Remember the Canadian-market Nissan Micra? Not the one from the ’80s, but the one from the past few years, sold for dirt-cheap and offered as a race car. To outsiders, it seemed like the Dacia Sandero of the North, a cheap and cheerful exercise in minimum viable car, and as a Canadian, I got the privilege to drive the Micra and its competitors while they were all still new, plastics off-gassing and owner’s manuals still wrapped. While it’s easy to find people on the internet fawning for this cheap Nissan, I don’t think America would like the Micra all that much.
There’s a big difference between an inexpensive car and a cost-cut car. The Mitsubishi Mirage was originally meant for developing markets, meaning that everything was designed to be cheap from the start. The Micra is a decontented continuation of a car sold in Europe, Japan, and other locales used to all the modern decadence that U.S.-market cars provide. First, a disclaimer: All the Micra interior pics you see here, save for the one of the cargo area, are of a 2015 base-model car with just 108,000 kilometers, or around 67,000 miles, on the clock. This was the cheapest car in Canada at the time, with Nissan writing in a press release in 2015:
The Nissan Micra made history last year as a new vehicle with the lowest starting MSRP in Canada, and also offering the lowest cost-of-entry for an abundance of must-have features including: Bluetooth, Rear View Monitor, cruise control, manual air conditioning and automatic transmission.
There’s a lot of missing equipment on the base model that I don’t have a problem with. Power door locks, power windows, and power mirrors are all unnecessary in a cheap small car. With a vehicle width of just 65.6 inches, it’s not hard for an able-bodied person to reach over and roll down the passenger window, or lock the passenger door. I don’t think a car this cheap needs cruise control either, nor do I reckon that body-colored door handles or mirrors are needed. After all, plastic doesn’t rust.
However, the Micra cut a few corners that simply feel spiteful. Wind-down windows are all well and good, but the winders themselves don’t feel particularly sturdy on the Micra. The pieces on the last one I drove had some play, which is a problem because that was a new press car. While I appreciate the bright interior door handles, there’s a spot on each interior door lock switch for a tiny orange decal, the sort that raises attention that a door is unlocked. In the last Micra S I drove, it wasn’t there. Speaking of things missing in the cabin, the passenger didn’t get an “oh dear god” handle unless you stepped up to the mid-range SV trim. A mild annoyance, sure, but also a reminder of cheapness.
Pop the hatch and you’ll notice that the trunk carpet feels impossibly thin, and the metal lip along the bottom of the hatch opening features wide swathes of exposed paintwork, waiting to get marked up while loading and unloading. Add in a considerable load lip and a sizable mismatch between cargo floor and the height of the folded seats, and the cargo bay just doesn’t feel as useful or as well-protected as it should be. Open up the fuel door, and a wandering hand will painfully learn that the edges of the fuel door are sharp, almost like they weren’t de-burred properly. A minor detail, but a rather unfortunate one.
More than the small reminders of cheapness, the interior just doesn’t seem joyfully-styled. Sure, the three-knob climate controls are nice, but everything’s a mash of weird angles and wide panel gaps. Canadian-market cars got a different (read: cheaper) dashboard than European cars, and it really does feel it. Everything’s quick to scratch, which means that after 65,000 city miles or so, the cabin feels a bit worn-out.
The Micra put its best foot forward out on the road, riding well thanks to relatively large for the segment 185/60R15 tires. Steering feel is decent and body roll is well-controlled for the segment, but you quickly get the impression the car’s more about transportation than joy. The 17:1 steering ratio feels a touch slow by modern standards, and while the brakes are fine, their stopping power and pedal feel isn’t anything to write home about. Thank goodness a five-speed manual is standard because the optional four-speed automatic’s wide ratios really highlight why CVTs have proliferated the budget car segment. That being said, the manual gearbox’s shifter isn’t brilliant, with a vague, rubbery feel, even by the segment’s standards.
