Calling the Micra Active ‘new’ is misleading. It is actually the pre-facelift Micra with a few tweaks made to it, and a bit of equipment stripped out of it. This has helped Nissan keep costs low and effectively position the car a whole segment lower than before.
To see just how good a value-for-money proposition this cut-rate Micra is, we brought along a couple of cars that also pride themselves on giving you the most bang for your hard-earned buck – the Maruti Wagon R and Ford Figo. When it comes to value for money, Maruti’s been the kingpin since the first 800 rolled out almost three decades ago. And across its stable today, the Wagon R probably embodies this best, which explains why Maruti’s ‘blue-eyed boy’ alone sells as many units as about all of Nissan and Ford’s models combined. Ford’s Figo, on the other hand, has been around for about three years now and has lost its initial steam. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this well-made baby Ford is a great all-rounder.
Now, a first-time car buyer is likely to be more comfortable with a car that’s easy to drive and park, is reasonably spacious and has controls that are easy to use. So we drove around the city of Mumbai to see just how easy these working-class heroes are to live with.
On the outside, the Micra Active retains almost all of the previous Micra’s design cues, except for some small changes up front – gone are the chrome accents and fog-lamp cavities from the redesigned bumper. At the rear, an ‘Active’ badge is the only thing that differentiates this car from the older one. In terms of design, the feminine styling may not be to everyone’s liking, but the cute shape does grow on you.
On the other hand, the Wagon R’s boxy design is a lot more old-school, and its tall-boy stance screams practicality rather than pretty. That said, it isn’t offensive and the large lights and a stretched front intake do give it a fair bit of dynamic appeal.
The Figo’s facelift late last year helped inject a dose of freshness to what was a dated design. A new hexagonal front grille and redesigned headlamps, combined with its squat posture (it is the widest and lowest car here), give the car a nice aggressive stance, but the Figo’s age (it was based on an old Fiesta platform to start with) is hard to hide when viewed from the rear.
DOWN TO EARTH
All three cars feature very distinct interiors that vary vastly in terms of space, design and functionality. The Micra’s live up to its motto of ‘drive easy, live better’ when you climb into the driver’s seat. All-round visibility is good (with the exception of the thick C-pillar), and it inspires confidence on our roads where traffic is as predictable as the stock market. Since the Active has bulbous outcrops that flank the bonnet, it is one of the rare modern cars where you can actually see the bonnet, making parking in tight spaces really easy.
Enter the Wagon R, and you immediately realise you sit higher. It comes close to the Active in terms of visibility but shorter drivers will miss the seat height adjust and may find the dashboard cowl a bit too high. On the other hand, you sit lower in the Ford. This requires a fair bit of judgment on your part to know where the nose is. On the plus side, the Figo is the only one here to feature both steering and seat height adjustments, so, irrespective of your height, finding a comfortable driving position is easy.
In terms of quality, both the Figo’s and Active’s interiors are very well screwed together, and Nissan, especially at this price point, still retains some quality bits in the cabin. For example, the stalks feel like they can be used in cars a segment or two higher and still won’t feel out of place. The Wagon R is clearly a notch down in comparison, and the interiors feel flimsily built with low rent parts like the glovebox. On the aesthetics front, the Wagon R’s dual-tone dashboard breaks the monotony and doesn’t look as dull as the single-tone dashboards in the other two. Also, its large windows lend a pleasing, airy touch to the cabin.
As for creature comforts, none of the cars feature climate control and till now, even in its top trim, the Figo gets no power windows at the rear. But it’s the only one equipped with a Bluetooth-enabled audio system/telephony (and the best sound quality among this trio) with steering-mounted controls. Well, the controls aren’t exactly on the steering wheel; rather they’re below the indicator stalks (like on the Renaults). While that does make the steering wheel uncluttered, it is a bit unintuitive to use and will take some getting used to.
All three cars have open storage places to hold your phone and other knick-knacks. The Wagon R has a rubber-lined base to its cubby hole to prevent accidental scratches on your expensive smartphone’s lens, which is a nice touch. But unlike the other two here, the Maruti has no stowage areas on the dash; instead, you get dual gloveboxes. Some may find it a bit inconvenient, as you can’t easily stow items such as coins and sunglasses.
While the Active’s front seats are quite comfortable, the same can’t be said about the rear bench. Though legroom is adequate, the seats severely lack thigh support, and that makes it the car with the least comfortable rear bench and not the best one to be chauffeur-driven in. Surprisingly, it’s the Wagon R which, despite its small dimensions, has the most comfortable back seat. The tall-boy design has freed up internal space, and as a result, headroom is fantastic. There’s decent legroom too despite the short wheelbase. Seat cushioning is also very generous and thigh support can easily rival many saloons. Also, for a family with elderly folk, the Wagon R’s wide opening doors and high seating position make it really easy to get in and out.
However, at 1495mm, the Wagon R is just half a centimetre wider than the Alto 800. This makes it substantially narrower than the Active and Figo, and heavily restricts the possibility of a third passenger at the rear.
Boot space is by far the smallest here, but the Wagon R is the only one with a 60:40 split on the rear bench, giving it good versatility. So, while the Wagon R is the most ideal here to ferry a family of four, it’s the wide Ford that’s best-suited for five. The Figo’s rear seats may lack a bit of thigh support when compared to the Wagon R’s, but they are well bolstered and, being quite wide, can comfortably seat three abreast. At 284 litres, the Figo’s boot is also properly spacious by hatchback standards.
