The Nissan Micra has found more than 3.5 million homes in Europe since it was first launched 35 years ago, highlighting an enduring popularity for the supermini.
Many car makers will claim to have ripped everything up and started again in the launch of a new car, yet it’s usually pretty easy to see past that and find more of the same. Not in the Micra’s case, however, for really this has been a starting again job, with the needs of the modern supermini buyer broken down by Nissan, dissected, interpreted and used to inform the development of the new car.
And we’ve followed that development story every step of the way as Nissan seeks to compete again at the top of the supermini class in Europe. We shadowed the key team involved in the car’s development, and then drove one from Rome to London through some diverse European cities to really get to know it. It’s an endearing car with a hell of a story behind it, as we hope you’ll enjoy reading.
The plan is to try out the Micra by driving it from Rome to Munich (writes Matt Prior). It’s a long drive and we’re doing it in just three days, taking lots of pictures along the way, but things don’t get off to the best start. But only because, from my selfish point of view, this is actually a rather good start.
That’s due to the fact starting our journey in central Rome, as planned, we first travel about an hour south of the city, to the test track belonging to Bridgestone, Nissan’s tyre partner for the Micra. This is fine, I tell the good people at Nissan who have invited us here, as long as we can get away early. No problem, they assure us – just let’s have a quick chat about the car first.
And the thing is, when engineers and designers and managers are all this keen to talk about a new car – when they want to talk, and talk, and demonstrate, and talk some more, and let you try it, and immerse you in it – you already know you’re in the presence of a car that’s really good. Even if this makes you late.
Nissan has identified two key rivals as the best in the supermini class. Handily, they’re the same as ours: the Volkswagen Polo and the Ford Fiesta. The Fiesta is our benchmark to drive and the Polo is our benchmark for perceived quality and refinement.
Nissan doesn’t actually say it’s aiming square between the two, but you get the idea that it is. The engineers use words like “agile” to describe the handling, and are eager to show you the standard two-tone interior – if, that is, they can tear themselves away from demonstrating the car on one of the facility’s test tracks.
The engineers are keen to demonstrate how the Micra’s handling is augmented by a system called Chassis Control. This consists of two elements. Active Ride Control is triggered by a fairly hefty input into the suspension, for example from a sleeping policeman or a level crossing taken at speed. It will then gently tweak a brake or two – usually the rears – to reduce pitching.
The more interesting feature, though, is Active Trace Control. Other Nissans have had it before, but it has been further developed for the latest Micra. You could consider it an extension of stability control, but that would be to sell it a bit short. It is activated by a cornering force of 0.4G – so well before stability control would cut in – and aims to smooth your cornering line and keep the Micra on the path you want to take.
Eventually, photographer Stan Papior convinces me I’ve seen enough and we’re off, with our original plan now shot to pieces. Our hop to Rome for a photo or two before heading to Verona in time for dinner has become a mission simply to get to central Rome before dusk. And in the end, we don’t even manage that.
Imagine deciding at 2.00pm on a Friday in November that you’re going to head into Central London from, say, Milton Keynes and try to set up a photo of a car travelling along a street, ideally without any other vehicles around. That gives you an idea of what we’re attempting.
But if there’s any vehicle you’re going to try this with, a Micra would be it. It’s less than four metres long yet has a boot that can swallow all of Papior’s photographic gear with ease.
Instead of straight boot sides and a hefty, complex luggage cover, Nissan has fitted lightweight carpeting around the wheel arches and added a cargo tray that slots in and out with one hand, which seems sensible. It’s not an area you look at that often, though, so perceived quality is less important and by saving money here Nissan has been able to spend more elsewhere – notably, in the front of the cabin, where you spend all your time.
It’s dark by the time we reach Rome, but because it’s a hilly city, Papior reckons that, if we find the right spot, a night-time shot overlooking the ancient city might be had. Which would be fine, were the traffic not horrendous and the streets – some originally laid many centuries ago – designed for little more than Cicero’s lectica and without the knowledge that one day we’d all be vying for space in 1.5-tonne metal boxes.
