I remember about a year ago finding a little stray kitten underneath the stairwell of my old apartment. It was just cowering there, meowing for attention and looking all lost and unloved. So I reached in, calmly picked it up and brought it the apartment with the intention of maybe adopting her as a pet for my baby girl. I gave it some milk, stroked its fur a little bit, and sat on the couch ready to bond with it during an episode of World's Wildest Police Chases when all of a sudden it went absolutely apeshit. For no apparent reason whatsoever it starting hissing at me and then physically attacked me, scratching, biting and finally inserted its nails into my leg with such determination it we had to call a vet to get it removed. I still have the marks on my thighs from the little fecker. There's gratitude for you.
The Micra and the Panda are the kittens of the car world. Cute and cuddly to the point of being a bit nauseating, both cars take rather different approaches to urban travel - the Panda is an upright mini-MPV that's built for Italian cities, which means it's basically an urban assault vehicle. The corners are easy to find and even easier to fix while visibility is excellent and maneuverability couldn't be better either - it even has a 'City' button to make the steering lighter than a 1970's Cadillac Coupe Deville. The Micra isn't nearly so full-on in terms of urban savvy, relying instead on its ditzy expression to wriggle its way through traffic. It's still an easy car to squeeze through town thanks to what I like to call its 'nipples' (bumps atop the lens to help find the corners), elevated driving position and fine visibility but the steering doesn't have a 'City' function and its big, body-coloured bumpers look vulnerable to scrapes and expensive to fix.
What you have pictured here is the apeshit version of both cars, unexpectedly lively and aggressive derivatives of cars designed with shopping trips, not country blasts, in mind. The Nissan Micra SR 160 is powered by a 110hp 1.6-litre engine and comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, darkened light lenses, sports seats and a few other minor bits of jazzy trim like alloy pedals and a leather steering wheel. Air conditioning, electric front windows, electric mirrors and remote locking are also park of the package. Apart from the wheels and the badge (neither of which exactly scream performance) there is nothing about the 160 SR to indicate that this is the fast and furious Micra. It's sitting there just like every other Micra on the road, purring away at me, calmly waiting to pounce.
The Fiat Panda 100hp, on the other hand, is twitching and frothing at the mouth and is currently gnawing part of its own tail off before it turns its attention to you. To look at, it's clear that the Fiat is quite mad, with its racy 16-inch alloys, special body kit and decals, red brake callipers, 100hp badging, tinted windows, rear spoiler and pronounced exhaust pipe. Inside there are sports seats, a leather steering wheel, a jazzy gear knob and not much else apart from the usual electric pack and A/C. It's a cool little package, to be honest, mainly because it’s the last thing you expect from a boxy city car like the Panda.
Powered by a 100hp 1.4-litre engine, the Panda's extra cog and slightly lighter weight make it marginally quicker than the Micra SR to 100km/h (9.5 versus 9.8) and slightly faster all out (185km/h against the Nissan's 183km/h). Its revvy, peaky engine is also very different in character to the mature, grown-up 1.6-litre in the Micra and it has better throttle response and makes a better sound than the Nissan's engine, too. Around town, the Fiat's by far the greater entertainer, zipping along through traffic while you enjoy working the well-placed and slick 6-speed manual and leaning on the strong brakes when necessary. The Micra feels more lethargic, less urgent than the Panda although in real terms it's really no slower.
On a country road, however, the tides turn dramatically. The Nissan's heavier steering comes in to its own out here, turning in cleanly and communicating effectively (if not spectacularly) with driver about what the front tyres are up to. The heftier gear change makes more sense out here, too, as does the gearing itself, which helps eek as much performance as possible from the engine by placing you squarely in the power band when you drop it to third for all but the tightest of corners. Strong, progressive brakes and fine stability over mid-corner bumps help complete the Nissan's dynamic picture. It’s a proper little warm hatch, capable of sinking its teeth into any mountain road and getting its owners heart-rate soaring.
The Panda goes all to pieces on the challenging stuff. The steering is too slow and there's a non linear feel to the way it responds relative to lock applied. The stiff suspension which bounces and bucks along over all but the smoothest of surfaces fails to dial out enough body roll or quell the Panda's desire to understeer around corners that the Micra takes in its stride. The brakes are grabby and feel wooden and weak when used enthusiastically while the gearing often leaves the Panda out of puff because of too many or too few revs as you attempt to power out of a corner. As a driver's car it can't hold a candle to the Nissan, which is a real shame because we wanted to love it so very much.
And yet I'd still take the mad, slightly sadistic Fiat Panda 100hp. Sure it's flawed but it's not like it's an unbearable thing to drive. As long as you remember that the styling is really more tongue-in-cheek than middle-finger-in-the-air and that its' really more of a zippy, unusual and amusing alternative to, say, a Ford Fiesta or Opel Corsa than a balls-out hot hatch. The Nissan Micra really deserves to be the runaway winner here, and while it's a very decent steer it's just not special enough to merit spending more than four grand extra on it. In terms of price it's actually a rival to the 125hp Suzuki Swift Sport which, again, would eat it alive in terms of character and specification. Victory, then, to the Fiat, the mad, scratching, biting kicking Panda 100hp. It's not going to win any handling tests nor will it soothe away the kilometres on a long journey, but it's got such mad charm you can forgive its lack of poise and polish. Just makes sure you have a vet handy if you decide to give it a sneaky cuddle.
Nissan Micra SR 160
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cylinder, 110 hp, 154 Nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Acceleration 0–100 km/h: 9.8 seconds
Top speed: 183 km/h
Economy: 6.6 L/100 km
CO2: 158 g/km
Boot Capacity: 251 litres
Weight: 1071 kg
Base Price: €21,000
Price as tested: €21,000
Fiat Panda 100hp
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cylinder, 100 hp, 131 Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Acceleration 0–100 km/h: 9.5 seconds
Top speed: 185 km/h
Economy: 6.5 L/100 km
CO2: 145 g/km
Boot Capacity: 206 litres
Weight: 1050 kg
Base Price: €16,715
Price as tested: €16,715
Verdict: The Micra’s a better car in just about everyway except styling. Nissan hasn't done enough to beef up the looks or performance to merit its €21k price tag, however. The flawed Fiat simply oozes character and is also a whopping four grand cheaper.