Generation Why: The Datsun Days Are Over

Generation Why: The Datsun Days Are Over

Here’s a riddle for you: what has a 1.6L engine making 106 horsepower, roll up windows, manual locks and cost $16,000? If your answer was “the Canada-only Nissan Micra” you’re wrong.

The answer is, in fact, my Grandmother’s 1999 Honda Civic, which she traded in for a Honda Fit LX. Inflation adjusted, her Civic costs about $21,676 in today’s Canadian dollars. Her Fit would have cost her $2,000 less back in 1999, or about what a Civic DX, which had no air conditioning or an automatic gearbox, would have commanded.

That same $14,000 is about twice the price of what a brand new, base model Nissan Micra would have cost back then. The Micra’s $9,998 sticker price today works out to just under $7,400. The same equipment, three more horsepower and much better crash safety (but a smaller car) now costs half of what it did right on the eve of the Y2K scare that never happened.

Even though Nissan insists that the Micra won’t make it to the States because the $9,999 Versa Sedan fills the same niche, there’s another factor looming beyond the PR messaging. The Micra drives the same as the EK Civic of 15 years ago. Getting in the Micra exposed me for the coddled, effete Millenial I am. I haven’t used a manual door lock since I sold my 1997 Miata, but knew that this was a car that did not have remote locks. Unfortunately, I then threw the keys in the cupholder and tried to poke an invisible starter button, thanks to the near ubiquity of “keyless start” systems.

The rest of the car feels like vintage Japan from two decades ago, from the driving position (low, steering wheel pointing straight out) to the plastics on the inside (about as good as an old Honda) to the NVH levels to the rubbery, long throw shifter to the coarse 4-cylinder engine. It’s a blast to drive in the same way that a Corona isn’t a very good beer, but is extremely satiating on a hot sunny day. In this bottle, the light weight and hilariously excessive bottle roll are the lime that provides a little extra fizz.

But it would never, ever fly in the United States, where merging onto freeways at 80 mph is a reality for many motorists, and parking spots were built for F-150s rather than built in the 1930s (as is the case in a few major metro areas up here). Half of all Micras are sold in Quebec, a market that is so influential that Canadian product planners make a special variant just for these skinflint buyers.

The Micra does not need to exist for American consumers. It may even be detrimental to Nissan’s aims for rapid expansion. If the Micra was introduced in America, it would be flayed, drawn and quartered worse than the Mitsubishi Mirage was. Because it’s forbidden fruit, it’s treated as a curiosity, “something we need in America” and “please Nissan, import it”.

To our first world tastes, the Micra feels like something you’d rent on vacation in some Caribbean country. To the locals, the Micra would be a pretty upscale car. Which is why Nissan is pushing so hard to re-introduce the Datsun brand pretty much everywhere but North America. After taxes, registration fees, import duties and other associated fees, a base Micra S like the one shown above could cost about $20,000 – or what I paid for my own Mazda3, which is literally twice the car in every qualitative measure.

That’s why Datsun is so important for Renault-Nissan. A truly basic vehicle at $5,000-$7,5000 is a big investment for many people in developing nations, but also a compelling alternative to walking, taking the bus, riding a moped with 7 other family members or an overpriced jalopy.  The hope is that one day, the Datsun customers will move up to something that shows that they’ve arrived. By purchasing a Micra. Small wonder that we’ll never see Datsun products on our shores. We wouldn’t want them anyways.



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