Some automotive combinations seem like a match made in heaven.
A drive down the coast on a warm day in would be perfect in a Mazda MX-5, while a Ford Mustang seems at right home cruising down Woodward Ave. in Detroit. Subarus love playing in the snow, just like a pickup truck feels at home on the farm or a construction site.
Similarly, small cars always seem like a good fit for cities, but as it turns out, that’s only half the story here. The concept for this adventure was simple: take the small, built-for-Canada Nissan Micra and spend a day and a half driving through the biggest city in the U.S.: New York, New York. This concrete jungle is home to more than 20 million people. Manhattan also packs more than 200 crowded east-to-west numbered streets, more than a few claustrophobic alleyways, and too many taxi cabs and pedestrians for most drivers to be comfortable with.
A small car like the Micra sounds like a great fit in a city full of tiny streets. It has the right parts: a tight turning radius for quick U-turns, a small footprint for easy street parking, and a small engine that is easy on gas while providing enough power to scoot through the many intersections of a metropolitan environment.
We even had the perfect tour guide for our Manhattan excursion: Marie-Joelle Parent, a Canadian journalist and author who is now living in New York. She penned the first of a series of books titled 300 Reasons to Love New York and she’s also written a similar guide to San Francisco. She’s in touch with other writers around the world to provide tourists with an insider look into new and interesting locations.
Parent gave us five iconic and interesting locations around Manhattan, while Nissan gave us the keys to the Micra and we hit the big city.
But the big city hit back. For all the praise that small cars get in the big city, New York wasn’t at all what I was expecting. For starters, the traffic is brutal. The journey from La Guardia Airport to Times Square was supposed to be a simple drive, about 9 miles, yet the traffic patterns of the Big Apple were rotten. A closure at a train station meant more cars were on the road, which means it took us more than two hours to get to Times Square, and that’s about the length of time needed to make you wish you were in something a bit more luxurious and comfortable than a tiny commuter car.
Then again, some people find cold, hard cash a luxury and with the Micra, you do end up saving quite a bit of money. Starting at $9,988 CAD, it’s the most affordable vehicle that Canucks can buy. That money gets you quite a lot and provides much more than just four wheels. There’s also four doors and breathing room for four adults. There’s a number of airbags to help riders feel safe in the small car, while front disc brakes and rear drums provide stopping power for this 2,400-pound car.
The Micra’s best feature, besides its price, is its space. There’s 14.4 cubic feet (407.8 litres) of space behind the rear seats and 28.94 cubic feet (819.5 litres) with those seats down. That’s definitely better than some compact sedans like the Mazda3 or Hyundai Elantra. Total passenger space comes in at 87.3 cubic feet (2,472 litres), which helps the Micra feel airy and more spacious than it looks. A driver-side armrest is a luxury feature in SV models that was much needed during the long slog through the city.
Happily, the Micra was right at home in the many minor streets in NYC. As advertised, it could make quick turns when there were gaps in the various types of traffic: motorized, pedal-powered, or even foot-powered. Even when we drove by our destination (which happened a bit more frequently than I’d like to admit), the ease in swinging the car around was really an advantage.
The agile little car was also adept at avoiding the various potholes that riddle a few streets in Manhattan, although if not attentive enough, the result of hitting one of these potholes is a spine-jarring experience. Contrasting that, we found ourselves on the Cobblestoned roads down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (an area known as DUMBO). The trendy neighborhood is home to a number of art galleries and tech startups, and while the Micra is no high-tech piece of art, it managed its way around the spot with ease.
Small Car for Small Places
While not available in the U.S. market, the Micra didn’t seem that out of place. Small cars like the Smart fortwo are common in the city, mostly as car-share offerings. Following our stint in DUMBO, we visited something called Mmuseumm, which is known as the smallest museum in New York. In reality, it’s an elevator with shelves full of things that are related, and we were cautioned to not take photos or mention too much about the exhibit because it would open sometime in May. Curiously enough, I felt more claustrophobic in the lift than I did in the Micra, once again showcasing the car’s spaciousness.
From there, we made a trip to 75 and a half Bedford Street. Yes, 75 1/2 is the address of a half-pint sized dwelling that’s one of the narrowest in the city. At nine and a half feet wide, the Micra is actually quite a bit longer than the width of the house! Maybe the Micra isn’t so small after all! Even some nearby construction workers came to gawk at the (now relatively gargantuan) Micra, and sounded quite impressed with the size and price of the subcompact Nissan hatchback.
Too Small For Road Respect
On our way to Central Park, we learned another tough lesson. As we hit the major streets during the usual working hours, it was expected that there wouldn’t be much traffic, but we were wrong. Big, lumbering delivery trucks call these streets home during these times, and among them are other big cars. Taxi vans and executive class SUVs also clogged the streets, giving the little Micra none of the respect it deserved. Making matters worse, other motorists refused to stay in their lanes, swaying in and out or straddling the lines to avoid parked cars, bicyclists, jay-walkers, and potholes.
It felt like the big cars would ignore the tiny Micra and, in some cases, that was what happened — an unsuspecting driver wandered into our path unexpectedly and required a quick honk of the horn to remind them that the little Micra isn’t a Coke can to be crushed under a giant tire. The car has guts of its own, too, with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine residing under the hood making 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque to get us around and out of the way of slower vehicles.
Tough to See
The trip to Zuccotti Park from Central Park was a tough grind through congested streets, full of close calls like those. Fortunately, New Yorkers don’t get offended by a quick honk of the horn. Another aspect of the Micra that made it ill-suited for the big city was its sightlines. With big windows surrounding the car, sightlines to see other motorists were good, but when stopped at an intersection, the traffic lights were mounted too high and required a forward lean and a crane of the neck to see when it was time to proceed. Clearly, the city was made for bigger vehicles.
The final stop of the day was at a mini Statue of Liberty that was cast in bronze from the original plaster sculpture, which was enlarged 16 times to create the statue you see in New York Harbor. It’s less popular and crowded than the real thing and quite the hidden gem. Who knew they made another bronze Statue of Liberty. In the same vein, who knew that Nissan makes a smaller more affordable car than the Versa Note?
The Verdict: 2017 Nissan Micra in NYC
After our trip through the big city, we were exhausted. More than half of New Yorkers don’t have a car and it’s easy to see why. The extremely crowded streets make it obvious that more commuters choose the subway or other forms of public transit. It is just too stressful to drive in the New York City, even with a tiny car.
While every city might not pair perfectly to every small car, Canadian shoppers should be happy knowing that their biggest cities are much less crowded than the Big Apple, and would be a much better fit for the budget-minded Nissan Micra.