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DRIVEN: Nissan Micra



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Unless there are some unusually powerful substances passed round the European Car of the Year courtroom, Nissan's new Sunderland-built Micra should be condemned to wear the next set of prestigious squash rackets.

The accolade would be a repeat of 1993 when the then-new Micra became the first Japanese-badged car to be treated to Euro-genuflexion and went on to be sanctified by driving schools, health authorities, second car mums and Motability multitudes, clocking up 1.5 million sales on the continent and in Britain in the process.

The manufacturer expects to be found guilty of producing another car range that combines innovation with practicality in anticipation of another 10-year success story.

Of course, new Micra is a natural progression from the old, and there are many similarities in style and market goals. The technology it contains is not particularly new, either - there's nothing on standard or option spec lists that can't be found on other mainstream manufacturers' menus. What Nissan's Japanese and European engineers have done is to cherry-pick the best appropriate electrical and mechanical solutions, adapt them and incorporate them into a vehicle which raises the city car benchmark without breaking out of the B-segment price bracket.

Entry E, for instance, gets standard electric power steering, front electric windows, 'friendly lighting' (headlamps can stay on for two minutes after centrally locking the car), a battery save feature (it'll switch off the interior lights if they're left on unattended), anti-hijack remote locking, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, electric rear tailgate release and a single-slot CD system. Not bad for a three-door one-litre priced at £7495 and which also has as standard equipment a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, front map reading lights, twin airbags, a proper three-point centre rear seatbelt, ISOFIX childseat mounting points and a pollen filter.

Improved torque
The previous entry model - the 1.0-litre S three-door - cost £500 less but had few of the above niceties. Even the gutless power plant has been spiced up a little and now has variable valve timing for improved torque, and a drive-by-wire electronic throttle for better response. The 1.0-litre's days are numbered, however, as it doesn't meet Euro IV legislation.

S grade (from £7995) ignores the 1.0 to offer the Euro IV-friendly 1.2 and 1.4 petrol and the April launch 1.5 common rail diesel engine. A four-speed automatic is offered at this level, where standard fit items include front seat mounted side airbags, three adjustable rear head restraints, a sliding rear seat (to create either more legroom or more luggage space a la Stilo), luggage area light and driver's seat height adjustment.

Smarter technology arrives with the SE badge and £8995 starting price. Its most unusual bit of kit is the so-called 'intelligent key'. It's a small wireless transmitter built into a conventional fob. There's no actual key - instead, the car's processors can detect the fob from within 80cm, allowing any door to be opened by pushing on the handle and the car to be started by turning a switch on the steering column. The point of this first-in-class feature is that the fob can be kept in a pocket or handbag to save fumbling about and avoid spearing trouser linings (and worse).

A central display above the audio system in SE and above houses a trip computer which does all the usual stuff (outside temperature, range, distance, speed and service reminder) as well as something very Japanese (the Japs have got to be responsible for this): the OBC can be programmed to wish the driver a happy birthday on screen - thank God it doesn't sing it.

SE also has air manual air conditioning, rain-sensor wipers and automatic rear wipe, under-seat storage, compartmentalised glove box, part leather trim, leather bound steering wheel with remote audio and computer controls, body coloured door mirrors, driver's lumbar support, 15-inch steel wheels (14s are standard in lower spec), and a six-speaker sound system.

Undignified halts
The next £1000 step is to SX or SVE - the former, apparently, designed to appeal younger males (possibly like the ones AM saw at the Newcastle press launch, slithering to undignified halts outside the Nissan mobile in Max'd Micras).

Thus, SX gains dark tinted headlamps, front fog lamps (if anyone can explain why it is necessary to have headlights and fog lamps on when there's no fog, please e-mail, rear roof spoiler, a fancy part-leather trim and 15-inch alloys. It also shares electronic climate control with the SVE, both with ivory coloured knobs. Automatic transmission isn't an option on SX, presumably because Maxers think auto's uncool (correct street expression by e-mail, please). The 82PS dCi diesel, however, will be offered in this grade from September this year.

The oldies who can afford an SVE get most of the above (excluding fogs and tints) as well as ultrasonic rear parking sensors to help them avoid reversing into SX fog lamps. The only engine with SVE badging is the 1.4-litre petrol, but there is an auto transmission option.

Now, a little about the chassis: Micra is the first Renault/Nissan Alliance member to use the new jointly developed B-platform (Clio is the next customer).