Discounting the cabin, it’s a perfectly fine way of getting around, provided you’re alright with one thing: The Micra feels a touch sluggish around town, largely thanks to lazy drive-by-wire tuning. You’d expect an inexpensive, lightweight hatchback with a 106-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine to be reasonably zippy in low-speed environments, but this thing doesn’t have the throttle urgency you’d expect. Sure, the cup cars look like a riot, but the roadgoing Canadian Micra was no more of an enthusiast’s car than most of its competitors. It also had the same major servicing concern as its big brother, the Versa Note — the spark plugs were buried under the intake manifold, making their eventual replacement expensive.
While the Micra is a fine way of getting around, the corners cut to achieve that $9,998 Canadian MSRP excluding destination are rather obvious. Granted, this wouldn’t have been a problem if the Micra was the only car with a four-figure price tag, but it wasn’t. In response to the Micra’s incredibly low price tag, Chevrolet dropped the MSRP of a base second-generation Spark in Canada to below $10,000. Sure, it was physically smaller than a Micra and was only a four-seater, but the Spark was a much better car.
For a start, there’s the interior. While the Micra’s cabin is a place of cut corners and cheap plastics, the Spark is full of interesting lines and textures. From the V-shaped upper dashboard to the chrome-trimmed knobs and air vents, the Spark’s cabin feels a whole lot more expensive than the Micra’s despite a similar starting price.
[Editor’s Note: This car reminds me a lot of the cheapest car in the U.S. in 2009, the Nissan Versa.
I told Thomas this, and he replied with: “My neighbour had a Versa of that vintage! It was a much nicer car than the Micra. Better plastics, better upholstery, nicer dashboard layout, tighter fit and finish.” That is alarming. -DT]
Then there’s the standard kit. While it’s easy to bang on about simplicity in an era of screens, the standard infotainment system in the Spark is a welcome addition in today’s phone-mirroring GPS app age. Automatic headlights are an unexpected nicety, as is a reversing camera and a driver’s armrest. The Spark just coddles its occupants better than the Micra, offering genuine convenience touches at a very low price.
Sure, the Spark is down on power compared to the Micra, but 98 horsepower isn’t far off from 106, and the Spark delivered those ponies in a more pleasing way. While the 1.6-liter engine in the Micra will dutifully let you rev it out, the 1.4-liter engine in the Spark eggs you on with an eager little growl before having to swap cogs through ever so slightly more defined gates. The Spark’s brake pedal feels confident, and its clutch is a breeze to modulate. All the inputs you’d make are slightly better than on a Micra, all for the same price.
The Canadian-market Nissan Micra is a great example of how just because you can’t have something doesn’t mean you necessarily should want it. While it’s perfectly adequate transportation, it lacks the economy of the Mitsubishi Mirage and the polish of the Chevrolet Spark, two solid cars that Americans could actually buy. As time goes on, it also seems like the Mitsubishi and the Chevrolet are both better at warding off corrosion, although it’s also possible that their owners just care more. While the Micra was certainly an important car in Canadian automotive history, I’d advise against putting your money on the line for one unless it’s either a cup car or a really cheap example.
(Photo credits: Nissan, Chevrolet, AutoTrader sellers)
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Being bested by the Chevy Spark is one hell of a low bar. But the mere fact that America would oppose this vehicle makes me think Nissan was really on to something…
The chevy spark is widely regarded as pretty great for the money. we are talking budget cars here.
Even with all of this Bob Mayer would have wet his pants over how great this car was compared to anything else he had reviewed.
You can also fit a pre-made supercharger kit on these bad-boys, meaning that you can pick a really good example of one of these for under $8k, switch out tires, suspension, and a few other nick-nacks, and you’ve got yourself a cheap autocross car that’s also perfect for driving around the city (at legal speeds,) like a maniac.
Unfortunately they’re pretty dismal cars for anything outside of the city in Canada, as it’s all just straight boring roads.