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If cheap and cheerful is the name of the game, and new-car smell is a must, what is the car for you?

That’s a question that figures suggest fewer people are asking of themselves today than even a few years ago. Sales in the micro car segment fell 31.0 per cent last year, and are down a further 37.5 per cent in 2015.

Buyers for whom the bottom line is priority number one — no ifs and no buts — seem to be looking elsewhere, perhaps into late-model used cars or at a number of larger light car offerings that are being sold at discounted prices or on ultra-low-rate repayment plans.

So marked has been this move away from the market’s smallest and cheapest offerings that one company, Volkswagen, withdrew entirely when it axed the benchmark Up! from sale in early 2014.

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That’s not to say there aren’t some good options to be explored — perhaps if you’re a P-plater, or have a tiny home parking spot, or you’re just as frugal with your wallet as these cars are on fuel.

The undoubted style leader, and the single top-seller in April, is the Fiat 500, a snazzy little Euro contender oozing retro charm that can be had right now for $16K driveaway (list price of $16,000 before on-road costs, officially). But that car is also a two-door proposition.

There’s also the $12,990 ($13,490 driveaway at the moment, though we know you can do better than that) Mitsubishi Mirage, the class-leader when it comes to sales but — as our recent comparison review found out — perhaps not in terms of design and execution.

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As for the Holden Barina Spark, we have an all-new one arriving at the start of 2016, but the current one has likewise not fared so well in comparison tests of yore.

And so we’re left with what shapes up as a battle between two literal lightweights that are proverbially anything but. Both with four doors, surprising levels of space, and priced at a point that even a uni undergrad can probably afford.

We speak of course of the carryover champion Suzuki Celerio, and the very recently updated Nissan Micra. As tested here, both in base spec, no-cost white paint, and with standard manual gearboxes rather than the more popular extra-cost autos.

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Pricing and specifications

At $12,990 driveaway, the Suzuki Celerio is the cheapest car you can buy brand new — though we know for a fact you can haggle on the Mirage.

The Nissan Micra is a little pricier, at $13,490 plus on-road costs, or $15,735 driveaway based on Victorian pricing. At this end of town, that almost $3000 differential is a serious one, and for some might be the deal-breaker there and then.

Consider that larger and better-equipped rivals such as the Renault Clio, Kia Rio and Volkswagen Polo have been officially retailing on promotional campaign prices of $15,990 driveaway for some time now, and you can’t help but feel you’ll have ammo to haggle your Nissan dealer to soften that figure a shade.

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On the flip side, if it’s style you’re after and you can’t abide the Fiat’s two-door layout, it’s the Nissan that wins. It remains a cute and bubbly design with nice proportions. The Suzuki resembles a rather functional toaster by comparison. It’s strictly function over form, down to those naff hubcaps — though this design has obvious space benefits that we’ll discuss momentarily.

The Micra and Celerio are hardly generously equipped, but offer the basics. Both get Bluetooth phone and audio (each pairing easily and working consistently), USB/AUX inputs, all-round power windows, decent air-conditioning and heating, driver’s seat adjustment, map lights, tachometers, basic trip computers and 14-inch steel wheels.

Only the Micra gets cruise control, steering wheel audio controls and a driver’s folding armrest, though. Neither comes with parking sensors as standard, though you can pay to have your dealer fit them. The Celerio’s larger windows and shorter overhangs make it slightly easier to park in their absence.

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Both also get front, side and curtain airbags and four-star ANCAP safety ratings, the Micra against 2011 criteria (when the pre-facelifted car launched), the Celerio against 2015 criteria. Both also get electronic stability control (ESC), as mandated, and brake assist functions that work under emergency stopping.

Keep in mind that the Celerio is a single-spec model, available in manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT) forms, while the Micra is available in two specification levels (it was three prior to last month’s update), with the $16,990 Ti commanding a $3500 premium over our ST tested in return for extras such as a standard automatic transmission, 15-inch alloys, satellite navigation on a 5.8-inch touchscreen, and a reverse-view camera.

Interior

What do you expect? Both the Micra ST and the Celerio feel a little like going back in time a few years from the inside. But that’s in the eyes of someone (me) who drives various cars from all over the spectrum on a regular basis.