Rome being Rome, they’ll make five or six lanes here, which is one reason why Italians tend to opt for smaller cars than the rest of Europe. While London is full of SUVs and crossovers, Rome is packed with diddy Smarts and Fiats. Compact and with a tight turning circle, the Micra fits right in with ease.
That we find a spot overlooking the city where there are no other cars suggests to me that we’re not meant to be there; and, as it turns out, after we spend a good hour setting up and at the precise moment Papior is about to push the shutter, we’re told we’re not.
After being kicked off by Italian plod, we find a few places we are allowed, but it’s now so late we follow the pictures with a local pizzeria and hotel room, vowing to get on the road early the next morning instead.
This we do, in good weather, heading north with Papior manning the satellite navigation and pining for the adjacent Tuscan hills, while I remind him we’ve an appointment at Munich airport on Sunday afternoon, that it’s now Saturday morning and technically we have hardly left our starting point.
If you are going to be in a supermini during a journey like this, you might as well be in a good one. Although the engine is barely run-in, it’s zingy and easy, gaining us enough time to divert into the hills once or twice after all.
We’ve ditched Verona as our next big stopping point, opting instead for an overnight in Bolzano, South Tyrol. It’s still inside Italy but close enough to Austria for the signs and the locals to use both Italian and German, and because it sits on a thoroughfare between the two countries it feels busy even though the ski season has barely begun.
I really like the place; the whole city feels like an established mountain base camp, and you’re as likely to find a Biergarten selling a decent stew and dumplings as you are a pizzeria and a good coffee. Given that’s all my major food groups covered, it gets my vote.
Soon enough it’s Sunday morning and we’ve still got a bit of Italy and then Austria and Germany to cover before the afternoon. Even though the Brenner Pass, the border between Italy and Austria, is one of the lower Alpine passes, it’s already snowy in the area. The Micra isn’t on winter tyres but we deviate to enjoy some whiteness anyway, before heading back onto the motorway for a nip into Innsbruck, a gorgeous city that would be even better for taking pictures were it not full of Christmas markets setting up.
Austria is narrow this far west, so with the Bose at full chat – and it’s an exceptional stereo for a supermini – it’s not long before we’re into southern Germany and onto unrestricted autobahn. There’s less and less of this these days, but I manage to stretch the Micra’s legs until the speedometer reads 116mph, which is far from shabby for 0.9-litre engine.
Messages are arriving from colleagues Nic Cackett and Luc Lacey saying their flight is on time, so we’ve got to get to Munich pretty quickly to hand the car over to them. Thanks to the autobahn, though, there’s time to pass by the Allianz Arena, empty the car of rubbish and fill it with fuel. The Micra has returned over 40mpg, which isn’t bad given kind of driving we’ve been doing.
Before long we’re in short-term parking, relinquishing the keys.
One text from Cackett, intended to amuse, earlier in the day, read: “How would you feel about driving all the way back if we missed our flight?” I replied: “Arf. But please don’t actually miss it.” In the back of my mind, though, I knew it wouldn’t be such a bad thing at all.
Prior’s humorous hand-written sign at Munich airport arrivals may have read “Dumb and Dumber”, but Luc and I had played it smart: there would be no detours, no messing about: – three days, three countries, three cities, with a Flexiplus Eurotunnel ticket at the end of it.
Waiting for us: the Micra. And two remarkably unfrazzled colleagues. In the handbook of road tester omens, this is an exceptionally good one. Superminis are not the natural choice for cross-continental jaunts, so to emerge from one with anything less than a thousand-yard stare and blood under your fingernails bodes extremely well for anyone about to take on a further 800 miles.
The Micra, sequestered in the short-term car park, certainly looks the part in Terry’s Chocolate Orange, its swooping, very modern jumble of angles immediately deleting any memory of its eye-numbing predecessor. The interior is a quantum leap of improvement, too, and impressively neat until Luc and I pour belongings into it with all the care and attention of a demolition crew filling a skip.
We both dig the Micra’s two-tone dash and Bose stereo, and I silently appreciate the pedal placement and obliging weight to the controls as we exit the airport and tack towards the autobahn.
