Johannesburg - And just like that the Nissan Micra has gone from being class nerd to Prom Queen.

It has taken rivals like the Polo and Fiesta many generations to evolve from simple no-frills transportation to desirable premium hatchbacks, but the Micra has done that in just one model changeover, albeit with a great deal of grooming help from a certain ‘Alliance’ friend with a French accent.

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You see underneath that bold and striking new outfit that easily makes this Micra the best looking car in its class are the bones of a Renault Clio. In fact they’re even built in the same French factory and yet apart from the similarity in the area around the side mirrors you’d never say they were related.

It’s a similar story inside, where Nissan has installed a dashboard of its own design - an an impressively crafted one at that. The Micra’s facia not only exudes quality vibes, but it’s quite chic too with its large contrasting centre panel finished in a course but softly-padded material and two tone seats that match the dashboard’s colour scheme. Unlike most cars in this class, it manages to avoid looking dark and sombre inside.

So, top marks to Nissan for distinguishing the Micra from its French cousin and giving it a flavour of its own that really works - particularly in that burnt orange exterior hue that got some onlookers speculating that it was a proper hot hatch.

Unfortunately the engine lets this Nissan down to some degree. And no, we’re not expecting it to be a GTI-chaser, but at this price point a little more fizz would have been welcome.

The Micra shares its 898cc three-cylinder turbopetrol with the Clio, the engine producing 66kW and 140Nm, and although the performance it offers is reasonable for an entry level car - and there is a nice little boost in that narrow power band - it still trails rivals like the Polo and Fiesta.

Yet the biggest bugbear is how laggy it is. Coaxing the Micra off the mark (at Gauteng altitudes at least) always feels like an effort and changing up a gear too quickly for the sake of driving economically can get you bogged down real quick. That said, fuel economy is not bad, our car sipping 7.4 litres per 100km in a combination of freeway and city driving.

Another thing that could count against this car in the marketplace is the lack of an automatic gearbox option. The only option at this point is a five-speed manual. Although it feels smooth enough, I didn’t enjoy the shifting action as the gear stick is simply too tall, which makes it feel more cumbersome than sporty. Honda gets this right and you should too Nissan.

On the upside, the Micra impresses with its ride quality and noise insulation - it has a refined feel to it and the road holding is neat.

There is little to fault the ergonomics and equipment is generous across the board.

The range kicks off with the Visia at R233 500, which comes with six airbags, traction control, aircon, cruise control, multi-function steering wheel and a conventional (as in non-touchscreen) two-speaker audio system with Bluetooth.

Next up is the Acenta that we tested (R257 400), and this one adds visual flavour in the form of 16-inch alloy wheels, colour coded mirrors and upgraded cabin trim, while additional gadgets include a 17.8cm touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and two extra speakers.

The range-topping Acenta plus, at R272 400, adds an ‘Energy Orange’ interior pack (with selected exterior colours), 17-inch alloy wheels and a leather-covered steering wheel.

The aforementioned infotainment system on the top two models has a modern look and feel, but lacks the satnav that you get in Renault’s version.

When it comes to practicality, the Micra has a rather big boot, but rear legroom is a little cramped and occupants will end up brushing knees with the front seatbacks.

Now that we’re on sensible topics, you might also want to consider the previous-generation Micra that soldiers on as the Micra Active - and it’s around R70 000 less expensive than this ‘premium’ new model, albeit with none of the flash.

VERDICT

As far as desirability goes, the latest Micra is pure revolution - it’s extremely stylish and well finished inside and out, and it’s impressively refined on the road. It is let down by a few pragmatic details though, such as the laggy engine and the cramped rear quarters, but these won’t necessarily be deal breakers to the Micra’s target audience. Its Clio cousin is cheaper though, just saying.