The Nissan Micra, Canada’s cheapest car: How many features can you live without?

PETER CHENEY – Globe and Mail

Next to a house, a car is our biggest purchase, and most of us are easily led off the cliff: We mortgage our souls for an over-optioned Audi; we juggle accounts to make the payments on that blinged-out Lexus. But there is an alternative: the Nissan Micra, Canada’s cheapest car at $9,988 before tax. If you want to stick it to The Man, this is how it’s done. At least in theory.

Before picking up the Micra for a week behind its wheel, I’d test-driven a Mercedes that cost $134,750. The Micra’s list price was lower than the sales tax on the Mercedes. Once in it, I felt as if I had extricated myself from the gears and levers of the car industry’s vast marketing machine.

I had gone back to basics. Remember when you had to crank up car windows by hand, shift the gears yourself, and lock each door individually with a key? In the Micra, this is still the case.

Nissan’s Micra belongs to a great but largely defunct vehicular tradition: the People’s Car. Hitler commissioned Dr. Porsche to create a low-cost machine to carry the German masses, giving us the immortal VW Beetle. France gave us the bare-bones Citroen 2CV, a machine of Ghandi-esque simplicity and mechanical humility. The body appeared to be constructed from sheets of corrugated tin roofing material, and the engine was lifted from a lawn mower, yet the 2CV was a triumph, transporting millions. Then there was East Germany’s Trabant, the Ride of the Proletariat with its pull-out choke, wheezing engine and fenders molded from resin-infused cardboard.

As I got underway, I took note of the Micra’s bare-bones aesthetic. The paint resembled the kind you get on a discount refrigerator. The seats had only two adjustments, and were upholstered in the kind of hard-wearing cloth you see in dental waiting rooms – leather is for spendthrift fools, after all.

This is a car for the serious economizer. Cruising through the city, I thought of all the things my wife and I could get with the money we’d save by buying the Micra instead of something decadent like a Honda Civic or Toyota Prius. (Europe, here we come!) Then I reached for the air conditioning, only to realize that this was an extravagance that I had no right to expect for $9,988. Sound deadening was yet another luxury that the bean-counters had apparently dispensed with to keep the price down: On the highway, the Micra was like a telephone booth caught in a tornado.

The Micra had no Bluetooth, of course. Nor was there cruise control or a backup camera. The rear-view mirrors were controlled by little mechanical arms that jutted out of the doors like black plastic chopsticks. I took a certain hard-pew pleasure in this, and recalled my first car – a Fiat 600. I drove the Fiat all over Europe, and had never longed for any additional features. I remembered driving the Fiat down the Autoroute to Paris with a beautiful woman beside me: It was spring, the windows were open, and her hair blew in the wind. Back then, what mattered was the journey, not the car.

There is a real joy to be found in elemental machines, and I’ve always had a touch of the ascetic in me (I was 43 before I got a car with a factory radio and air conditioning). The Micra took me back to my student days, and it had some superb qualities. It was a parallel-parking wizard. The manual transmission was a joy. But as I contemplated a possible purchase, I had to admit that I wanted central locks and power windows – reaching over to crank open the passenger side got old fast. To get those features, I would have to move up from the Micra S to the Micra SV, which looks identical, but costs $13,848. And from the SV, it’s only one more step to the fully-loaded SR, at $15,988.

The base-model Micra is what they call a door-crasher special, with an almost impossibly low price that pulls in the crowd, most of whom elect to buy something more expensive. The car business has fine-tuned its mechanisms and greased the slopes:

If Gandhi walked into a car dealership to buy a new sackcloth, they’d send him out in a Savile Row suit with dealer-applied stain protection, executive-model lapels and upgraded buttons.

Stick with the base model. If you can.