The front suspension features a sub-frame mounted strut system with combined suspension upright/coil spring assemblies and a forward lower link. The front anti-roll bar is attached to the strut to help control body roll under cornering, and the sub-frame has rubber mounts to isolate noise and harshness from the platform itself. At the rear there's a twist beam set-up with trailing arm and separate coil springs and dampers.

Add into this a longer wheelbase with shorter overhangs than its predecessor (easier to park), and the Micra has one of the best dynamics packages in its class. It's a relatively inexpensive solution, too, according to Nissan. We can't vouch for Nissan's assurance that the chassis lends itself to fun motoring as we haven't had a chance to have much fun in the new Micra (see Behind the Wheel), but we'll be reviewing more cars from the range as soon as we can.

Design? International committees have been at work inside and out, or as Nissan Design Europe studio chief Christopher Reitz puts it, it's a refined blend of Japanese and European (read French) influences. “The exterior builds upon the shape and personality of the previous model, but it has a much stronger presence,” he says.

Other non-French road users won't point at it and laugh like they do to Avantime, then.

Valuable space
The arched bodyshell has opened up valuable interior space, especially headroom, which makes for much more comfortable seating and, therefore, a more relaxing environment. And, because of the extra height, there's more glass area, contributing to an airier atmosphere.

If it weren't for Nissan's flying wing slapped on the front to give it the family identity, Micra could be the love-child of Beetle and Corsa - quirky, but quite sensible.

And those are Nissan's target customers. The quirky and the sensible, and possibly a blend of both.

The next few sets of official sales figures will make very interesting reading.

Prices:£7495 - £11,695
Petrol engines: 1.0-litre 16V (65PS), 1.2-litre 16V (80PS), 1.4-litre 16V(88PS).
Diesel engines: 1.5 dCi (65PS) - April '03, 1.5 dCi (82PS) - September '03
Performance (0-62mph/top speed): 1.0 - 16.1sec/96mph; 1.2 - 14.3sec/104mph; 1.4 - 11.4sec/107mph
Efficiency: Petrol: 48.7mpg comb/141g/km CO2, 47.9mpg comb/143g/km CO2, 44.8mpg comb/154g/km CO2. Diesel: TBA
Transmissions: 5spd manual, 4spd auto
Bodystyles: 3-dr, 5-dr hatchback
Trims: E, S, SE, SX, SVE
Insurance groups: 2E-4E
Service intervals: Petrol: 9000 miles/1 year; diesel: 18,000miles/1 year
Rivals: Vauxhall Corsa, Ford Fiesta/Ka, Hyundai Getz, Renault Clio, Citroen Saxo

The law of Sod descended on Newcastle in the form of snow storms on the day AM turned up for the UK press driving exercises. While most sane motorists would have stayed indoors, we reasoned that any self respecting provider of midwifery - one of the professions picked as a typical Micra driver and which helped Nissan design its all-new city car -- would have midwifed on regardless of roads like rinks featuring Tyneside buses and heavy commercials skating backwards and sideways in blizzard conditions.

So, drive the Micra we did, delivering a few phantom pregnancies in the process.

Attention to practicality and safety detail makes new Micra a class leader (see main story). It's also an urban road champion - quiet, comfortable, refined and well behaved. Any “all-new” should be a vast improvement on the old, but rarely is. With Micra, Nissan has achieved this, which could mean a bonus for another key test-bed - the driving schools: a learner driver who switches from an outgoing Micra to the new generation will be stepping into an entirely different car... and may need extra lessons.

Our first test choice was one with the all-new 1.2-litre 80PS petrol engine on the grounds that it has the best balance of price (£7995-£10,495), performance (0-62mph, 14.3sec), economy (47.9mpg) and emissions( 143g/km carbon dioxide). Nissan reckons it'll be the best seller, too. It's easy to drive smoothly and has excellent all-round visibility, thanks to the high seat position and jelly mould bodyshape.

Out on clearer A-roads, the 1.2 proved both zippy and the handling predictable. A long journey would not be too daunting a prospect, and there's sufficient power and torque to cope with a full load of five people without excessive down-shifting.

Second (and last, because of the worsening weather) was the current range topping 1.4 SVE auto (£11,195 3dr, £11,695 5dr) and packed with techno-spec, as well as fully automatic air-con and part leather trim. The four-speed transmission felt less in touch with road conditions than the five-speed manual, despite which gentle progress in the correct direction was made without wheelspin or unpleasant surprises. In fact, it coped better with the snow than the manual.

Conclusion: far better than not bad. Micra's grown up and is mature enough to run alongside Corsa and Fiesta.

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