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Nissan Micra and Smart Roaster


No one can accuse Nissan for being conservative in styling the latest Micra, the new stand-out supermini on European roads.

Highish pricing and a general buyer lethargy towards smaller cars mean the Micra isn't on the Nissan New Zealand's current shopping list. Well, the car was on the Kiwi shopping list but went back on the shelf, more's the pity.

New Zealand has a choice of sourcing the model from either Japan or Britain but somehow the figures for our market don't add up.

In Britain the new Micra is a pivotal model for the Japanese franchise. Sales in the first year are targeted to reach 50,000, or half of all new Nissan that roll out dealer showrooms.

One in five new Micra buyers in Britain will be under the age of 25, unlike New Zealand where most new small car buyers are already drawing the state pension and tucked up in bed by 9.30 each night.

New Micras aren't exactly flooding the British market, but when you do see one it stands out in the crowd. There's a real French flavour to the cuddly shape and even a touch of Chrysler PT Cruiser about the rear end styling.

You could rightfully expect Citroen to produce a car that looked like this. Though the previous Micra was a driving school dream and totally predictable in body shape, the latest creation is a step out of the ordinary.

Boring looks don't, of course, mean a car will be a sales flop. Indeed, some owners quite like the idea of anonymity.

This is a crowded class with heaps of talented opposition. New Zealand small car buyers are finding it hard to look past the good-value Honda Jazz, a wonder in packaging even if the ride is harsh and unforgiving.

The new Micra isn't especially space efficient, an apparent casualty of the curvy, retro styling. That domed roofline steals valuable rear seat headroom.

There is a sliding rear seat on almost all versions, a multi-purpose glovebox and storage space is provided under the front seats yet these don't hide the lack of interior room.

Still, the 3.7 metre long car is fun to drive, with a competent chassis and a choice of four engines that are strong on economy, including a 1.5-litre Renault-made diesel. For most buyers the 1240cc, 58kW (79bhp) petrol engine seems the way to go.

This 1.2-litre version is brisk, with a top speed nudging 170km/h and a zero to 100km/h time of just over 10 seconds.

Nissan offers a huge array of specifications and the keyless entry feature is unusual at this lower end of the market. British prices start the equivalent of $NZ21,000 but you can pay well over $39,000 for a top-spec version.

Despite the newness and unique shape, the funky Micra faces opposition from models like the Toyota Echo, Honda Jazz, Peugeot 206 and GM Corsa (Barina). The innocuous Corsa was the second best-selling new car in the UK last year, beaten only by Ford's Focus.

Later this year Citroen will launch the new C2 city car and the same platform forms the basis for the Peugeot 107 replacement for the 106 hatchback. The 107 is believed to follow the theme of the Peugeot Sesame concept car, which was unveiled at the 2002 Paris motor show.

It takes on the shape of a mini-MPV and will have sliding doors which should be brilliant in confined spaces.

It's too early to know when or even if New Zealand will see the C2 or 107, but another small car from the same stable will almost certainly not be imported. It's a basic mini-car, a joint project between PSA Peugeot/Citroen and Toyota and is likely to be even smaller than the C2/107.

I've been driving a good variety of cars in England, and the smaller models have clearly shown their advantages when navigating the busy, often narrow, streets of London. Out on the open road, however, and the large car benefits are obviously apparent.

The Smart mini-car population is expanding. They look great (if a little on the alien side), consume a minimal amount of road space and seem ideal for city and urban use.

A newly-expanded Smart range includes cabriolet and roadster models but the original 2.5-metre long, three-door City-Coupe version I tried recently was disappointing in terms of driveability, ride and refinement.

Now you might be able to boast down at the pub that you drive a mid-engined coupe but if you're smart, you won't mention the name Smart. The thing understeers strongly even when you're not pressing on and the handling is vague to say the least.

It sounds like an early Daihatsu Charade which isn't surprising given the fact that the 598cc two valve per cylinder petrol engine has just three cylinders. Power output ranges from 33kW (44bhp) to 45kW (61bhp), depending on the model, and the motor is mounted under the boot where it drives the rear wheels.

But the semi-automatic transmission is somewhat lethargic and you need to be easy on the throttle to avoid jerky upward changes.

There's not much room for the groceries or a weekend away in this two-seater toy-town car. And the three-quarter rear blind spot is an anomaly in a vehicle that spends most of its time in confined, city and urban environments.

All this suggests this little machine is seriously lacking but it isn't. The car parks on a pin, has generous space for the driver and embodies real design flair. I wasn't sure about the orange trim on the example we tried, however.

Smart prices start from $NZ18,000 but you need to pay serious money for well-laden versions. However, a good second-hand one can be picked up for less than $NZ15,000.

For those wanting to be even smarter, Brabus builds a 59kW (80bhp) turbo version, with semi-auto transmission, special alloy wheels and a tweaked suspension that provides more feel, grip and compliance.

Acclaimed as a modern-day Austin Healey Sprite, the new Roadster version of the Smart is an attractively styled baby sports car that will face competition from an equally new Ford StreetKa.

The problem for the Smart Roadster is that, unlike the old Sprite or MG Midget, it will be far from cheap - and probably not a lot less than a Mazda MX-5, MG TF or Peugeot 206CC. They're talking the equivalent of $NZ40,000 for this Smart sports car.

Overall length goes up from a mere 2.5 metres for the regular Smart Coupe to 3.4 metres. Initial production is left-hand drive but right-steer models will begin to appear in September.

Engine size is up 100cc and with the addition of the turbo, the Roadster turns out the same power as the Brabus coupe. Word on the street is that the suspension tweaks have transformed the handling of the Roadster compared to the higher, more sedate Coupe.

There's something intriguingly fresh and honest about the Smart Roadster, a car that provides entertainment at low speeds. Like the new Nissan Micra, it might just work.

Auto Trader New Zealand