Automotive Analog: 2016 Nissan Micra S

Starting at $9,988 the Nissan Micra is the cheapest new car in Canada. Lots of people think “cheap” is a dirty word. They were the same types who thought digital tech was superior to analog in the ‘80s and ‘90s just because it was newer. Over the past 15 years, analog’s become as cool as slow-food burgers with designer cheese and craft beards.

So think of the Nissan Micra as automotive analog. You enjoy all the bumps, scratches and imperfections.

Like analog, it returned to the Canadian market recently after a 24-year absence, bringing some gnarly ‘80s tech with it. We’ve translated it all for the modern driver. For example, the “power” windows are powered by your arm, rolling them down.

These days, some car computers can actually read certain hand motions to launch apps. Well, this same hand motion of rolling down the window also unleashes your Micra’s old-school air conditioning. Meanwhile, the retro-styled “remote” has just three apps built into its jagged edges — all of them classics: 1) for igniting the engine 2) locking the doors and 3) unlocking them.

Go ahead, Buckaroo Banzai: multi-task!

The retro rearview camera is what the kids are calling a mirror. The rear windshield is also the tail of this hatchback. So, somewhat like more sophisticated and invasive reversing tech, it’s easy enough to judge when to stop: before you hit anything. Just be careful with this buggy safety feature; the tailgate’s sonar warnings are a bit sluggish and only emit noise when it’s officially too late.

Speaking of warnings, this car is a ton of fun—but just barely: it weighs 2,301 pounds; a ton is 2000. Its narrowness, agility and diminutive 4.65m turning radius are ideal for city driving.

Switching gears with the 5-speed retro transmission is as easy and satisfying as taking an old Prince record off your turntable and manually dropping the stylus onto a recent vinyl Jack White release. (If it skips, take the quarter out of your left loafer.)

It controls a 1.6 litre 16-valve 4-cylinder engine, heroically exuding 109HP@6000rpm and torque of 107 lb-ft@4400rpm. That isn’t much but we’ve already discussed the Micra’s lack of weight. The engine’s remarkably peppy, if whiningly noisy, when taxed. In fact, it’s the same engine that racers use in the Nissan Micra Cup.

Let’s digress.

You could have a Micra customized to the Micra Cup’s racing specs at a specialty shop in Montreal for about $23,000 total. That’s everything from a racing seat, towing hooks and 5-point harness to racing front brakes and safety cage. They keep the stock engine, remember. I got to test one last week at Ontario’s Mosport track and heard myself screaming, “something this fun ought to be illegal”.

It is.

Despite their low price, the Micra Cup cars exist for racing and can only be driven at the track. You’d pay about another $30k to actually race one for the season but that’s not much more than you’d pay for a new door if you were racing a Porsche and smashed it. (You’re not the first one to have that fantasy.)

Speaking of which, the Micra’s parts are cheap but they’re also very well put together—or crafted as modern brewers love to say. Two years ago, the clever publicity hounds at Nissan raced one for 1,600km on Newfoundland’s Targa rally—it was all stocks parts—and despite the intensive, constant heated pushing, nothing broke down. There wasn’t even a scratch. (I was at Targa NL a few years ago; it’s a marathon of technical challenges. “Digital support staff” for a race team, I tweeted and facebooked when possible. But more than half the towns were so remote, they didn’t support my Rogers smartphone: the perfect environment for an analog car.)

Back to your lesson: The stock Micra’s steering wheel is a clinic in Japanese minimalism, sporting zero volume or audio source controls, no paddles, cruise control or real-time drive information beyond the analog feedback from the road. It’s just circular plastic with a cheery chirping horn.

The control panel is almost as tech light as the wheel; Nissan left a release button for the gas door. They obviously respect that if you’re buying one of these you probably don’t have a defined benefit pension and worry about gas.

But the best leftover feature, which proves Nissan engineers love the thrill of driving too, is the traction control release button. Enjoy some analog drift whenever you can. It’s tax-free.

Simpler machines tend to have fewer things go wrong. The more digital, intelligent and interventionist cars become, the more neuroses they can develop. The Nissan Micra is uncomplicated.

It isn’t just analog. It’s a live show.


This is a test