Automatic Nissan Micra smooth operator
Richard M Hammond finds the new automatic Nissan Micra makes for easy progress in urban driving.
Britain loves the Nissan Micra. Since 1982 the diminutive hatchback has been impressing UK small-car buyers with its functionality, practicality and reliability. A third of Nissan Micras still in use in Europe can be found in Britain. And, until recently, the Japanese manufacturer built the Micra at its Sunderland plant.
British car-buyers shouldn't take the fact that production of the new, fourth-generation Micra has shifted elsewhere as a letdown for the UK economy – the Sunderland plant is busier than ever with the new electric Leaf and distinctive Juke.
Instead, the shift of production to plants as far afield as China and Mexico reflects the new Micra's status as a 'global vehicle'.
So what can UK Micra fans expect to see as a result of the Micra's new push for international recognition?
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Well, a new CVT automatic version for a start. The automatic option is an important one in the Micra line-up, with the combination of cost-effectiveness, ease of use around town, five-door practicality and an automatic transmission proving popular with mature drivers.
Although less economical than the five-speed manual, the CVT-equipped Micra boasts better fuel economy than a traditional torque-convertor automatic and smoother progress thanks to the lack of 'stepped' gear changes. Nissan has developed the new Micra's compact, lightweight CVT transmission specifically for the job, and with the intention of working alongside the also all-new three-cylinder, 1.2-litre petrol engine.
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Another hint at the new Micra's international status is the lack of a diese. Not every market is as keen on the fuel as the UK and to avoid the costs for manufacturer and customer of producing a diesel version Nissan has opted to take the unconventional approach of supercharging the small petrol unit for greater efficiency.
That version, complete with sub-100g/km CO2 emissions, will arrive later in 2011. Until then the CVT transmission is attached to the standard 1.2 engine with positive results. The engine is smoother and more refined than some rival three-cylinder units – particularly at idle – and revs freely for refined progress.
CVT transmissions, almost without fail, are accompanied by a whiny engine note and the Micra is no exception, but it's hardly intrusive and the transmission opts for as high a ratio as possible even when crawling in traffic. Kick-down response is better than might be expected and, although performance is hardly scintillating, there's decent straight-line performance for uphill drags and tractor-passing.
Ride quality feels a little firm over some winter-worn road surfaces, but traditional strong build quality ensures no rattles or knocks. Light steering and an excellent turning circle are bonuses in the Micra's intended environment and visibility is excellent all around.
Inside, the Micra feels modern by design. The rotary centre console layout is an efficient and charismatic use of space and the cabin feels reasonably spacious for a compact car. Storage is good and quality high, even if the dashboard plastics are hard to the touch.
Nissan expects to sell 17,000 Micras in the first full year – most are likely to be mid-range Acenta. Strong specification furthers its cause in terms of value adding toys and plain useful equipment. Cruise control, 15in alloys, driver's arm rest, a bag holder and electric mirrors are nice to have. Boot illumination, map reading lights and a trip computer are functional additions to the generous standard specification that show thought has gone into model.
The new Micra may have been designed with the global market in mind, but it's clear that the car still boasts the qualities that have made it such a success in Britain for fast approaching three decades.
NISSAN 1.2 ACENTA CVT
Price: �11,545 on the road
Engine: 1.2-litre, 79bhp petrol
Transmission: CVT automatic transmission driving front wheels
Performance: 0-62mph 14.5 seconds; top speed 100mph
CO2 emissions: 125g/km