CAPE TOWN – Nissan should never have drastically altered the character of the Micra when it replaced the quirky third-generation car (the first offered here) with the dour fourth-gen model. It knows that, which is why this fifth entrant in the Micra lineage reverts to stylish design as its main USP. Gen-four Micra will remain as the Active, targeting the Volkswagen Polo Vivo and refreshed Ford Figo.

The line-up

The range will consist of an initial three models, tailed by the entry-level Visia and topped by the Acenta Plus. Find out more about the line-up, including pricing and future additions, here and here.

I drove the mid-range Acenta model on the local launch. It's expected to form the bulk of private purchases and costs R257 400, placing it within a few thousand rands of the class-leading new Ford Fiesta 1,0 EcoBoost Trend (R261 900) and Volkswagen Polo 1,0 TSI Comfortline (R264 700). The Micra will have to trade on more than just striking design to best those rivals and capture a healthy slice of the South African small-car market. Let's see how it fares.

That's more like it...

Incorporating Nissan's familiar V-shaped grille as a starting point for a riot of lines that rise and dip before rising again along the flanks, the new Micra is as expressive as the old one was bland. Arrow-shaped LED daytime-running lights are a neat touch, as are the dual-tone 16-inch alloys on the Acenta, while bright body colours such as this orange pictured really make the Micra pop on-road.

It's equally impressive inside, where decent-quality materials abound – the dimpled soft-touch contrast trim across the dash and doors is nicely tactile – and the overall design looks fresh and contemporary. An incorporated seven-inch touchscreen display with Apple CarPlay functionality is easy to use and is supplemented by a comprehensive five-inch TFT display between the otherwise plain-looking instruments.

Space up front is very good and there's loads of headroom, but I could not fit my 1,85-metre frame behind my ideal driving position – there's simply not enough legroom in the second row (not a problem in the Polo, nor in a Suzuki Baleno). Scalp clearance is fine, however.

A spot of French flair under the bonnet

The Micra utilises the Renault Clio 66 kW Turbo's drivetrain, including its five-speed manual transmission. Offering 140 N.m at 2 250 r/min, it feels punchier than the claimed 12,1-second 0-100 km/h time suggests and in-gear acceleration is impressive for the displacement, although not on the level of the Fiesta's class-leading 1,0-litre EcoBoost engine. There's some vibration at low revs, and the 0,9-litre unit can get rowdy, but it's more pleasurable to use than some rivals' outdated 1,4-litre naturally aspirated engines.

Like the Clio with which it shares a platform, the Micra feels light on its feel and sportily sprung, making cut-and-thrust motoring enjoyable. There's a fly in the ointment, however, and it's the calibration of the transmission and clutch. It takes real concentration not to stall the engine at low revs, and shifts from first to second are often accompanied by a clumsy lurch as the clutch bites at an unpredictable point. The ride is also a touch too firm, but not uncomfortable, and the suppression of road and wind noise at speed is average at best.

What you get for your cash

Acentra trim is a bit of an odd one. While auto lights and cruise control are standard, this Micra makes do without leather trim on the steering wheel (a lovely wheel, by the way, when it's wrapped in hide) or electric operation for the rear windows. No model offers climate control, which is prevalent on some rivals, and sound quality through just four audio speakers is feeble.

Counting hugely in its favour, though, are six airbags across the board, as well as traction control. The service plan spans three years/90 000 km, which is par for the course (but better than the Polo's), and the warranty is an impressive six years/150 000 km.

The verdict

The Micra is a solid addition to the local market. While ultimately not as rounded as the Fiesta or Polo, it does enough to be recommended alongside the Kia Rio and Renault Clio as alternatives to the top two. My choice would still be the Fiesta – its chassis is brilliant, and so is the EcoBoost engine – but for Nissan-philes who haven't had a Micra to get excited about, this fifth generation looks set to reignite their interest.