First up: Nuremberg, a piffling 100 miles to the north, the shortest stint of the entire trip. The sun set long before BA had us on the Tarmac - so, strictly, we are now on a night shoot. Nevertheless, it ought to be a cinch, the city having accumulated plenty of architectural eye-candy in its 1000-year history, without becoming too built-up to get round in a hurry.
Much to Luc’s disappointment, though, Nuremberg turns out to be about as well lit as a scene by Caravaggio. None of Nuremberg’s medieval landmarks stands out against the moonless sky, and to make matters worse, it’s freezing. It is partly to the Micra’s credit that no-one’s sense of humour fails at this point. The last thing you want when blindly navigating around a city in a frantic search for light pollution is a car that’s difficult to drive, but the Nissan is a doddle. In fact, for the most part I forget I’m operating it – the calling card of impeccable small-car tuning.
It feels compact enough to evoke the attitude of a city-car driver, a lingering impression that you’re just about small enough to drive off the road and onto city squares and the like without anyone particularly minding. In another car, we might not have found the open space behind the lavish Art Nouveau Nuremberg State Theatre, still illuminated and in the process of discharging patrons into the icy void.
Photos snapped, we hunker down in a hotel that does a good job of passing as a German Premier Inn, and a bad job of providing a decent breakfast. No matter, though, because day two offers us the chance to gorge on 300-odd miles of autobahn between Nuremberg and Maastricht, our point of call in the Netherlands.
On the way, the Micra’s merry three-pot belies its modest 89bhp output and, where appropriate, sidles up without complaint – or the need of assistance from a decline – to its limiter at 116mph, a top speed amenably distant from the 109mph claimed by Nissan.
Luc and I, possessing the mechanical sympathy of salvage yard crane operators, make this our standard procedure, and though we swiftly drain the full tank that Prior promised would take us most of the way home, we make it to Maastricht well within daylight hours.
This is particularly agreeable because Maastricht, split in two by the broad expanse of the River Meuse, is an unexpected delight.
With a history even longer than Nuremberg’s (Roman in origin, it is arguably Holland’s oldest city), it manages to appear picturesque even when labouring under an unbroken blanket of low-country grey.
Luc opts to shoot against the backdrop of the medieval city wall, a process that requires about 1000 three-point turns and which earns my appreciation of the Micra’s first-rate visibility and our model’s fish-eye reversing camera, which saves more than one inattentive and non-helmet-wearing cyclist from a nasty collision.
We move on to the city’s equally historic main square, Vrijthof, which manages to successfully mingle Romanesque and Gothic architecture with pastel-coloured rows of chic shop fronts. Appropriately, for a place with a binding European treaty to its name, Maastricht could hardly be more cool and Continental, and it’s precisely the sort of place you can imagine Nissan’s designers thinking of as they went about reimagining the Micra for a new generation of style-conscious consumer.
The light now fading, we retreat to our hotel, located over the river in a rather more modern and self-consciously hip part of Maastricht. The streets here are similarly well scrubbed and easy on the eye; only the occasionally Byzantine traffic junction terrifies – well, that and the quantity of rush-hour cyclists, though they pedal about not with the angry urgency of London’s self-righteous breed, but like middle-aged postmen from the 1950s, all upright and we’ll-get-there-when-we-get-there.
Curiously, this makes them harder to judge, even in a car as easy to place on the road as the Micra. It takes quite a while to realise that their apparent obliviousness is not due to some bizarre national death wish, but because the Maastricht traffic blends itself into one affable ball; a rotating, reciprocating mass based not on impatience and rashness but on trust, composure and, an indifference to getting anywhere at breakneck speed.
We have dinner in the Wyck district, which already twinkles under Christmas lights and would have made a great night location but for the multitude of cars parked in its public spaces.
Luc opts instead for a rather more gritty shot, under the John F. Kennedybrug, a road bridge across the Meuse. Naturally, there is a huddle of teenagers hidden in the half light but, of course, this being Holland, they’re about as threatening as Hogwarts sixth formers and even chirpily agree to having their bikes arranged in a more visually appealing way.
