Reliable, cheap and sturdy, they were pretty dire to drive, but reassurance-seekers didn’t care. The cars were fuss-free enough to establish the idea of Japanese cars in the UK.
By the 1980s, the Cherry had grown. As had Datsun parent Nissan. Solving two problems in one swoop, the firm belatedly launched a crucial model in 1983 – the Micra. By Nissan. Designed to exactly compete with supermini competition such as the Austin Metro and Ford Fiesta, it was an identikit three-door supermini.
But one designed with Japanese values very much in place. The hi-tech 1.0-litre engine was all-alloy, and could punch out up to 55bhp.
Servicing costs were low, reliability was bulletproof and, given how vital economy was back then (too), it had one magnificent claim. Britain’s most economical car. Constant 56mph? 67.3mpg. Wow.
Datsun’s 400-odd UK dealers were, by now, being rebranded Nissan, which launched the Micra in two models. There was a base four-speed DX, costing £3,750, or a more powerful GX with a five-speed gearbox. These prices compared well with rivals – a 1.1 Fiesta Popular Plus was £4,150, a 1.0 Metro L, £4,275.
(Ok, so not all Micras can beat a Ferrari…)
It was no surprise to drivers, who discovered a perfectly workable but otherwise unadventurous small car. The plain styling was reflected in plain dynamics. The interior was bland, space no better than average. There were no major flaws, but nothing to stand out, either.
Even so, its simplicity ensured it became popular. The gearchange and clutch were totally foolproof, the engine reliable, all controls operated with little effort – goodness, there was even a standard automatic choke. Throw in other luxuries like tinted glass, locking filler cap and rear wash wipe, for the name of the Nissan baby to gradually strengthen.
There was a minor facelift in 1986, where 6,000-mile service intervals became 9,000-miles. Here, trims were revised to L, Colette and SGL – available, a year later, in five-door form, too. By 1989, there was a 1.2-litre engine, plus a series of facelifts that took the dull but worthy Nissan through to replacement in 1992.
This was where the next revolution occurred. The new car was ultra-competitive. Built in Britain. Attractively styled – charismatic, even.
Yet it still boasted all the dependability of the original. Sales took off, it was voted the first-ever Japanese Car Of The Year… Nissan was now a serious manufacturer of EU-friendly cars, rather than being a brand for corduroy trouser man.
Nissan reinforced the cool-ness with the latest-generation car in 2003. Developed alongside the Renault Clio, it was as grown up as the Nissan brand itself now was. Forget the Cherry, this baby now shared floorspace with X-Trails and 350Z….
Oh, and aftersales car park space with the first-generation Micra. See, even in 2006, a UK car magazine discovered that, of the 340,000 original-shape Micras sold in the UK, 30 per cent of them were still on the road. 30 per cent! And how did the Metro fare in comparison? Well, there was a three in it. But nowt else. Yup, just three per cent of Austin’s baby had survived.
Not only is this an incredible testimony to the Micra’s solidity, it’s also the reason why people still buy ’em. A new one is due next year, but you can be sure it won’t stray too far from the theme. This was Nissan’s first sales legend in the UK, and made the firm’s name here – literally. Why change a winning formula?
by Richard Aucock
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