The updated Nissan Micra launching this week has its work cut out for it, because Australia has become a tough place to sell tiny cars.
Sales in the market’s Micro segment are down 46 per cent this year, and were down 31 per cent last year — sure signs that people on a shoestring new-car budget are looking elsewhere
There are lots of reasons for this — not least among them being the fact that repayments on larger cars are more affordable than ever. Nissan has also been busily clearing old stock, much of which was already registered.
It is likely for this reason that the updated (and still Indian-built) Micra launching this week was first spotted overseas two years ago.
Nissan is being realistic, it isn’t expecting a sales boom. But it has trimmed back the model range, and added a host of equipment to the top-spec Ti to lure some private buyers. The company admits it has been guilty of focusing too much on things such as rental fleet sales in the past.
So what does this update bring?
The styling difference appears minimal, but there is a new bonnet, guards, restyled front and rear bumper, new front headlights and rear lamps as well as new wheels. In total, more than 50 per cent of the body panels have changed, according to Nissan. That’s surprising.
Nissan has also ditched the mid-spec ST-L variant — though you can still probably get an old version on plate clearance — but has sharpened up the carryover ST and Ti versions.
The ST is still priced at $13,490 plus on-road costs, which is at least $500 more than a Suzuki Celerio (as that car starts at $12,990 driveaway) and $2000 more than the top-selling Mitsubishi Mirage ES. Automatic versions of the Micra cost an extra $1800.
In a segment where literally a few hundred bucks makes all the difference, that discrepancy could be marked.
Nissan hasn’t cut the base price, but it has added some equipment — cruise control, rear power windows, a USB plug and proper integrated Bluetooth with audio streaming. These latter additions are vital, and well overdue.
But it’s the Ti where the real activity has taken place. At $16,990 it is $2000 cheaper than before, yet it has extra equipment such as 15-inch alloys, satellite-navigation on a 5.8-inch touchscreen (it might be the cheapest car on sale with sat-nav), a reverse-view camera (with a naff offset lens on the tailgate, but at least it's there) and premium cloth trim.
On the other hand, Nissan has removed both parking sensors and climate control found on the old Ti. As before, the Ti is only available with an automatic transmission, meaning like-for-like, it’s a $1700 step up from the auto ST.
Nissan also claims that the trim and finishing surfaces inside have been enhanced with a higher quality look and feel. The interior also features a new centre cluster, updated dashboard instrumentation and seat trim.
The plastics are hard, but the build quality feels fine — certainly on a par for the segment. There are also numerous closed storage areas and good cupholders, though the old handbag holder hook is gone.
The instrument fascia is clean and ergonomic in the ST, and the 5.8-inch screen in the Ti is excellent for the segment. In fact, the same exact screen unit with nav is used in other Nissans twice the price.
However, the cabin remains narrow, meaning accessing the door pockets or seat adjusters around your legs can be tough, and the lack of a reach-adjustable steering wheel dents driver comfort. The seats, new fabric aside, are also small and a little firm.
Likewise, space in the back is better than most but falls short of the Celerio. At least the high roofline and big side windows add some airiness. Boot space of 251 litres is about on par, and commendably Nissan offers a full-size steel spare wheel.
Our time in the Micra was short, meaning we only had a chance to drive the ST auto, and sit in the Ti. Naturally, we will have more time in various Micras when we get them into our CarAdvice garage over the coming weeks.
Under the bonnet of all versions is a 1.2-litre normally aspirated three-cylinder engine with 56kW at 6000rpm and 104Nm at 4000rpm on tap. The base ST gets a five-speed manual, while the automatic has only four speeds.
That’s not much, but then the car only weighs about 950 kilograms dry (still 100kg more than the Suzuki), so it shuffles along in urban environs well enough. Like all three-pot engines, the mill it has an inherent imbalance, which gives it a muted but characteristic burble and thrum under revs that’s quite charming.
The four-speed auto is a dated unit, and doesn’t exactly have a lot to work with. Don’t expect rapid getaways, but do expect a linear and immediate response for darting into gaps. It’s a doddle to drive, and that’s the point.
The claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres is a little high, but it attests to the fact that the engine needs revs.
We will get our hands on the manual soon, and a self-shifter (if you are willing to drive one) typically squeezes more out of such tiny engines.
At higher speeds, tyre noise from the skinny 165/70 tyres pervades the cabin, though a highway reading of 78-80Db is not unheard of. Likewise, the engine noise builds to a fair degree.
More importantly, the tall and narrow car remains stable and well-planted at highway speeds, and the cruise control helps make it a willing enough companion if you choose to leave urban surrounds.
The Micra has always been a deft handler in this generation, partly given its roots include bits from the old Renault Clio.
Indeed, its light weight makes it nimble, its turn-in is sharp and its body control and handling (specifically lateral movement and rapid direction changes) are pretty good. You can whirr around roundabouts, for instance.
More importantly, the urban ride is quite good too. Our test car had the 15-inch rims with lower-profile tyres, but it soaked up tram tracks, potholes and mixed surfaces well enough to scarcely notice what was happening.
In terms of ownership, all Micras get a three-year/100,000km warranty and six-years/120,000km of capped-price servicing, though the intervals are only 10,000km and each visit costs no less (based on current prices) than $243.
So, what are the final thoughts? The Micra remains a fun little runabout, with decent rear seat space, improved equipment levels and somewhat engaging driving dynamics. In isolation, it defies its age to remain a good little car.
The issue, though, is context. Consider that a Mazda 2 Neo and a Honda Jazz VTi are both a fair bit bigger, have more upmarket cabins and appreciably more power, and each costs $14,990 — which is $1500 more than a Micra ST.
Yes, at this end of the market, $1500 is considered a lot. But over a multi-year repayment plan, is it really?
That’s the biggest issue for the Micra to overcome. It remains an honest and enjoyable runabout, and Nissan has made some good changes — but while doing so, it might have been well-served just trimming the ST's price too.
Note: We will be be testing the new Micra against the new Suzuki Celerio soon, so stay tuned for a battle of the Micro Cars.