Two years after its global unveiling, Nissan’s new Micra has arrived on local shores … where it faces stiff competition…
It’s taken a while but eight years after its predecessor was launched here, the fifth-generation (K14) Nissan Micra has arrived in South Africa. It’s a hatchback first revealed to the world in October 2016 at the Paris Motor Show, followed by its European-market introduction in March last year. It’s also a vehicle that shares its underpinnings with another one familiar to South Africans, the Renault Clio. That is by no means a bad thing; the Clio’s chassis is one of its strong selling points.
While the platform may be familiar, the design certainly isn’t. The previous-generation Micra – unlike the funky, bug-eyed first iteration that was on sale here – was something of safe design but, happily, Nissan has pushed the boat out a little further with this one and the result is rather striking.
Far sportier in appearance than its forebear, the new Micra is a well-proportioned blend of current Nissan family features seen on the Qashqai and X-Trail, with more aggressive angles and facets. One test member even said it looks like a mini-Juke from certain angles, a compliment in our book. It’s arguably the best-looking vehicle in this segment and Nissan’s designers have done a superb job creating a hatch that looks nothing like its French sibling.
At launch, the local range consists of three models – Visia, Acenta and Acenta Plus – all fitted with Renault’s familiar 0,9-litre, three-cylinder turbopetrol unit, here delivering 66 kW and 140 N.m. Our test unit is the mid-spec Acenta, priced against the Volkswagen Polo Comfortline and Ford Fiesta Trend derivatives. It’s quite an odd spec, too. For example, while auto-on headlamps and cruise control are standard, it has a plastic-rimmed steering wheel (only the Acenta Plus model offers a leather-wrapped one) and manual wind-up windows for rear passengers.
It is nonetheless an interior that matches the exterior’s eye-catching design, with coloured soft-touch highlights on the door cards, seats and around the gearshift gaiter, all mimicked by squishy trim on the upper dashboard.
From the comfortable driver’s seat, the integrated seven-inch infotainment screen is the focal point. It’s a system similar to those you’ll find on other Nissan products and offers Apple CarPlay as standard (Visia makes do with a simpler audio system). In terms of safety, all Micras come with six airbags and stability control as standard.
Despite it being plastic rather than leather, the steering wheel does feel good in your hands, while the horizontal spokes offer buttons for the audio system and cruise control. The latter is incidentally not offered as standard on the similarly priced Fiesta or Polo. Ahead of the gearlever is a storage space that houses aux-in, 12 V and USB sockets, and there are three cupholders between the front seats.
As is the case with many hatches in this segment – the Polo, Toyota Yaris, Honda Jazz and Suzuki Baleno are exceptions – rear-passenger space is limited. The taller members of our test team (1,85 metres and up) didn’t have enough leg- and headroom and felt cramped in the back. That said, the front pews’ backs are soft and, if your legs do press into them, at least it’s not uncomfortable.
The 0,9-litre Renault-sourced engine has always sounded a little gruff at start-up and this remains true for the Micra. It improves at higher revs, although the Micra does appear to lack a little in the sound-deadening department, with noticeable levels of engine- and tyre-noise intrusion into the cabin.
Looking at its mass measurement, the Micra is between 65 and 110 kg lighter than the Polo, Fiesta and Clio. This trim figure may have its performance advantages but it also goes some way to explaining why the vehicle feels slightly less refined compared with those three.
A small-capacity engine it may be, but the little turbopetrol offers perky performance. With a high biting point, clutch modulation can be tricky at pull-away but, once on the move, its action is easier to read. The engine delivers its initial punch just above 2 000 r/min and, while it is at its peak between 5 000 and 5 500 r/min, you can rev it all the way past 6 000 r/min. You do, however, need to take some turbo lag into consideration when taking a gap in the traffic, and depressing the throttle slightly earlier will serve you well.
An area where the Micra does fall short of the Polo and Fiesta is in ride quality. Equipped with 16-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 65-profile tyres (the Visia offers 15-inch steel wheels and the Acenta Plus 17-inch alloys), the Micra rides flatly on smooth roads but is not as polished and supple in its suspension setup.
The new Micra is a significant improvement on the outgoing model. In terms of styling, it is one of the most modern-looking cars in the segment and should appeal to a wider audience than before.
However, after spending two weeks with the car directly following two weeks with a Fiesta and Polo (for a recent comparative test), there was a clear sense among all our testers that similarly priced competitors such as the Ford and Volkswagen have moved on, especially in terms of noise, vibration and harshness, and overall mechanical refinement.
While these two main competitors offer driving experiences reminiscent in sophistication to their bigger siblings – the Focus and Golf – in some ways the Micra still feels very much like a small hatch. Its specification will appeal to some buyers, as will the striking design, but it is up against some convincing competition in one of the largest passenger segments in our market.
*From the August 2018 issue of CAR magazine