The Factory’s Shadow Over Oporto

Today we turn our attention to the 2017 Nissan Micra. This offers us a chance to learn the Nissan project code for the car, K-14.

2017 Nissan Micra: source

We also get to canter through a potted history of a car that has lurched from banal to brave and back, like a drunken tide. The current car has a touch of brave and also a few dollops of busy. Before we get to that we shall begin with the 1982-1992 Micra, one of the banal ones.

1982 Nissan Micra: source

The design followed the contemporary trend for flat surfaces and quite straight lines. Much of General Motors N. American cars adopted a similar conceit, driven by a need to express careful rationalism by the avoidance of very much by way of expressive elements.

The resultant car comes very close to achieving the goal of being apparently undesigned, a generic shape, where “design” means positively styled. The 1983 Uno comes closest in terms of its austerity. In comparison the 1981 VW Polo could be called almost flamboyant:

1981 VW Polo: Autoevolution

The Micra has had long model cycles. The follow-up Micra (K-11) lasted another decade, from 1992 t0 2002 and very much leaned in the direction of expression and overt styling but with an iron backbone of discipline.

1992 Nissan Micra (K11): source

It might not seem that way today, but that is a clearly styled vehicle which had a consistently applied character applied at all levels, tying it visually to the top-of-the-range Maxima of the day and also allowing it to stand out from its competitors without being overtly strange. The image shows a later version with its post-modern rub-strips on the flanks. The original version had a single bar running front to back.

Compare with the 1990 Renault Clio:

1990 Renault Clio: source

Or the 1993 Opel Corsa “B”:

1993 Opel Corsa B: source

Both the Micra and Corsa have similarly large radii; the Micra demonstrates greater rigour in its execution than either the Clio or the Corsa. That mirror sail panel blights the Corsa. The Corsa’s surfaces are also busier than the Micra.

The Fiat Punto of 1993 probably matches the Micra for consistency, character and originality.

1993 Fiat Punto: source

In 2002 the K-12 iteration appeared, for a change building somewhat on the theme established by the predecessor, the pronounced step between the glass house and the body:

2003 Nissan Micra:

The Micra’s peer, the Yaris showed that reasonably courageous design could be accepted by customers of this price class.

1999-2005 Toyota Yaris

The K-12 is interesting because it is formally quite a strong theme, one dependent on one keeping in mind the functional difference between the body and the glass-house and being willing to accept the articulation of that difference. The grille is divided strongly in two and contrasts in a marked fashion with the large, bug-eyed lamps. The grille’s form is angular in a landscape of roundness, anchored by the panel-gaps of the wing to bonnet and bonnet to front bumper.

For 2010 Nissan retreated from formal innovation and deep thinking to produce the K13 (easy to remember that one, I think). The form is neither evolutionary nor revolutionary, more a step back into conformity:

2010 Nissan Micra: source

The Clio II demonstrated a similar vagueness. Here is a part of one:

1998 Renault Clio

The 2006 Corsa showed a sweet balance of style and functionality and also indicated the direction towards strong sculpting of the flanks that predominated in subsequent years:

2006 Opel Corsa:

And the class leader, the Fiesta upped the intensity of the sculpting with the 2009 version:

Ford Fiesta Mk6 in a controversial mid-range colour.

And this sets the scene for a very emphatic return to flamboyance and expression chez Nissan: The front looks like this:

2017 Nissan Micra: source

The most significant detail is the adoption of the interrupted C-pillar, which is a feature that must be nearing the end of its run.

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And so we arrive at the conclusion, a little visual analysis of the current car:

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The blacked-out, pseudo-glazed C-pillar and the remaining shark fin is the car’s strongest graphical element, there for the same reason an almost identical feature is found on the current Opel Astra. It makes the car seem longer and lower and ties it to the corporate look pioneered on the US market Maxima.

The second slide show demonstrates what a plainer version looks like. The dark colour area on the original is extended by means of a large mirror sail panel created by the cab-forward profile. With car profiles now having arrived at or near unity the graphics and side sculpting must carry much of the burden of establishing identity.

Below the DLO there is a softly undulating deep flank, with no rub-strips. This car has high sides which is probably awful for the children to be trapped inside its dark interior. The rear lamps adopt the busy-ness of the outgoing Ford Focus and the need to tie-in with the bumper panel gap creates a sharp point where a radius is asked for. See also: Peugeot 307.

