The Nissan March (Micra in many countries outside of Asia and Latin America) is an entry-level small car that does a sobering job of making you realize that we don't really take small, cheap cars seriously in the US. And that's a real shame. This little car is stylish, fun, and is packed with cutting-edge technology like a really good corned beef sandwich is packed with lovely corned beef.
In America, the bottom of Nissan's range is the coma-inducing Versa. The Versa's most interesting quality is that it's still the cheapest car you can buy in the US. It's a car you end up with, rather than actually choose. It's a car that, if you won one, you'd be trying really really hard to make sure your face didn't show the disappointment you felt. That's what we get for small cars here.
It's getting better, of course. I think we're entering a new age of good, interesting small, affordable cars, which just makes me believe even more that Nissan should be selling the March, or something like it, here. Ditch that boring Versa and sell the March, which I think has more of a chance competing against Fiat 500s and Minis and Fits.
(Full Disclosure: Nissan didn't fly me out to Yokohama, Japan to drive this thing. But, at their R&D center I kept pointing to every unfamiliar car and asking "Can I drive that one? How about that one? " like some Mountain Dewed-up toddler. They finally relented for the March, and when I pulled out a camera there were instantly a half dozen guys on the car making it shine. That's service!)
I liked the humble March because it actually had some character. It felt friendly and eager and capable; I can imagine owning one you could develop a bond with the car, and not always feel like you were stuck with something just because it's cheap. The March certainly could be cheap, however— the Nissan folks I was with told me it could sell in US Dollars for something between $9000 and $12,000, hypothetically. The one I drove was built in Thailand, but they have a factory in Mexico as well, which helps my idea that these could be sold in America.
The amount of technology in the March is impressive. It uses a three-cylinder, 1.2 L engine making 79 HP. That doesn't sound like much, but the car's only 2020 lbs. That little engine (which has a supercharged variant that flips the digits to 97HP), is mated to an interesting belt-driven CVT, which in turn has its own auxilliary 2-speed transmission. This combination allows for a smaller, lighter CVT, and gives the March a 20% higher ratio that allows for better responsiveness on starting and acceleration.
The engine is also a Miller-cycle, normally only found in hybrids. This cycle allows for better efficiency and lower emissions at the expense of a slight loss of low-rpm power, compensated here with the unique gearing and the optional supercharger.
Add to all this start/stop functionality, direct injection, a special DLC (diamond-like carbon— I think I got an engagement ring made of that stuff) coating to reduce friction 30%, and a variable-voltage alternator that can utilize energy from regenerative braking, and you have a non-hybrid car that gets 61 freaking miles to the gallon. That's no joke.
This car reminds me of another small, friendly-looking Japanese car built with deceptively advanced tech: the first generation Honda Civic. Anyone who knows old Hondas knows that's a very flattering comparison. I should also make it clear that I didn't have that long to drive the car, but I put it through as many paces as I could on Nissan's test track. Still, keep that in mind when reading this. I'd love a chance to try it for a longer period, but I don't really want to move to another country.
The Japanese understand small cars the way Americans understand muscle cars. There's just some fundamental harmony with the idea that we've never really matched. They were building Accords and GT86s when we were making Citations. The March is a good example of how to do a small, cheap car right. It's not a bland box; there's some personality here. The car has an engaging face, good, useful proportions, and a distinctive design vocabulary that's carried throughout the car, in the window shapes and the sculpted sides.
Plus, the Japanese versions aren't afraid of color, and they have some engaging options, like this fun coppery-orange color of the one I drove. It looks like a little four door hatch, but it never looked cheap to me.
One weird note: in a Nissan Global newsletter I found, I learned the car's visual design concept was inspired by— get this— vegetables. Vegetables. For reals; here's a quote:
"One day, all designers at the studio got together and drove up to a vegetable farm in Nagano. The climate of Nagano is similar to that of France, so they grow a lot of vegetables in that area. We took a good look at the fresh vegetables, had a bite, and immediately fell in love not only with their taste but also with their vivid colors and beautiful shapes."
The interior's not fancy, but there's a good use of contrasting colors and novel shapes to keep things interesting. The plastics feel like plastics, but good plastics, and I respect the honesty of materials in that nothing's trying to convince you it came off a dead animal.
The space is well-utilized, and feels open and airy. Four people, even most Western people, can fit in the car in reasonable comfort. They'll do five in Japan, but I'm not going to kid myself about that.
The trunk area, while not vast, is certainly usable, and the split rear seat folds like you'd expect, so you can haul your Irish Wolfhound and your two cellos with no trouble.
Considering everything, the acceleration isn't bad. You probably want to limit your racing for pinks to food trucks, but beyond that it's usable. In fact, at lower speeds, say, up to 30, it feels pretty good— it flattens out after that. That's likely the result of the CVT/auxiliary transmission combo.
I did some hard, panic stops and had no trouble. Except for the engineer and the nice PR lady sitting next to me, who I think I should have warned more about what I was planning to do.
For a quite light little car, the ride felt pretty good. The test track included sections of various road types, and over everything the car felt in control and stable. It wasn't the soft, lulling comfort of a 70s Caddy, but I don't think I'd be complaining about the ride if this was my daily commuter.
Plus, visibility in the car was really good— better than most cars I've driven recently. I'm not sure if that's part of ride, but what the hell. There it is.
Maybe it's because it's been a while since I've driven a really light, little hatchback, but I thought the March felt genuinely fun to drive, in a simple FWD sorta way. The steering is light and direct, not over-assisted, and the relatively low weight of the car and the short wheelbase make it pretty fun to toss around. Well, at least as much as I could tell without really pissing off the two Nissan people with me.
They tolerated my gentle hooning well enough, and while the car clearly isn't built to be a rally car, it can be driven in a way that encourages your fun glands to secrete decent amounts of funatonin. Light and nimble goes a long way.
I'm impressed with the modified CVT/auxiliary transmission combination they're using here. I'm scoring it pretty high because it's a novel solution I've never encountered before, and I think for it's intended job— giving decent low-end acceleration with the comparatively low-powered Miller-cycle engine— it works remarkably well. Being a CVT, shifts were smooth and seemed to utilize the engine's power well. A manual would be more fun, I suspect, but this transmission was clearly designed in tandem with this car, and it shows.
The three cylinder actually has an engaging sound. It's not quite like what you're used to with most little fours, but it's by no means unpleasant. Road noise sounds well mitigated, allowing easy conversation at speed, and the audio system seems like a decent, modern unit. I didn't really get a chance to test it completely, so I'm going to keep this score right in the middle.
For a car of this class, it's got a staggering amount of electronic goodies: rear-view camera, stop/start, retracting mirrors, proximity key, nav/infotainment system with a good-sized screen, an in-dash message system that remembers your birthday and anniversaries, and, the reason I'm giving it such a high score, an electronic tool I've never before encountered on a car, but one that seems really handy: a Tire Angle Indicator.
On the little arch-shaped amber dot-matrix display screen there's a little diagram of your front tires, showing their angle, tire direction, and direction of travel. It's wildly useful when parallel parking, doing a tight 3-point turn, or maneuvering into tricky parking places. It's such a handy little thing I can't believe I've never encountered it before.
If Nissan could actually bring the March to the US in that $9000 - $12,000 range, I'd think they'd have a winner. The key, I think, would be to keep it cheaper than its small-but-interesting rivals, the Fiat 500 and Mini. For what you get with this little car, it seems like a really solid value. It's a small car that doesn't feel like you're doing penance for not having wads of cash to spend on a car.
It's a charming little guy.