Look at the Micra Active’s spec sheet and you will realise that the engine has lost almost 10 of its precious horses. And for an engine this size, it seems like a lot! So does it feel underpowered? Simply put, no. What’s changed then? Nissan’s R&D has concentrated on delivering the best possible fuel economy and, as part of their ECU recalibration process, also lowered the previous 6,000rpm rev limit to 5,250rpm. It has moved the power band lower as well, and this has resulted in fantastic city driveability thanks to the vastly improved low-end torque.
Crank the Micra and you will be surprised by the smoothness this three-pot unit offers. Compared to the Wagon R, which is also a three-cylinder engine, the Micra’s motor is much smoother and the idle is as quiet as a four-cylinder unit. Depress the light clutch, slot the gearlever into first with a positive click, pat the throttle and the Active gives you little cause to quibble. Throttle response at low revs and on part-throttle is surprisingly good – we found ourselves comfortably driving in fifth gear at speeds as low as 50kph. The Micra relies on the most traditional engineering trick through the ages – weight reduction. Hence, despite the lack of outright horsepower, the light Active doesn’t feel bogged down. The best way to drive this car is to keep the engine spinning at low to moderate engine speeds, as after 4,500rpm, the engine starts to get a bit gruff. Also, it gets a bit noisy after 2,500rpm and there is a pronounced transmission whine in the first two gears.
Conversely, despite having a one-cylinder advantage over the other two, you really have to spin the Figo’s engine hard to extract power. And when you fill the car’s spacious cabin with five adults, the Ford’s lack of bottom-end torque becomes more obvious. In fact, even with just two on board, we found ourselves downshifting to second gear at 40kph for an overtaking manoeuvre. To put this into perspective, the Micra’s 40-100kph dash in fourth gear takes 21.92 seconds – that’s 1.64sec quicker than the Wagon R and almost an unbelievable 5 seconds quicker than the Figo! Yet, enthusiasts will like the Figo motor’s smoothness, which enjoys being bounced off the redline; it sounds sweet too.
Between the three, the small Ford is the only driver’s car. On the move, it feels like a car from a segment above. Yes, its engine lacks juice and does not deliver great outright performance (or driveability), but its balance between ride and handling and the satisfyingly precise gearshifts make up for it. The Figo feels a lot more solid than the Japanese cars. Also, the hydraulic steering (the only one here) is a lot more direct, and combined with a quicker rack, makes it a lot more fun too. But behind the wheel, you can’t help but think every now and then that the Ford’s chassis can handle a lot more power; maybe about 15-20bhp more would have done this car justice.
As a city car, Maruti’s tall-boy does exactly what is expected of it. It is the easiest to get in and out of, the driving controls feel light and effortless to use and it rides surprisingly well too. We also loved its tight turning circle, which saved us a few three-point U-turns on some of the narrower suburban roads of Mumbai. While the Micra, despite its unusually high profile tyres, crashes over moderately deep potholes, the Figo feels a bit stiffly sprung over undulations. At lower speeds, the Wagon R feels better cushioned and does a good job of keeping the thuds out of the cabin. This is impressive, considering the Maruti belongs a class lower. The engine, on the other hand, isn’t as refined as the Micra’s at idle, but it smoothens out in the mid-range. Typical of Maruti petrol engines, there is a good bit of useable power down the rev range and the mid-range offers a decent punch – good for those quick overtaking manoeuvres.
On our fuel economy runs, the Figo was the thirstiest, returning 10.9kpl and 15.4kpl for city and highway respectively. The Wagon R was the most frugal in the city, returning 12.4kpl, and 17kpl on the highway, while the Micra wasn’t far behind at 11.8kpl in the city and a testing-topping 17.5kpl on the highway.
When it was launched about three years ago, the Figo was a terrific car for the money. But over the years, the car has seen a few price hikes and is now the most expensive in this company. No doubt, it still is a competent all-rounder. Despite a slightly underpowered engine, it feels the most grown up in its mannerisms and is the best to drive. But for the budget-conscious customer, the Ford is a bit steeply priced, especially in its top Titanium trim. Also, the car feels a bit outdated.
The Wagon R is a fantastic package for the price. It is the least expensive here and as a city runabout, you’d be hard- pressed to find faults. The narrow body is useful while driving through tight spaces and the small turning circle makes taking U-turns much easier. The engine is frugal, the rear seats are comfortable and for four people, it’s a very practical option. However, the Wagon R is the smallest of the lot and feels a whole segment down. It doesn’t have the quality or big-car feel of the others, which dents its appeal.
That brings us to the Micra Active, which impressed hugely with its blend of performance, space and value. It may not have the adept ride and handling of the Figo, nor the strong aftersales support of the Wagon R. But at this price point, the little Nissan is the best all-round package that isn’t really bad at anything. The engine is tuned for city driving and that is where this car will cover most of its kilometres, making it fit for its purpose. The turning circle is almost as tight as the Wagon R’s and visibility is simply great. And considering that just a few months ago, you would have paid a good lakh or more for this very car, it’s now fantastic value, and the one we would pick.