Nissan Micra 1.2 SE Five-Door review
by David Finlay (31 July 2003)
We had no hand in deciding exactly which version of the Micra we would receive for the first CARkeys road test (as opposed to launch report) of this model, but if we had done the 1.2 manual SE would probably have been the one we went for.
Among the five Micra trim levels, SE is the middle-of-the-road vanilla-flavoured one, and likely to be the most popular. The 1240cc engine is the most powerful for its capacity in the range, only 8bhp short - according to Nissan's own figures - of the 1.4 version. And since this office is stuffed full of enthusiastic drivers we were obviously pleased to get the chance to change gear ourselves, though the shift quality isn't great and we know from experience that the automatic is a far better bet in city driving.
It will be some time yet before the Micra's adventurous shape merges into the automotive background. Just the other day I saw another one on the road, and I found myself staring at it in astonishment, even though I was driving something that looked exactly the same. It's certainly distinctive.
The same applies to the interior, which bears no resemblance to anything else on the market. I quite like the job Nissan has done on this, especially when lighter colours are used. On a more practical note, there is a remarkable amount of cabin space for such a small car. The Micra would quite easily take four six-foot passengers if it weren't for the fact that the roofline starts to dip just at the point where the heads of the folk in the rear need to be.
There may be a design issue here. It would be very difficult to make a good styling job of the back end if the roof stayed flat for another couple of inches. A shame, but even at that the Micra is one of the best cars in its class for interior room. There's also a decent enough amount of luggage space in the boot, which can be extended by moving the rear seats forward (or, of course, by folding them flat if you don't need to carry a full complement of passengers).
The first two generations of Micra were absurdly easy to drive, which of course is exactly what you want from a small hatchback. The new version is much the same, not least because of the variable amount of steering assistance. The system gives you very little sense of the forces acting on the tyres, but since this is in no way a sports car that doesn't really matter. More importantly, the steering becomes very light indeed just at the point where the laws of physics suggest that it should be at its heaviest, namely when you need to turn the wheel a long way round at low speeds. Parking manoeuvres, three-point turns and the like become simple affairs as a direct result of this.
Performance is more than reasonable thanks to the perky 1.2 engine, so you can scoot along country roads at a decent rate. One thing that's puzzling me about the Micra in these conditions, though, is the fact that on the press launch, which was held near Nissan's factory in Sunderland, all the Micras I drove seemed to be quite firmly damped. No part of this test was conducted anywhere near Sunderland, and the car gave the opposite impression of being under-damped, just short of the point where it would wallow on undulating surfaces.
Well, either the Micra is especially sensitive to road surfaces, or there is quite a variety of suspension set-ups in the Nissan press fleet. Either way, driving a car in your own area before you buy it would appear to be the only way of deciding if you're happy with the ride quality.
Our car had the Intelligent Key system whereby you switch on the engine by turning a knob which reacts only if the Micra senses that the key is in the cabin. All very clever, but as with all systems like this I'm not quite sure how it makes life any more pleasant than would be the case if you simply shoved the key in the ignition lock as normal. There are also issues of reliability, as shown by some of our experiences with Renaults (built by Nissan's partner company, which is almost certainly responsible for the Micra system, though Nissan doesn't go out of its way to say this).
Apart from the fact that an apparently unimportant piece of plastic fell off and has not been seen since, we didn't have any trouble with the Intelligent Key, though we have our concerns. The only piece of electronic equipment which actually caused any problems was the radio, which went into a huff at my attempts to disable the locking code. The display unit told me to wait for an hour, and at the time of writing - about a week later - it's still saying the same thing. It won't give me back the CD I inserted at the start of the process, and apparently the whole unit will have to be removed before I can get it back.
Second opinon: It feels odd to have been driving a car which I think has a charming interior yet largely graceless body styling. I just cannot imagine how Nissan thinks the latest Micra, with its Ugly Bug Ball front end, will appeal to more buyers than the previous types. Yet, as they always say, when you're inside a car you can't see the body panels, although if there's a practical reason for those bulbous-topped headlamps I didn't figure that out either. I enjoyed the part-retro interior with trim colours and textures not many manufacturers in the class would provide. And the Micra in this specification is a dinky little car to drive, agile and much better fun than the power output might suggest. You'd have to be more confident than I am about 2003 supermini electriconics to enthuse about the long-term usefulness of the key system, for which reason I'd maybe go down one level to the Micra S, and skip the other SE benefits too. Ross Finlay.