This analysis reveals a car with soft main forms, angular graphics and some unusually developed feature lines. The swage line running from the lamps around A-pillar continues a trope begun by Kia some time ago:

2014 Hyundai i30 1.6 GDI

But on the Kia the feature stays below the headlamps.

In summary, the new Micra is bold and aggressive where the last one exuded soft, friendly blandness. Like many current designs it has not got a clear high concept, being more like a blend of styling features placed on a passive and very secondary set of main surfaces.

(2017 Nissan Micra, unmodified side profile image source)

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

22 thoughts on “The Factory’s Shadow Over Oporto”

  1. Good morning, Richard. Thank you for a interesting analysis. It’s certainly the case that the Micra’s history been the very antithesis of careful evolution of a consistent design theme. On the one occasion that Nissan went for evolution with the K13, the car was widely criticised for being a backward step, both in design and dynamic terms.

    The original K10 generation Micra was certainly bland (more charitably, rational?) but it typified an era during which Japanese automotive design had become consciously more “European” and abandoned the rather chintzy shapes and ornamentation it formerly employed. A decade before the Micra’s debut, its predecessor, the Datsun Cherry*, looked like this:

    *Subsequent Cherry models became progressively more European in appearance and grew in size, leaving room for the Micra as a new small car.

    The K11 generation Micra was a really distinctive design, but was compromised by two facelifts that robbed it of its original purity. Those silly split rubbing strips you mention were one example of this tinkering. Changes to the grille, headlamps and bumpers did not improve the car’s appearance, proof that when an original design is just “right” it defies attempts to improve it.

    The K12 was another highly distinctive design which sold well, even if its looks were polarising and probably repelled some (male?) potential customers. The K13 was regarded as a cynical exercise to make a similar looking car cheaper to build and, hence, more profitable.

    The new model is bang on trend, and a very noisy design. I hope you’re right that those interrupted C-pillars are reaching a point of exhaustion.

    1. That Datsun looks bang on now. Could we have a return of teeny tiny 4 door sedans? I’m game.

      The original Micra doesn’t deserve any charity. Ugly, slow, coarse and uncomfortable, it is a car with no redeeming features whatsoever. The inside panels of the doors were as flat as the front, making the car feel insubstantial and leaving nowhere to rest your arm (upmarket versions may have had an armrest screwed to the door).

      It was reliable too, so owners didn’t even have that excuse to get rid of it. The contemporary Fiat Uno was a far more likeable and biddable machine.

      The 2nd gen Micra was a huge improvement. It deserved a new name, really – it was almost as big a leap as the Focus was from the Escort.

      I dislike the new one. They seem to have forgotten the back seat passengers – I haven’t been in one, but apparently the rear compartment is cramped and unappealing. Of course, for a young single person or a couple this may not matter, but it seems like a fundamental failure in any car with more than two doors.

    2. I’m with Jacomo on this. The original Micra was dullness on toast, although the automatics were sort of fun. They did go forever though. The K11 was a really decent little car. All the durability of the older one, but so much additional charm and verve. A relative of mine absolutely swears by them, and who am I to argue?

      The current car’s Clio base is screamingly obvious, with all the rear three quarter visibility issues that entails. I’d go so far as to hazard a guess that it’s in fact, worse than that of the Renault’s. Can’t see them being popular with driving schools any more.

    3. Eoin, as an instructor I have only seen one new Micra being used as a driving school car here in Dublin. I have only seen 2 Clios. The Fiesta is top dog with the i20 a relatively distant second. However more and more instructors (especially the independents) run a Golf/Focus/Ceed etc. The comfort difference moving up a class is very worthwhile imo if you are spending 12 hours a day in either of the front seats. Agreed the first gen Micra doesn’t have a lot going on but as one of the 2 cars I learned to drive in (the one I drove was red with 3 alloys and one steely) I suppose I have a soft spot for it.

    4. Mick: you have reminded me that the car I learned to drive on was a Micra, one of the square ones. How did I ever forget that? In Denmark they do driving instruction in BMWs and Mercedes. That says more about BMW and Mercedes than it does about Denmark, I feel.

  2. The basis for the retro Nissan ‘Pike’ cars (Figaro, Pao, S-Cargo, etc) of the late 80’s, of course – they were ahead of their time with that craze.

    I think the K12, in original form, is my favourite (not the convertible version, though). The K12 seemed to be distinctively ‘Japanese’, in some way, especially the interior, rather than being generically European.

    My least favourite is the K13, and I think Nissan realized their mistake – it just wasn’t suitable for Europe. Even now, I don’t think Micra volumes are what they once were.

