MOTORING / Nissan: Little and Large: John Fordham finds the Japanese company now has winners in both supermini and people-mover categories

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SINCE they were launched almost simultaneously, I wondered at first whether Nissan was advertising its vivacious little British- built town car and its charismatic and adaptable new people-carrier on the same hoarding. You can't have missed the one I mean, looking like a child's felt-tip outline of a little bubble-car next to a big one. A job-lot campaign didn't seem likely by the usual rules of advertising - not making market-targeting sense or anything - but in these days of imaginative cost-cutting, you never know.

What the poster is meant to show, of course, is the difference between the way the Micra supermini looks outside and the way it feels inside. But what of Nissan's new car that's big on the outside? The Spanish-built Serena, a voluminous people-mover, has attracted less attention than the stylish, boldly conceived, environmentally astute Micra. Yet it too is far from being a non-event. Both cars show how urgently designers and engineers are responding to changes in the patterns of automobile use.

A huge market beckons builders of tiny, nippy, urban runabouts that can also haul four people down a motorway without giving them spinal curvature or loose fillings. Recession and the tightening of consumers' belts have made frugality stylish. OK, you can't pretend to be James Dean when driving this kind of car - but look what happened to him, anyway.

The Renault Twingo, Volkswagen Chico and Fiat Cinquecento are upcoming contenders in the supermini field. But with its latest entry, Nissan has staked a major claim. The Micra just pipped the Cinquecento to the 1993 European Car of the Year award; it qualified for the title because this Japanese car is produced in Britain, using 80 per cent EC components. It therefore escapes the import restrictions that currently keep the flow of Japanese cars to a trickle.

The Nissan Micra, costing pounds 6,695, is close to being the ideal town car. It still reminds some people of Noddy's preferred means of transport, but its curvy, high-built styling is deceptive. It's actually no higher than most cars, and only looks that way because of the big glass areas (visibility is excellent all round) and a lower mid-line.

The Micra's engine starts so quickly, even in the bitter cold, that you have to let the key go almost as soon as you've turned it, or the starter-motor gearing will protest. The smoothness of its pick-up and the eagerness with which the engine spins, soon remind you of the virtues of applying big-car technology - twin cams, 16 valves, multi-point fuel injection, with double exhaust catalysers looking after the emissions - to an engine that on some models is smaller than 1.0 litre. The efficiency shows in the fuel consumption: 47mpg around town, roughly 42mpg at legal limit motorway speeds.

Though the Micra is available in a wide range of stylings, trims and power capacities (there are three and five-door versions, a peppier 1.3-litre engine, and a silky automatic gearbox option too), the basic 1.0-litre model tested here seemed to define its appeal. Acceleration is fairly modest but very smooth (a torquey engine lets third gear do a lot of the work, so busy shifting isn't necessary), and a slightly notchy but very short- throw gearshift is extremely easy to handle, moving barely more than the distance an automatic shifter does.

The brakes are good, though pedal feel is hard, and its unpowered steering is perfectly manageable when parking - even if it didn't give thrills on weavy roads, and is a little floaty when the car is under way. The interior design is a triumph, the positioning of the switchgear is excellent, and in terms of styling, the earlier generation of Micras can't compare with this one - everything is smoothly swept, neatly banked, low in the centre and only compromised by the plasticky look so common in Japanese cars.

The seats are good, though the rear ones are small, and driving position is excellent. Back seat space is good, and though the boot doesn't make this a car to emigrate in, it's free of intrusive suspension parts and up to the class standard. If it has any drawbacks, they lie in the handling - but only by comparison with its most agile rival in the miniature market (the Peugeot 106) and its most luxurious one (the Rover Metro).

Our model had no anti-roll bars, so you can't be too adventurous with the cornering. Nor does the Micra have as forgiving and supple a suspension system as the 106 or Metro over bad roads. But it is the first car in its class with side-impact bars, its refinement is excellent, and it is extremely roomy - four tall people don't risk crushing their vertebrae in it - and extremely economical. It's also beautifully built, doesn't squeak or rattle, and is a peaceful car to take on a fast ride - not something that can be said of many machines of this size and category.

As for the big Serena, that reflects a good many Nissan skills too - particularly in build-quality, engine sophistication and imaginative variation on an existing theme. The Serena is entering the MPV (Multi Purpose Vehicle) market dominated by the Renault Espace and the futuristic Toyota Previa. But Nissan is also targeting users who might currently keep one car for easy- park runabout use, and another for the kinds of things MPVs are usually good at - contending that you now only need one.

Nissan also quotes statistics showing that teenagers are staying at home for longer and old people are living longer, with the result that families need more practical and adaptable vehicles. But this one isn't just adaptable, it's habitable. A brilliant interior design enables the seat to be folded flat against the side walls, in some models turned through 180 degrees or stretched out to make beds. Teenagers or old folk getting under your feet around the house? Eureka, now you can get them to live in the car] The interior of the Serena is better than a lot of places I've lived in.

Nissan has introduced a wide range of Serena models, and at a competitive price (they start at around pounds 13,000 and run up to pounds 17,750 for one with air conditioning, anti- lock brakes and the Primera's responsive 2.0-litre engine). The range includes a diesel which, for once, is the same price as the entry-level petrol model.

The Serena feels high but not too big to manoeuvre because Nissan has imagina-

tively mid-mounted the engine under the front seats, so that there's little front overhang. This weight redistribution also improves the Serena's handling - though because of the high build and a suspension soft enough to accommodate a potential heavy load, it does sway more than an estate on twisting roads.

But this is the vehicle's only drawback. Visibility is terrific, the driving position high - like a van - and six, seven and eight-seater versions are available. Once again, European building gets around the Japanese quota problem. The Serena is built in Barcelona, with engines shipped out from Britain - so you won't have any trouble with availability.

(Photographs omitted)