It was Craig that came up with the idea for the Real World Reviews, so it’s good to see some more words from him arriving in the PetrolBlog inbox. Here he presents a rather solid defence of the Nissan Micra. Good stuff, Craig.
Have you driven one?
This should, in my opinion, be the first question levelled at a critic of a car’s performance in order to work out if what follows has any substance. Anyone is entitled to comment on the aesthetics and those who’ve sat inside and twiddled all the knobs are justified in critiquing the ergonomics; however, those who would calmly place their pint on the table and state ‘of course, the 458 is a far better drive than the LP670-4’ had better have some miles under their belt in each.
With this in mind I’m going to nail my slightly oily colours to the mast and defend a car that, thanks to Field Marshall Clarkson, has become the urban whipping boy of many motorists. In light of my earlier assertion this raises an interesting situation – in order to defend such criticism the council for the prosecution must admit to having driven one, but doing so will invariably bring forth a string of shameless excuses explaining why they found themselves piloting the object of their ridicule. From the position of someone who has not only owned one of these mystery vehicles, but liked it a lot and isn’t afraid to say so, this is hugely entertaining. Of all the people who’ve attempted this line of criticism with me in the past, only one has been able to answer the opening question in the affirmative. Let’s see how this article tweaks the statistics.
As you’ll have spotted from the title, I’m talking about the Nissan Micra – specifically the MK2 (K11 in Nissan speak) in SLX trim with the 1.3L DOHC engine. Yes, I’ll wait while you stop laughing. (Someone slap him on the back, I think that shandy went down the wrong way.)
I was offered a spotless example of this little urban runabout for £800 at a time when it was worth closer to £1,500 – the owner was emigrating and needed to sell it quickly. At the time I had a Skoda Favorit, (probably the last car they made that worked properly), that was decent enough but a bit agricultural, so I fancied a change and decided to take a closer look.
This Micra was a five door 1995 model in metallic green and, as mentioned, in SLX trim. This added electric front windows, body coloured bumpers, a tilt and slide sunroof and power steering – a relative rarity on this car, and desirable to avoid a surprisingly heavy parking feel. You also got a decent alarm & immobiliser and a serviceable 4-speaker radio cassette with a surprisingly powerful set of 6″ cones on the parcel shelf. No ABS or traction control though; the former would be pushing it and the latter not really necessary.
Now, this was all fine and the reputation for reliability was definitely attractive, but I was dimly aware of an attack of creeping Clarksonitis as I stood there. Shaking myself, I took it for a spin… and handed over the cash 30 minutes later.
To understand the Micra you’ve got to drop a lot of nonsense from your thought process. It’s all too easy to criticise a car for what it’s not rather than appreciate if for what it is, and that’s the hurdle that trips a lot of drivers. The Micra isn’t fast or glamorous, it doesn’t offer world class handling or aircraft grade aerodynamics, and it won’t attract a crowd in the car park of the Rack & Pinion. What is does offer is one of the most cleverly packaged small cars of the 90s coupled with a willing character that’s irresistible to anyone who loves cheap motoring, and that’s the basis on which I intend to build my case.
One of the first impressions you’ll get when you hit the road in a K11 is that it feels as if it really wants to please. The physically tiny 1.3 DOHC is smooth, responsive and loves to rev, the gearshift is a little long but has a great positive action, the pedals are all light and a breeze to modulate, and the steering is sharp without feeling nervous. It’s not quick, but it will bowl along back roads at a surprising rate of leptons and can sit happily on the motorway without wearing you out. I have no idea of the 0-60 and in all honesty I don’t care – the Micra grits its teeth and tries as hard as it can to get you there as quickly as possible, and the way it does this is so endearing that it’s far more entertaining than hitting 60 in a flash with no drama.
Around town it’s absolutely in its element; you get a springy, well controlled ride that isn’t thrown by speedbumps (although the narrow track means straddling pillows is likely to knacker your inner sidewalls) and that light steering, coupled with a surprising maximum lock and a huge glasshouse, allows you to place it anywhere with a thought. Reverse parking becomes a flick and forget process, and you can quite happily pull away from one curb, u-turn around and head off in the opposite direction without clipping the opposite verge. It’s honestly about as good as city cars get.
It’s no slouch when it comes to a bit of a thrash either; I used to commute 15 miles across country each day on a series of roads near Bruntingthorpe circuit that feel like rally stages, (some of you may know them), and it always put a smile on my face. As with all underpowered cars, you gained pleasure from carrying speed through corners, working the gears hard and juggling the revs. A combination of lightness plus slim tyres allowed you to carve through corners with a slight, easily controllable understeer and cover the ground faster than you’d imagine – something a Lupo GTi owner learned after cutting me up on the exit from Arnesby village and then failing to shake me off his bumper until we drew level at the lights in Lutterworth.
It might also surprise you to know that it can handle longer journeys just fine, and that’s when you realise how cleverly laid out it is for such a small motor. The boot is larger than you’d imagine possible, putting the current (much larger) Mini to shame, and rear accommodation is perfectly acceptable. I managed a trip from Leicester to the south of the Isle of Wight with three passengers on board, with each person taking enough luggage for a long weekend including a wedding. We did the outbound and return legs without feeling even remotely tired or squashed, and the whole lot on just one tank of fuel. At the prices of the time that amounted to a grand total of £37. Proof that cheap and cheerful are not mutually exclusive.
Reliability was solid too. Over four years, taking the mileage up to just over 95k, I had to replace the rear shocks and pads / discs / shoes all round. Consumables, basically. The only failures were a resistor board for the heater fan control and the dim/dip unit for the lights – both common failures, and cheap, easy repairs with scrapyard parts. The most expensive thing you’re likely to face will be the timing chain and tensioner as you approach 100k, which appears to be what Nissan mean by ‘life’. This is an engine-out job and worth checking on high mileage motors.
I feel it’s unfair not to point out a few negatives too, just for balance. The interior plastics are grey and scratchy, the seat cloth is a little gaudy, and the heater controls are a little low on the console – something the facelift model corrected. There, I feel better now.
I can honestly say that I loved my time with the Micra. It possessed that rorty, lively spirit that small cars seem to have forgotten, and whilst it didn’t have a huge punch it’d keep scrapping while there was still juice in the tank. I respect that in a small car, especially one that took everything I threw at it for years without complaint. I genuinely think that it’s one of the best small, used cars you can buy for pocket money – something borne out by a series of awards – and if I needed a fun-sized biffabout on the cheap I woudn’t hesitate to get another. You’ll no doubt be pleased to learn that the Micra is still in the family, well into six figures on the clock, and still giving sterling daily service.
So, before you respond. Have you driven one?
Just how good does that Skoda Favorit look?! Craig, we need to know more about that next – ed.
You can follow Craig on twitter @KuangEleven and I suggest you do.