  3. The K12 is one of my favourite small car designs. I like the way, Richard, that you pictured a Mk1 Yaris beneath it , another favourite of mine (I previously tried to argue that it might be Toyota’s best ever design). Both have very strong, cohesive designs, but the Nissan is more ambitious and distinctive.

    I enjoyed the whole progression of the analysis. I remember when the K11 was launched – it seemed like an unbelievably child-like, cutesy design at the time, if anything even more brave than that K12.

    I really don’t like the current version -way too aggressive. Nor do I like the new Leaf, the old one was much more organic and interesting.

    1. Out of the lot of them, the K11 stands out for its strenght and subtlety. Excuse my nerdish focus – the transitions between the main surfaces are very sweetly handled. I have no proof but that must be a clay modelled car. The round forms and underlying upright architecture is also really pleasing. I understand some people don´t like that all though. The upright front is quietly provokative. File with the Honda Prelude on that score.

    2. I have to say that the original K11 (not the silly rubbing strip and chintzy light cluster facelift) is also one of my favourites. With its straight volumes and soft roundings, it was often compared to the Mini when reviewed in magazines. Sitting inside one, I didn’t find it pleasant, though – narrow and austere were my primary impressions.

  4. Nice little piece of history, by the way! I like all the references to the Micra’s contemporaries.

  5. Richard, agreed about the K11. It really is a sweet piece of work; confident, yet playful and unthreatening . I thought it might be worth posting a couple of photos of it in its original and best guise, before they started to fiddle with it:

  6. Regarding the Mk1 Yaris, I guess I’m swimming against the tide here, but I could never take to the DLO treatment, specifically the prominent upstand between the shoulder line and the bottom of the side windows. This gave it a top-heavy and saggy shouldered look, to my eyes at least. The new Polo suffers from a similar problem (as did the Mk1 Freelander, albeit to a lesser extent).

    1. Upstand?
      That red car is a fussy bit of nasty. I really loathe the double crease defining the upper narrow surface the door handles sit on.

  7. Having had my interest piqued, I thought that I’d see if there’s much about Nissan heritage on the web; there’s practically nothing, in English, at least, which is a shame. That probably says quite a bit about the nature of the brand.

    I once had a very basic K11 as a courtesy car for a while. It was indeed like driving an original Mini – you could have fun driving it hard, and then look down at the speedo and see that you were doing 23 m.p.h. It sounded enthusiastic like a Mini, too.

  8. Richard, by “upstand” I mean the vertical piece of bodywork immediately below the side windows on both cars. It just looks wrong to my eyes.

  9. A genuinely enjoyable article.

    I am somewhat surprised, though, that you omitted to mention that the K14 is actually a re-bodied Clio IV underneath. Which, in itself, renders any product-development efforts fruitless, as the engineers had their hands tied by
    the rather specific (and, what with its immensely 3D side profiling, hard to disguise)
    Clio IV basic carchitecture.

    The Clio hides its almost rudely square footprint. Its styling actually manages to succesfully convert this disadvantage into an attractive, “squat” stance that visually hugs the road, subliminally conveying promises of immense roadholding – which psychologically rhymes with Renault’s (actually Renault Sport’s) reputation of race-car-like dynamics.

    This very specific (especially in this day and age) sizing / proportions of the Clio IV, made it especially difficult to compare the K14 (as its clone, basically…) with any other previous-gen Micras.

    I find that the ommission of this aspect, which is deemed vital in the K14 (or, to be honest , the basically rebodying exercise the K14 essentially is), adds a layer of incompleteness of this article, which is a pity, as it draws some very interesting parallels with other brands/models and general directions in which the generic A-segm.(or is it B-segm.,
    realistically?) “mass-market hatch” is visually developing.

    P.S. Since you mentioned it: I have almost daily access to a Mk7 Fiesta, and it’s definitely Mk1 Focus-sized lengthwise, although, measured at the B & C-pillars/roof, its width is definitely miniscule in comparison – its body is noticably “pyramidal”, in this regard (thus making it very hard to position/pinpoint in a dimensional context). The rear part of the roof & its blending into the C-pillars gives it considerable structural rigidity, without depriving rear passengers too much of headroom. That “bill” is paid elsewhere, though – in the feeling of the car being a tad too long for its width.

    1. I can only say thank you for your comment. Yes, that is true and makes the car a different proposition. Sadly forgetfulness rather than ignorance is to blame. I have not taken on-board fully Renault and Nissan’s integration.

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