If you’ve been getting about in something a little longer in the tooth than a few years old, as figures suggest you almost certainly have, both cabins are clean and simple, well-built if made from cheap and scratchy plastics, and surprisingly commodious.

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They also have a few of the same annoyances: neither has reach-adjustment on the steering column, for instance, or passenger-side seat height adjustment.

All told it’s the Micra that feels a shade classier, and looks a little more modern. Its infotainment system is pinched from pricier Nissans and its glossy black and silver inserts add some class. It has actual cloth inserts in the front doors rather than the Suzuki’s coloured plastic, and it feels a little tighter in its build — the Celerio’s instrument binnacle could be shifted around a little more than we’d like, for instance.

That said, neither elicited a single squeak or rattle, and both felt properly Japanese in their overall build — though the Micra is made in India and the Celerio in Thailand.

As we mentioned, the Micra offers steering wheel audio controls (the Celerio has Bluetooth buttons tacked onto the side) and cruise control, as well as a nice padded folding driver’s arm rest. The Micra also has two vanity mirrors compared to the Suzuki’s one, and its sun-visors are much more solid.

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That said, the Celerio offers marginally longer front seat bases and better under-thigh support, and more driver’s knee room.

Both offer three cup holders and a variety of open storage areas scattered along the transmission tunnel, but only the Micra offers additional bottle holders in the doors (the Suzuki has slim document holders instead) and two closing glove boxes rather than one.

The Suzuki claws back some cred in the back seat though. There’s moderately better rear foot/legroom than in the Micra, and headroom too — though both can rather remarkably accommodate two blokes above six foot. And its van-like styling with big side windows and a straight belt line gives wonderful outward visibility.

The Celerio’s packaging is even more impressive when you consider that the Micra is actually the bigger car. At 3825mm, it is a full 225mm longer than the Suzuki (about the length of a beer bottle). It’s also 65mm wider at 1665mm and sits on a 10mm longer wheelbase (2435mm). Only in height does the Suzuki win, by 20mm.

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The Suzuki is also the only one with rear bottle holders in the doors, though both get a single map pocket (on the back of the front passenger’s seat) and two overhead grab-handles (fixed in the Nissan, folding in the Suzuki).

At the same time, the Suzuki is strictly a four-seater, while the Micra can house five at a pinch. Both cars offer two ISOFIX anchor points and top-tethers for child seats. Both cars also have 60:40 split-folding rear seats, and neither has a ski-port (both cars are narrow enough as is).

Rear cargo space with the rear seats in use is almost identical — 254 litres in the Suzuki, 251L in the Nissan, but the Micra is the only one with a proper full-size spare wheel, compared to the Suzuki’s tiny space-saver that limits your speed. Big tick, Nissan.

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Performance and economy

The similarities between this pair of little warriors extend to under the bonnet.

The snub-nosed Suzuki driven here gets a 1.0-litre (998cc, to be precise) three-cylinder non-turbo engine matched to a five-speed manual gearbox. It punches out just 50kW of power at 6000rpm and 90Nm of torque at 3500rpm.

The Micra has a larger 1.2-litre three-cylinder matched to its five-speed manual ’box, with a slightly better 56kW at 6000rpm and 104Nm at 4000rpm.

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Looking at those numbers, you might think neither of these would pull the skin off a lukewarm soup, but you’d be wrong. Both are willing little units that thrum happily under a heavy foot and sit comfortably at highway speeds without a hint of duress.

The key is the fact that each car is light. The Micra has a kerb weight of 943kg, or about half a Holden Commodore SS Sportwagon. The Suzuki, as is that company’s want, is a mere 830kg — less than a Lotus Elise — therefore, the power-to-weight ratios are similar.

The Suzuki has a ‘thrummier’, more characterful engine note that supplements its off-the-line response nicely. The Nissan feels a little livelier once you stretch it out past 4000rpm, and a little more refined to boot.

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You’ll have to work the gears regularly in both, especially up hills where the absence of low-end torque becomes very evident, very quickly. And that’s where the Nissan wins, because while both have lovely light little shifters, its clutch pedal feel is superior to the needlessly springy and light Suzuki, which has a rather blurry take-up point that takes some getting used to.

