“Cheap” might be the first thing that comes to mind when you see the diminutive little Nissan Micra scampering around town. It’s a word that most don’t want to be associated with.
Probably because most of us have grown accustomed to a lifestyle of excesses.
We see it in our social media; we see it in the news, the homes people buy, and the cars they drive. We see it in endless news feeds and the thousand-and-one Netflix specials we couldn’t hope to watch in a single lifetime.
We live in an era of rising debt levels and 84-month finance terms. The latter greatly eases the financial burden of that mammoth SUV in the driveway for those living beyond their means.
SUVs aren’t just popular because of the tall ride height and perceived safety that comes from being in something more substantial but also the image and status they portray to the passerby. If people needed true utility and space to carry life’s detritus they would be driving minivans or wagons, but those just aren’t cool enough.
Canadians tend to be somewhat more practical than our neighbours to the south. We might not like small cars and wagons that much, but we like them more than the US does. Nissan doesn’t even bother selling the Micra there.
That’s a plus one for us, then, because this car is a clinic in just how far you can stretch your automotive dollar.
Nissan brought the fourth generation Micra back to our roads for the 2015 model year after a hiatus of nearly two decades. A revamped fifth-gen Micra came out in 2017 but only in other markets. There aren’t any official plans to bring that one here just yet.
It’s not much of a problem because the one we do get remains an efficient and fun-to-drive small car.
At $10, 488 the only new car in Canada that costs less—by an entire $493— is the Chevrolet Spark, and before you go checking it out, I’ll let you in on a little secret—the Micra is the one you want: more space, more power, better looking, and generally a more substantial vehicle. You might remember that the Micra was initially launched at a price under $10K, but the addition of a mandatory reverse camera pushed it just north of that.
What would a new vehicle priced similarily to a 10-year old used car be like to drive? Would I hate it after being jaded by million-horsepower machines that cost more than many Ontario homes?
After all buying a car is a massive decision and it can be a big financial burden. Finding a new car for an out-the-door price under $20,000 is not that easy today so one that’s priced at half that amount has to have many compromises. Right? Turns out, that’s not really true.
Before I go any further, a base Nissan Micra lacks many things that you and I might take for granted today. Like power windows and door locks and air-conditioning. Or an automatic transmission. A basic 5-speed manual is what you get.
If you cannot deal with 3 pedals in the footwell, a 4-speed automatic can be optioned for $3810. If that seems like a lot for a slushbox, it’s worth noting that it comes bundled with A/C and cruise control.
For $15,598 you can step into the Micra SV. It adds power windows and door locks and remote keyless entry. The top of the range Micra SR adds 16-inch alloy wheels (replacing the standard 15-inch steelies) and nicer trim inside and out but at $17, 598 the SR approaches Civic and Corolla money and the Micra’s value proposition goes out the window.
If you do opt for the base model, the manual shifter moves smoothly through its gates and the clutch is light and easy to modulate. It takes almost no effort at all. This is the perfect car for someone who wants to learn how to drive stick. One that you can beat on a bit and not feel too bad about doing so.
Everything about the Micra is easy. It’s a car where you just get in and go. Large windows mean excellent outward visibility akin to sitting in a bubble. This along with a wheelbase smaller than a new Mini Cooper’s makes it easy to drive and park just about anywhere.
The wheels are pushed out to the far corners of the body maximizing interior volume but also paying dividends when it comes to handling. Don’t expect a corner-carving machine, you’re only going to get so much grip from skinny 185-section all-season tires but what there is, is easily accessible.
Because the Micra only weighs 1044 kilograms (in base trim with a manual transmission) it’s agile. The electrically assisted steering is light with only a small dead-spot on centre. It’s quite low on feel but it doesn’t matter because the car is so small and nimble it feels like it can turn within its own wheelbase, making quick maneuvers in a congested city a treat.
The buzzy little 1.6-L aluminum 4-cylinder spins up to its 6500-rpm redline with vigour. I wouldn’t call it a refined engine but each and every one of the 109 horses it produces does its darndest to pull the Micra forward. Around town, it feels peppy but quickly runs out of steam at highway speeds. Carrying passengers will slow it down even more. Passing requires a bit of planning and a downshift or two but that just means you have to get more involved in the driving experience. How can that be a bad thing?
Driving the Micra took me back to my youth, to a time when I first started driving. The lack of, well, anything inside is a lens into a simpler less distracting time. Even the crank operated roll-down windows, something that virtually no car has today, are a throwback. I didn’t mind using them at all, but the lack of power door locks became tiresome quick. Especially considering it has 5 doors.
That was my biggest gripe with the car—no power locks. Everything else was surprisingly good. Surprising because my expectations were set low. You quickly get over things like the fact that everything inside is hard scratchy plastic, or that the dashboard is completely barren save for a few dials to control the heater. You get over it when you realize that for 10 grand you get seating for up to 5 and enough cargo room under the hatch for a full-size stroller and groceries. You can even fold the rear seats down to more than double the cargo capacity. Because it has a backup cam you get a 7-inch touchscreen and a basic infotainment system. Don’t expect Carplay or Android Auto at this price point, however, you do get Siri Eyes-free capability, hands-free calling, and the ability to stream music from your phone via Bluetooth. For a small family, it actually works but would best serve as a runabout or commuter car.
It’s efficient too. After a week of heavy-footed fun, the Micra averaged 7.8L per 100km on a motor that had just over 400 kilometres on it when I picked it up.
And because there’s not much power, spirited driving is accomplished under the confines of the law. So all of a sudden a simple run to the shops is exciting.
But the Micra is also a brilliant brand ambassador. Back in 2015 when Nissan Canada decided to sell it here again they also launched a one-make Micra Cup race series in tandem. Simultaneously creating not just Canada’s cheapest consumer car, but also Canada’s cheapest racecar with the lowest annual cost of any Canadian racing series.
The Micra Cup serves as an entry point to competitive motorsports for young karting drivers or just about anyone with a passion for cars and motorsports.
Entering its fifth season the Micra Cup is still going strong and is a highly competitive and exciting spectacle to watch. The largely stock cars run the same powertrain as in my tester with absolutely no modifications. It might not seem like they would make good racecars but you’ll be surprised.
I attended this year’s Micra Cup season opener at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park during the Victoria Day Speedfest weekend. Fittingly it was the Micra I drove there, buzzing away happily on the 401 covering the 100 or so kilometres from Toronto with ease. For a May 2-4 long weekend the weather was unseasonably warm. And since there was no A/C, my lanky friend, riding shotgun, had his window rolled down most of the way there. A/C the old fashioned way.
If you’re a Micra owner, you can watch Micra cup races for free. A highlight of the weekend for me was joining other Micra owners for a parade lap of the track in between the races.
Reigning champ Olivier Bédard took both races, but Torontonian Marco Signoretti put up a good fight for a hard-fought second-place finish.
Battle scars from these close quarters dogfights are a part of doing business. But these little racecars hold up remarkably well race after race, no major overhauls necessary. Remember the drivetrain is completely stock so standing up to the gauntlet of spec car racing is a testament to the Micra’s durability.
Anyone that’s looking for a new car inevitably asks “but is it reliable?” Pointing them in the direction of the next Micra Cup race would be the best way to answer that question.
This a genius bit of marketing but also a lesson on how to create something big from a tiny little hatchback.
The next Micra Cup Race will take place at Circuit Mont-Tremblant in Quebec. For more information on the series and how to catch all the action check out the Micra Cup website.