Canada and the United States are different in a thousand subtle ways. Surely, our auto market accounts for a few of those things. Our streets are tighter, our gas is more expensive and due to our tiny market (smaller than California’s) and our American-style regulations, our product mix mirrors that of what’s offered in America. But if the Nissan Micra is successful, that might change.
A look at Canadian sales charts are enough to illustrate the difference in tastes: when it comes to passenger cars, Canadians favor the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra. Mid-size sedans, the perennial leader in America, are far less popular north of the border. Large cars are a non-entity, and hatchbacks and diesels (as well as manual transmissions) have always been more popular in Canada. Especially in Quebec.
So it’s hardly a coincidence that Nissan chose to launch their Canada only, A-Segment hatchback in La Belle Province, where the first 200 units were sent – and sold in a matter of days, with 10 percent of those being the base model, which has a manual transmission and no air-conditioning. That model will set you back $9,998 CAD, or $9,183 USD, an astonishingly low price for a brand new car with a warranty.
And we didn’t even get to drive one. Nissan had only a few base cars on hand, and all were snapped up by the Quebecois motoring press, even circumventing the sign-up sheet that Nissan circulated, leaving us Anglo scribes to face the indignity of well-optioned Micras – some with two pedals. Quelle dommage.
Nissan was emphatic that the Micra is not coming to America, and as much as that could change (it’s made in Mexico and complies with Canadian regulatory standards, which are essentially identical to American standards), there’s a reason for it. The Versa sedan, with its roomier interior, smooth CVT and better NVH characteristics, is the car that is much better suited to American conditions, namely lots of highway driving and interior space.
That’s not to say that the Micra is a bad car by any means. In fact, it’s the kind of car that the Canadian market has been clamoring for since Hyundai stopped selling a manual, no options Accent hatchback for – you guessed it – $9,999 some years ago. But compared to the three-door Accent of the mid 2000′s, the Micra is a much more appealing proposition.
Only one bodystyle – a five door hatchback – will be offered. Nissan invested a fair amount in small tweaks for Canada: things like rear seat heater ducts and a split folding rear seat (to better fit hockey equipment – seriously) are integral to all Micras sold up here, along with a number of improvements to the structure for crashworthiness. There are three trim levels offered, from the base, no options “Quebec special” to the fully loaded SR. That version will top out at around $16,000 CAD (or about the price of a base model Honda Civic), and come with Bluetooth, a backup camera, alloy wheels and an optional 4-speed automatic transmission.
At 150 inches long, the Micra is about 10 inches shorter than a 1992 Honda Civic hatchback, (but the same amount longer than a Fiat 500). At 2300 lbs, it’s not far off in terms of weight either, and the cars share similar powertrains. Honda may have stuck with 1.5L single cam engines in the Civic hatchback, but the Micra’s 1.6L DOHC 4-cylinder only makes 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque, while behaving and sounding very much like the Honda 4-cylinder engines of 20 years ago.
Hindsight makes it easy for us to forget that the Civics of that era weren’t the most sporting vehicles, and neither is the Micra. Most of the driving thrills come from the novelty of piloting something so diminutive and unfiltered, with lots of thrashing engine noises, a low driving position and a tiny footprint – but there’s probably potential for the Micra to be honed into something truly fun, much like the Civic. The 5-speed manual transmission is a bit rubbery, but is satisfying nonetheless.
The 1.6L engine requires you to keep your foot pinned to the floor for any real acceleration, but unlike a Mitsubishi Mirage or a Fiat 500, you don’t feel like it’s ever struggling for breath in the middle of the rev range. Even more surprising was the 4-speed automatic – in this day and age, it sounds like a punchline for a cliche Toyota Corolla joke, but the 4-speed does an admirable job of getting the car up to speed, and let’s the Micra use 500 fewer revs at highway speeds (60 mph sees about 2500 rpm in the auto, versus around 3000 with the manual). Fuel economy, at 27/35 mpg city/highway, isn’t up there with other subcompact and compact cars, but that’s likely due to the transmission choices and the lack of em-pee-gee-optimized styling that bigger, pricier rivals have to their advantage.
Most promising is the chassis, which is shockingly adept at soaking up bumps on Quebec’s notoriously harsh roads. Only the short wheelbase prevents the Micra from having a truly compliant ride. Body roll is unavoidable on a car like this, and the Micra is no hot hatch, but at least the electric steering has decent weight to it and even provides a fair bit of feedback.
Inside, the Micra is constructed almost exclusively of black hard plastic – but if you’re expecting better, then you need to manage your expectations. Like most Japanese cars, everything appears to be well assembled, and all the materials appear to be durable and hard-wearing. The backup camera’s tiny screen is difficult to make out in the sunlight, but it’s hard to fault the Micra by virtue of offering it in this segment.
For the Canadian market, the Micra is an interesting and viable proposition. Easy to park, simple to maneuver in tight spaces, with a minimal appetite for fuel and what seems to be a relatively hassle free ownership experience, the Micra offers a chance for a number of Canadians to get a brand-new car when they might have otherwise had to have opted for used. To an American audience, this may sound like damming it with faint praise, but the reality for us is that with gas, insurance, taxes, vehicle prices and a higher cost of living, owning a car is much more of a financial burden than it is in the United States. For newly landed immigrants, teenagers getting their first car, or even someone looking for a reliable winter beater, there’s now an affordable option that has all of the safety and modern conveniences of a new car, for less than the cost of a good used car.
Nissan says that if the Micra does well, they’ll look at bringing in other Canadian-appropriate models from world markets. So far, other OEMs have been shy about putting resources towards Canadian market offerings, and given the economics of our market (European tastes and American regulations), it’s easy to understand this reluctance. But having taken a gamble on homologating the Micra for Canadian tastes, Nissan has taken a bold risk, and they should be rewarded for doing so – hopefully with a new customer base that will stay with the brand as they move up into other products that are also tailored for Canadian tastes. With any luck, the competition will take notice.
Nissan provided travel, accommodations and meals for this review. Yes, that is a real, authentic Quebec topless roadhouse in the background of the second photo. It was not open at the time of the photoshoot, but all the stories you’ve heard are true.