BUYING cheap doesn't have to mean buying nasty in 2011. Nissan proves it with the all-new Micra, which starts at just $12,990.
Yes, the new baby only has three cylinders for 1.2 litres of motivation, it is built in Thailand and not Japan, and the cabin is heavy on cheap plastics, but the Micra is a fun drive, it has five doors, it is well equipped and it is fantastic value.
You can pay a lot more for a Micra, picking a 1.5-litre engine and a Ti pack to take it way into tough country near the Ford Fiesta and Toyota Yaris and Mazda2, but the base car is the best choice and the one that is going to deliver a great result for Nissan Australia and - far more importantly - Australia's bargain buyers.
There are three Micra models - the basic 1.2-litre three-cylinder ST from $12,990, the 1.5-litre ST-L from $14,990 and the 'luxury' 1.5 Ti - with such tricks as automatic aircon and push-button start to reversing radar and alloys - from $16,990.
Adding a four-speed automatic puts an extra $2000 on the bill. The 1.2 is the real mover since it will be the starter car for a lot of young people in Australia, but it could also become popular as a city runabout for older folk. As a first car or a downsize it has all the right stuff, including engines for 91-octane fuel and a full-sized spare.
Even the ST comes with airconditioning, electric front windows, Bluetooth connection, CD/iPod audio and - most important for first-car buyers - six airbags, electronic stability control and ABS with brake assist. Unfortunately, one of the fun features - a lift-up based in the front passenger seat that's great for storage - is only on the Ti. Then again, Nissan does call it the handbag carrier.
The new Micra is the third car to carry the badge in Australia, after the tiny British-built original and the funky second-generation car. This one is more traditional in design, without the curves of the previous car, but still looks distinctive enough in the bodywork.
There is enough space in the back seat and boot but it's nothing special for the class, unless you measure it against the micro-sized Suzuki Alto that has an even-cheaper $11,700 starting price. The black cabin plastic is very cheap looking, and so are some of the fittings - like the door handles - and it's not what we would expect in a Nissan.
Then, again, there is the price and the centre console of the 370Z sports car was just as cheap. The instruments are basic but clear, with a tachometer and minimalist trip computer, and the trim is fine for the job.
The Micra is a fairly basic package and typical for the class, except for the baby engine. Three-cylinder engines have been on the road in Australia since the first Daihatsu Charade in the 1980s and we can expect even less in future, as Fiat has a two-cylinder car engine in production and even BMW is looking to baby three-cylinder motivation.
The 1.2 has a different sound and feel, with a syncopated beat, but to anyone who knew the five-cylinder Audi quattro engine it's a good feeling. It can get a little buzzy, but its prime role as a commuter means people won't be likely to push to the limit.
Six airbags as standard makes the right statement about safety. The Micra also gets electronic stability control and ABS with brake assist, so it's the maximum package for this size and price. Even so, it only gets a four-star safety rating from NCAP and that's one short of the top rung.
DRIVING - Paul Gover
The new Micra is not as funky looking as the previous model but it is a really fun drive. It will never rival a Subaru WRX or Lancer Evo for pace, but it has good grip and balance in corners, stops well, and has a slight manual gearbox.
The overall package is well balanced and that means it will be a great starter car. It goes well enough with two people but struggles a little if you load the back seat, which is - predictably - a little cramped for adult legroom.
But, considering the price and class, the Micra is a very good driver and a solid all-round package.
SHE SAYS - Alison Ward
I wasn't expecting much from the Micra, based on the price. But I was very surprised and it is a fun little car. It's fine with the youngster onboard, I like the pull from the engine and it has a nice gearbox. It's also easy to park with good all-round visibility and the quality looks fine. Apart from all that black plastic everywhere. Can't someone at Nissan do something to make it look a little more refined?
VERDICT: A strong effort in every area that is certain to be popular in Australia. 8/10
WE LIKE: Brilliant value, solid safety, great driving WE DON'T LIKE: too much cheap plastic, not as funky looking
NISSAN MICRA ST
ENGINE: 1.2-litre, three cylinder
OUTPUT: 56kW/6000revs; 100Nm/4000revs ECONOMY: 6.5litres/100km
CO2 EMISSIONS: 154g/km
CO2 TRANSMISSION: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
BODY Five-door hatch
DIMENSIONS Length 3780mm, Width 1665mm, Height 1525mm, Wheelbase 2435mm,
STEERING Power-assisted rack-and-pinion SUSPENSION Front MacPherson struts, rear torsion beam
FUEL TANK 41 litres FUEL TYPE 91 unleaded
WEIGHT 947 kg
SPARE TYRE Full-sized
BRAKES Front disc, rear drums
WHEELS 15-inch steel
TYRES 165x70 15
SAFETY GEAR Six airbags, ABS with EBA, ESP
Hyundai Getz (from $13,990): 7/10
Satria Neo auto (from $13,990): 6/10
Suzuki Alto GL (from $11,790): 7/10