AS WITH people, so with cars: honours rest uneasily on the undeserving. Some past recipients of the Car of the Year award - including the Chrysler Horizon (mediocre), Fiat 124 (ditto) and NSU Ro80 (a commercial disaster) - reflect little credit on the people who chose them.

This year, however, the international press jury probably got it right. It voted, by a comfortable margin, for the Nissan Micra, the first car from a Japanese manufacturer to receive motoring's equivalent of an Oscar.

The old chisel-edged Micra, beloved by driving schools, had little to commend it other than economy, reliability and idiot-proof controls. The Noddy-car styling of its chubby replacement is not to everyone's taste - a balloon on wheels is bound to polarise opinions - but the new Micra hatchback is a tour de force, an important new player in a game for high achievers.

Although Japanese by design, it is strongly European in flavour. Made in the same Sunderland plant as the mid-range Primera, it is not subject to import quota constraints, so Nissan may sell as many as it can here, and elsewhere in Europe; and sell them it will, in a sector that will account for nearly a third of all new-car sales this year.

Although keenly priced, the new Micra is quite a bit dearer than the old, which remains on sale until stocks run out. Prices range from pounds 6,695 to pounds 10,890 (compared with pounds 5,742- pounds 7,708 for its predecessor), according to specification: three or five doors, 1- or 1.3-litre engine, five-speed manual gearbox or continuously variable automatic transmission.

To test the Micra's mettle, I compared the pounds 7,275 three-door 1.0LX with two ostensibly cheaper rivals: the RL Prima version of the Renault Clio (pounds 6,925 with optional five-speed gearbox) and Rover's Metro Quest (at pounds 6,355, the cheapest five-door version in a restructured range). Other opposition includes the Peugeot 106, Citroen AX and the Ford Fiesta, the most popular, if not the best, small hatchback in Britain.

The lofty Micra is roomier than its predecessor: you sit tall, all the better to see out, although headroom seems unnecessarily generous. In the back, teenagers can perch as comfortably as in the stylish Clio, whose natty seat-tip mechanism makes access easier.

Despite its facelift, the Metro not only looks dated but is also very cramped in the back. It is too small for four adults, and its high door sills can create access problems for the elderly. There is not much to choose between the boots of the Metro and Micra, and what the wide-decked Clio gains in luggage space it loses in versatility: its rear seat is not split like the Micra's.

Utilitarian the Micra may be, cheap and shoddy it is not. The quality and finish set small-car benchmarks that most rivals cannot match. Everything fits, nothing rattles. Plasticky though it is, the simple dashboard has neatly clustered instruments and handy controls. The Clio still looks a bit tacky and overbearing inside; the Metro is nicely finished, but the painted doorsills are slightly cheapening.

The Micra's simplicity is one of its attractions. So is its tactile quality. Everything that moves - switches, knobs, levers, pedals, doors - does so with snappy precision. All three cars have good gearshifts, but the Micra's is especially precise. It also has firm, reassuring brakes, which feel more progressive than the Clio's.

Small cars probably come no safer than the Micra. Apart from the smooth, pedestrian-friendly skin, it has side-impact door protectors, a plastic fuel tank and height-adjustable seatbelt anchors. Sophisticated anti-lock brakes, which are not available on the Clio or Metro, are an (expensive) option.

The Micra hums along sweetly. Even when extended, it does not shriek. Despite its advanced little twin-cam engine, however, the 54bhp 1.0 is no ball of fire. The Clio and Metro both have a little more oomph. The 75bhp Micra 1.3 has much better performance than the 1.0, but more powerful Clio and Metro variants easily beat it.

Official consumption figures judge the Micra to be less economical than the Clio and Metro when cruising (both exceed 60mpg at 56mph), but the Micra is particularly frugal (47mpg) in the official 'Urban Cycle'. As a short-haul runabout, it should be very cheap to run, and judging by other British-made Nissans it ought to be very reliable, too.

Although it excels as a shopping trolley - its turning circle makes parking easy, the controls are light and forgiving - the Micra provides good long-haul transport. Its engine is quieter than that of the slightly boomy Clio, and it creates less road and wind noise. The front seats are firm but comfortable, while the Clio's softer ones made my back ache. In the Metro, I was a bit hunched at the wheel.

Safe and viceless though the new Micra is, it is not especially entertaining as a driver's car. It feels the way it looks: soft and roly-poly when driven with spirit. The Metro's clever gas-spring suspension gives a marginally smoother, less agitated ride as well as sharper handling, despite steering that feels a bit lifeless. The same goes for the Clio.

Strong in most departments, seriously lacking in none, the Micra 1.0LX impresses as a well-made, well-planned car with more ability than charm. It is comfortable, frugal and unusually refined. If not the roomiest in its class (the Clio is just as spacious) or the most fun to drive (the Metro has it beaten), it is a competent all-rounder that tackles the school run and the M1 with equal aplomb.

On my 23-item score card, I gave the 1.0LX 15 firsts or equal firsts, against the Clio's eight, and the Metro's five. These subjective judgements may flatter the Micra and do less than justice to the Metro, but there is no doubt which car wins this confrontation, even if neither loser is disgraced.

SPECIFICATIONS

Nissan Micra 1.0LX three-door, pounds 7,275. Engine: 998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves; 54bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive. Performance: 93mph, 0-60mph in 15.5 seconds, fuel consumption 36-45mpg unleaded.

Renault Clio 1.2 RL Prima three-door, pounds 6,925. Engine: 1,171cc, four cylinders, eight valves; 60bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: five-speed gearbox ( pounds 6,715 with standard four-speed), front-wheel drive. Performance: 98mph, 0-60mph in 14 seconds, fuel consumption 35-42mpg unleaded.

Rover Metro 1.1 Quest five-door, pounds 6,355. Engine: 1,120cc, four cylinders, eight valves; 60bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: four-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 94mph, 0-60mph in 14 seconds, fuel consumption 35-41mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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