio units, while a 12v socket has been added, allowing mobile phones or MP3 players to be recharged on the move with ease. All but entry-level Visia models benefit from audio equipment that has been better integrated into the centre console with matching gloss and matt black finishers as appropriate. There's also the availability of Parking Slot Measurement and Rear Parking Sensors. PSM measures parking slots and alerts the driver via a dashboard display as to whether the Micra can be safely parked in the space or not: the system can even be adjusted to account for the driver's skill - amateur, normal or expert. A panoramic glass roof is available as on option on Tekna grade.
Cost of Ownership
Possibly the most intriguing thing about the Micra DIG-S is how pragmatic it is. Nissan has demonstrated that you don't need to go to the expense of shelling out for a hybrid or even for a modern turbodiesel engine. That a petrol engine with fairly sprightly performance can be this clean and economical is worthy of congratulation. To put a little meat on those bones, the DIG-S will manage 95g/km, which means a free road fund licence. Should you specify the CVT gearbox, emissions rise to 117g/km, so despite this transmission giving your left leg a rest in city traffic, it's unlikely to attract a big take-up. Fuel economy is similarly excellent with a manual Visia model returning 68.9mpg. This is interesting because when you wind the clock back to 2000, a 1.3-litre petrol Micra could return a fuel consumption figure of 46mpg which means that when salary inflation is taken into account, running a Micra DIG-S is actually cheaper than running a Micra back at the turn of the century. And in case you were wondering, the DIG-S engine is also a good deal cleaner and more economical than the normally aspirated 1.2-litre unit. What more incentive do you need?
The big question that hangs over this car is whether these changes are enough. Buyer behaviour can be a tough thing to change and it would take a very special car to divert customers from their Fiestas and Corsas. What this latest Micra does represent is a big step forward compared to its predecessor. That was a car which was fun to drive, economical and reliable but which possessed next to no polish, no slickness and no reassurance that you'd bought a supermini able to duke it out with the class best. A heavily revised interior helps in that regard and the exterior styling changes do much to reinforce the perception of quality. The Micra's chances aren't going to be transformed overnight but this is now a car you could realistically recommend to somebody who doesn't want to follow the crowd. I think Nissan would call that a result.