When the Micra was first introduced locally, it was a tangible personification of the brave, new Carlos-Ghosn Nissan. Unashamedly individualistic in styling, it was surprisingly roomy inside, and went well - a brilliant little car. The market, however, did not respond with much enthusiasm and sales were modest, to put it kindly.
It is therefore somewhat surprising that the new Micra, launched now, in May, is the company's “sales turnaround” model, intended to initiate a doubling in new car sales over the next five years. NIssan is hoping to sell ten times more new Micras per month than they did of the original model alone.
The new Micra is wider, longer, roomier, larger of boot and lighter than its predecessor. To make it more appealing to a wider audience, the individualistic quirkiness of the previous model's styling has made place for a smoother, blander treatment, inside and out.
As a big fan of the earlier Micra, I was a little disappointed at the “growing up” that it had undergone in an effort to be a serious player in the entry level segment of the market and to experience the car in real life, I filled it with camera equipment and headed for Phakisa Raceway some 270 kilometres south west from home. We would spend an eighteen hour day together, leaving Midrand at 04:20 and arriving back at 22:15 covering six hundred kilometres over a variety of roads in the process.
The start of our trip was a bit like arriving at a party that had not caught gees
yet, a bit boring and tentative. While the Micra had ample room, was well appointed and seem to go well enough, I could not help wondering what was so special about it that it would prove to be a viable alternative to the more established contenders in its segment. Largely stripped of its individuality, it was planning to go head to head with the likes of the Figo and the Vivo on motoring merit and value for money alone.
The ever present roadworks near the Germiston off-ramp provided the first clue to a point that was confirmed during the remainder of the trip. The Micra sits on an outstanding suspension. Firm enough to support neutral handling and accurate steering, it soaks up little bumps effortlessly providing a remarkable balance between rigidity and suppleness. Some of us remember the SSS adverts that showed a Datsun 1600 standing with each wheel on a different number of bricks to show the superiority of its fully independent suspension. The Micra does that legacy proud.
The benefits of a great suspension go beyond a comfortable ride. By keeping the wheels on the road evenly and firmly, it creates the primary platform for better braking, cornering and stability, which ultimately makes it a safer car.
The huge headlights are not just a styling cue either, they pour oodles of candlepower onto the oncoming road and just a blip on the bright stalk even caused oncoming trucks to dim their lights in response.
The Micra is well built and when you run your fingers along joins or gaps, they are small and consistent, something that, not long ago, was the preserve of some expensive cars only. Good build quality however, is not a unique selling point on the turf where the Micra wants to compete, it just means that Nissan has ticked that box.
When it comes to power plants, Nissan – and Datsun before that – has a proud history of making durable, high efficiency engines that give and give with the minimum of attention. The 1500cc unit in this Micra is specced to produce 73 kW and while I never asked anything more than the speed limit from it, it happily cruised along with only the slightest pressure on the accelerator. It never required changing down from fifth to maintain speed on any of the modest uphills between Midrand and the middle of the Free State and the occasional overtaking move showed the Micra to pull strongly when required to so before settling back into a steady cruise.
The Micra boasts an impressive list of technologies as standard equipment including power steering, ABS, EBD and dual front and side airbags. Comfort is enhanced with air conditioning and a radio/CD player that provides for auxiliary inputs.
Pricing ranges from R108 400 for the three pot Micra 1.2 Visia to R143 500 for the four cylinder Micra 1.5 Tekna, the subject of this drive.
Over 600km of road that varied from the floodlit M1 to the dirt road leading into Edenburg, in temperatures that ranged from -4 degrees pre-sunrise to 22 degrees in the midday sun, the Micra dutifully carried me, my cameras and my cooler bag without the slightest hesitation or quibble, consuming just under seven litres per hundred kilometres to do so. The party that had started so tentatively eighteen hours before, had yielded a new friend and genuine affection.
On paper, the Micra has everything required to join battle on the economical end of the market. In the real world, it has big car comfort and capability in a little car's body. Nissan's sales targets for the Micra may be ambitious and may present new challenges in marketing and after sales customer care, but the product itself won't let them down. The new Micra is just different enough to stand out, without giving an inch in specification, standard equipment levels or price. It is a likeable car, one that is likely to garner followers and, provided Nissan gets everything else right, could just be the car to lead the revolution.