The following day, we’re sad to say Vaarwell to Maastricht, but there’s hardly time to dwell on the sentiment because the Netherlands becomes Belgium so quickly that our thoughts almost immediately turn to our last stop, Bruges – just 150miles up the E40 once you’ve circumnavigated Brussels.
The capital of West Flanders hardly requires description. It lives in the collective conscience as a fairytale town – the Venice of the North, a medieval commercial behemoth now small enough to squeeze on the cover of a chocolate box. The reputation is apt: the streets, already bulging with shoppers, tend to be narrow and one-way, and it’s not unusual to taste sugar in the air. Having escaped significant damage in both World Wars, Bruges is prodigiously pretty even before you reach a stretch of canal.
Luc had hoped to shoot on the famous Markt square, beneath the 83-metre bell tower, but the stalls are already out for Christmas and there’s precious little room for people, let alone orange superminis. We go in search of canals instead, and don’t have to wait long.
Bruges, it turns out, is not quite as unfriendly to cars as you might imagine. Like many European towns and cities, the traffic has simply been absorbed through necessity. Consequently, many of the cobbled lanes that run parallel to the canals, and which look to English eyes like they must surely be pedestrianised, are in fact open to traffic, albeit usually only in one direction.
So, we have less a problem of navigation for our shoot (the Micra’s touchscreen nav proves very effective) than of the mechanics of car photography, which tends to require many attempts before it comes good. Throw a tourist-carrying boat into the frame as well, as Luc innocently suggests we ought to, and things get even more complicated; cue several laps of the city, complete with closed roads, cement lorries, tourists and, inevitably, cyclists of the Belgian persuasion.
Not for the first time, though, the Micra simply takes the opportunity to shine. The ease-of-use instantly recognisable in an airport car park two days and 550 miles ago has not been dulled by familiarity. The carbonated straight three, the peppy chassis, the rolling refinement and a discernible lack of weight are all tributaries of the same frothy river – you just sit there much like a day-tripper, enjoying the view. Or, in my case, waiting for a frozen, famished Luc to wearily raise the thumb to say we’re done.
The last leg
With mission accomplished, we’re left with a choice: stay the night, or, like 14th-century wool merchants, break immediately for the coast. With Calais less than 90 minutes away, the temptation of home and hearth is simply too much, and, before you can say “La Manche”, we’re explaining to passport control what two English blokes are doing driving back to the UK in a Spanish-registered car that doesn’t belong to them.
The journey under the Channel offers the usual pause for reflection. By the time we get back to West London, the car will have covered almost 1500 miles of European roads, and while this early drive was never meant to deliver any kind of definitive verdict, one inexorable thought bubbles to the surface – namely, that it is impossible to drive through the heart of the Continent, with its grandeur, heritage and creativity, without being drip-fed all that is good and appealing about the new Micra.
Its predecessor, for all the worthiness of its ambition, stumbled because Nissan convinced itself that the model could be designed, engineered and built just as effectively anywhere in the world, as though it were dealing with a generic drug that could be replicated and manufactured in any nation prosperous enough to support a factory. But that isn’t the case. The Micra’s relationship with this continent will be 25 years old in 2017; it was the first Japanese model to be awarded European Car of the Year and only the second Nissan to be built from scratch in Sunderland. It isn’t a stretch to see the Continent’s influence at the heart of the car’s rejuvenation.
Welcome home, Micra.
Shiro Nakamura is a busy man. As the Nissan group’s chief creative officer, he oversees design for the Nissan, Infiniti and Datsun brands. It’s a role which goes beyond just the design strategy and direction, as Nakmura is also responsible for such diverse areas as motor show stand design and even dealership design.
The new Micra has been prominent in his thoughts since design work started in mid-2013, and here he gets his sketch book out to tell us why such a radical design direction was taken for the car to target it directly at European buyers.
A big part of the Micra’s development has focused on the interior, with Nissan upping the quality, improving the design, and increasing the customisation options of the supermini. Take the tour of the new Micra’s interior yourself with our interactive 360-degree video. Mobile users can see the New Micra 360 video here.