The Suzuki takes the chocolates on fuel economy though. We recorded a combined cycle reading of about 5.2 litres per 100km (against an official factory ADR claim of 4.7L/100km), against the Micra’s 6.4L/100km (6.0L/100km claimed). The Micra’s 41-litre fuel tank is six litres bigger than the Celerio’s, however.

Ride and handling

Both the Micra and Celerio feel right at home within the inner city, as they should, especially given their minute kerb-to-kerb turning circles of 9.0 metres and 9.4m respectively.

At all speeds, it is the Celerio’s electric-assisted power steering that feels lighter (meaning it’s easier to twirl when parking) and yet more devoid of feedback (meaning it’s less engaging and fun) than the Nissan’s hydraulic setup, except for a curious occasional onset of resistance at very low speeds that at times brings them to about parity.

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In terms of general ride, the Celerio, on its 65-aspect tyres, feels moderately softer in the dampers and thereby better at soaking up things such as tram tracks and speed humps than the Micra. But we’d stress that both are excellent in this area, better than many far pricier cars.

The Suzuki also has 34mm extra ground clearance (at 150mm) and a shorter nose, meaning you’re less liable to scrape the sump guard or undercarriage when leaving ramped car parks and things of that ilk.

However, at highway speeds the Celerio also proved about 1.0dB louder than the Micra, though both offer skinny 165mm-wide tyres (chubbier 70-aspect items on the Nissan) and little in the way of sound absorption.

Where the Nissan further edges the Suzuki is in general driving dynamics. The Suzuki may be lighter (and thereby potentially happier to change direction and more immediate on turn-in), but the Nissan has a better-sorted chassis, more engaging steering and superior handling and body control.

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You can tip it into a corner with more confidence, and have a little more fun zipping around twisty roads if you so desire. Both cars have independent front suspension and basic rear suspension (torsion beam with coils for the Micra and a three-link rigid axle for the Suzuki). The Nissan feels less prone to axle hop.

Both cars have ventilated brake discs at the front and drums at the rear, but remember that neither weighs much. Both pull up well enough, for our money. Those brake issues the Celerio had at launch have been ironed out swiftly, the company assures us, and we found no issues on our test car.

Warranty and service

Suzuki offers as standard a three-year/100,000km warranty. It also offers five-years/100,000km of capped-price servicing, with intervals set at six months or 10,000km, whichever comes first.

Most visits to your dealer will cost $199, with the exception of the fourth and eighth, which are currently capped at $289 (though liable to change as with most carmakers).

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Like the Suzuki, Nissan offers a three-year/100,000km warranty. It also offers capped-price servicing that covers a period of either six-years or 120,000km, with intervals of either 12 months or 10,000km, whichever comes first.

At current rates, eight of these visits will cost $243.60, with the others pegged at $272.20 (10th service), $439.22 (fourth service) and $507.51 (eighth and 12th). Suzuki dealers are therefore cheaper.

As is the case with most capped-price plans, additional service/repair items which are not specifically listed for each standard scheduled service are not included in the program on either the Micra or Celerio.

These items include, but are not limited to, normal wear and tear items requiring additional maintenance (e.g. fuses, brake pads, wiper blades, batteries, wheel alignment corrections, tyres), a replacement pollen filter, fluids or additives and accident damage.

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Verdict

The first point to make here is that these are two pretty sharp little cars for not a lot of money.

The deciding factor here more than any other is that the driveaway price of the Micra, at official rates before you’ve had a haggle, is almost $3000 higher than the Celerio, and the Nissan isn’t a 20.0 per cent better car than the Suzuki.

The Micra is more engaging, it looks better in your driveway, and it has a nicer cabin layout and a few more handy features such as an extra rear seat, full-size spare, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and cruise control.

But the Suzuki turns the tables in key areas such as urban ride, cabin space (just) and running costs.

And that’s why it takes the win here, by the skin of its proverbial teeth, because while Micra is a slightly better all-rounder and arguably the better car, the Celerio is still fit-for-purpose as no frills transport and costs that little bit less.

Click the Photos tab for more 2015 Nissan Micra and 2015 Suzuki Celerio images by Tom Fraser.



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