Nissan Micra - First Drive

The Micra has gone upmarket. Massimo Pini went along to the UK launch to drive the latest generation of Nissan’s popular small hatchback

The first task for the all-new Nissan Micra is to banish all memories of its predecessor - a thoroughly underwhelming global car - which felt very much like step backwards from the model it replaced.

And a cursory glance at the new car is enough to confirm that it's off to a flying start! The limp 'design by committee' styling is replaced with a dramatic and dynamic new look which borrows much from the SWAY concept car unveiled at the 2015 Geneva Motor Show.

Of course, the all-new body design is accompanied by an all-new platform too. Wider and longer than before, it lends the new Micra a squat and sporty stance which is a million miles away from the old car's 'sit up and beg' demeanour.

Indeed, the transformation is so great, that I wondered whether anyone thought that it might be time to consider a completely new name (I'm old enough to remember when Ford's much-loved, Cortina nameplate was consigned to history with the arrival of the Sierra).

I put the question Nissan's product manager for the Micra, Hiroyuki Taka and he was honest enough to admit that it was a topic of discussion: "Yes, a new name was considered but the Micra brand is one of the strongest in the Nissan portfolio, with a great history and strong recognition among the younger audience at which the new car is targeted, so we decided to stick with it."

But beauty, of course, is in the eye of the holder - so there may be some that miss the old Micra - and only skin deep, so it's what's inside and underneath that will help us to properly evaluate the true scale of Nissan's achievement with the all-new car.

As for the inside, the cabin is a million miles away from the previous Micra’s. Our top-spec Tekna test car featured an appealing mix of soft-touch and two-tone materials creating a very pleasant ambience. Higher-spec models offer the option of  interior styling packs (starting from £400) so you can add an extra touch of zing – particularly in the case of the Energy Orange version.

There are five trim levels in total and everything from the mid-spec Acenta and above comes with a 7-inch touchscreen. It’s a fairly intuitive system although some of the icons are a bit on the small side and thus tricky to select on the move. Tekna and N-Connecta models come with the sat-nav and DAB radio built in, while others require the optional Connect package but Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink are standard on the Acenta, so you can access your smartphone apps on screen.

Nissan has made something of a song and dance about its tie-up with Bose for the creation of a Personal premium audio system – unique to the Micra – which delivers an rather effective surround sound experience thanks to two speakers mounted on either side of the driver’s headrest. Fitted as standard to the Tekna, it’s available as an option on selected models as part of a £500 Personal Audio Pack.

Finding a comfortable driving position is a doddle thanks to the standard height-adjustable driver’s seat and a steering wheel that moves for reach as well as height while the dashboard presents large easy-to-read dials and clearly-labelled switches.

Having raved about the all-new exterior, however, you are reminded on one or two occasions that style comes at a price. Firstly, the steeply raked A-pillars can obscure your view at angled junctions while the chunky rear pillars and shallow rear screen make reversing manoeuvres a little awkward unless you’ve opted for the optional rear parking sensors and reversing camera. A 55mm reduction in overall height coupled with a tapering roofline to achieve that appealingly svelte profile has also compromised rear headroom, but in every other respect cabin room is good – and if you take this argument to extremes, we’d all be driving around in boxy cars with skinny pillars and aerodynamic efficiency akin to common house bricks.

If practicality is measured in cupholders and bottle storage, the Micra is King. It has two cupholders between the front seats and one in the rear. Its front door bins will take bottles up to 1.5 litres while its 10-litre glove box has been specifically shaped to accommodate a two-litre drinks bottle!  Should you need to carry larger items, then its 300-litre boot will expand to over 1,000 litres with the rear seats folded – so you can see why the arrival of the new MIcra has also signalled the departure of the Nissan Note from the UK market.

Under the skin, you get a choice of three engine options, two petrol and one diesel, and we drove the more powerful petrol unit – a turbocharged 90 PS 0.9-litre unit, emitting just 99g/km of CO2. I think it’s worth paying the premium over the 71 PS entry-level unit as its extra zest gives you the oomph you need not only for urban driving but also for relaxed motorway cruising. It also packs plenty of mid-range punch so you don’t need to rev it nearly as much and that in itself makes your progress somewhat more serene.

The suspension is on the firm side, so it keeps the Micra controlled over most surfaces, but it can become unsettled over broken tarmac and potholes where some of its rivals perform rather better. No such issues on the motorway, however, where the Micra is a comfortable mile muncher, although a sixth ratio on the manual gearbox would make it even better.

The steering is light - ideal in town at low speeds and for parking - but on the open road the wheel doesn’t weight up as progressively as some rivals so it’s not quite as easy to place the Micra when pressing on through the twists and turns, although body roll is well controlled and grip is more than adequate.

Every Micra comes equipped with a list of safety kit that would shame many cars from a class above. Front, side and window airbags, a lane departure warning system and an automatic emergency braking system all helped it achieve a four-star safety rating from Euro NCAP.

So, all in all, the new Nissan Micra is indeed a massive leap forward from its predecessor in every respect. It has style and charm in abundance, it’s easy to drive and to live with and it’s packed with the latest safety kit. For the few - the keener drivers - it falls short of the best in class but I’m sure it will still satisfy the many and figure in the upper reaches of the sales charts.