Several years ago, poutine started showing up on the menus of a number of Detroit-area restaurants. For those unfamiliar with the Canadian specialty, it involves serving up french fries, gravy and cheese curds all in one artery-clogging heap. It's not really my thing, but the comfort-food dish has caught hold here in The D, and many absolutely swear by it. In a country where we happily serve Double Down sandwiches, and where competitive eating qualifies as sport, it's hard to believe le poutine isn't spreading like wildfire.

Given Detroit's proximity to Canada, it's not surprising that this culinary creation has managed to find its way across the border. The same thing goes for cars – we Detroiters are routinely privy to lots of Great White North imports. No, we can't buy not-for-US vehicles like the Nissan X-Trail, Mercedes-Benz B-Class (at least, the gasoline version), or now-discontinued products like the Honda Civic-based Acura CSX or EL before it. But Ontario-plated examples of these cars can be seen all the time here in southeast Michigan – it's a far more common occurrence than you might think.

These days, it's rare that an automaker will introduce a model to Canada without offering it up in the United States – especially a car that stands to do big things for a company's presence in North America. But with this 2015 Nissan Micra, that's exactly what's happened; Nissan's US arm has repeatedly stated that there are no plans to offer the car in Yankeeland. Why is the Micra so important? This five-door hatchback enters Canada with the coveted title of being the most affordable new car in the country: just $9,998 Canadian (CAD) to start. In fact, the Micra launches to our north just as the larger, four-door Versa Sedan is phased out in Canada – a vehicle that holds the lowest-cost title here in the US, at $11,990 USD.

To see what all the budget-friendly fuss is about, I headed to Montreal to sample Nissan's latest offering. Is this subcompact hatch better left as a Canada-only special, or should we Americans be allowed to have our poutine and eat it, too? Read on to find out.
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The Micra is 10 inches shorter than the Versa Note, but its width and height are within an inch of the larger five-door.

The Nissan Micra isn't a completely new idea. Now in its fourth generation, the subcompact hatch has sold in markets around the globe (where it's also sold under the March nameplate) since the 1980s, and it was even previously available in Canada for a while. This latest version is built on the same V-platform architecture that underpins the Versa Sedan and Note hatch, but it's a lot smaller than either. At 150.7 inches long, the Micra is nearly 10 inches shorter than the Versa Note, but importantly, its width and height are within an inch of the larger five-door.

The Micra's design is markedly more approachable, with a less aerodynamic but friendlier look than that of the Note, incorporating round styling elements and big features within a familiar, two-box shape. It's not overly cutesy like a Chevrolet Spark, and while it won't win any beauty contests, at least it doesn't look frumpy-dumpy like the dreadful Mitsubishi Mirage. It really just looks like a tiny Nissan, especially from the front, where its grille and headlights bear a strong resemblance to the company's larger products.

The car pictured here is a mid-grade Micra SV, riding on 15-inch steel wheels wrapped in P185/60R15 all-season tires and capped with plastic covers. SR models swaps out these cheapo rollers in favor of handsome 16-inch alloys, and the top-trim model's added side sills, rear spoiler, foglights and chrome exhaust finisher actually make for a pretty attractive package. To these eyes, the SR actually looks sort of upscale for the class.

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For $9,998 you get manual windows and locks, no air conditioning, no Bluetooth, no USB port, no cargo cover, and black door handles and outside mirrors.

Because Nissan is targeting first-time car buyers and younger customers, the Micra is coming to market with a host of optional visual accessories, including the white stripe, mirror caps and door handle accents seen here (one car at the launch event was Fresh Powder white with orange accents, and affectionately earned the nickname "Creamsicle"). They aren't for everyone (my $199 to $499 would be put toward the SR trim), but at this end of the spectrum, personalization is, at the very least, a cool thing to offer. There's a wealth of dealer-installed accessories like bike racks, optional wheels, spoilers and other stick-ons, as well.

Aside from the SV and SR trims, Nissan will offer a base S version of the Micra – the "Quebec Special," I'm told – with manual windows and locks, no air conditioning, no Bluetooth, no USB port, no cargo cover, and black door handles and outside mirrors. That's the much-touted $9,998 model, and the moment you option up for an automatic transmission, air conditioning is added in.

My SV trim with the optional convenience package – $15,598 CAD, including $1,400 freight – will likely be the most popular of Micra models, and it adds in all the things the S removes. There's also a 4.3-inch color display for the radio, a backup camera, upgraded cloth fabric on the seats, and more. Unfortunately, you still can't get things like navigation, leather upholstery, or even the usual soft-touch materials on the dash. All in, even the highest-end SR trim offers an interior that's a relatively basic affair – cheap plastics and a focus on functionality come before comfort. Sure, the fit and finish is comparable to what else is offered in the super-cheap subcompact segment, but heck, even the Mirage offers navigation.

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Manual models are estimated to return 27 mpg in the city and 36 mpg highway.

That said, considering its exceedingly modest price point, gripes about the interior are few – the front seats are comfortable enough, especially for short trips, and there's decent headroom and legroom for rear-seat passengers. Speaking of, those in the back even get their own heating ducts – Canada is the only market that gets this equipment, a concession to its bitter winters. Visibility is good all around, and with the rear bench seats folded flat, there's 28.9 cubic feet of cargo space – enough room for a full hockey bag, as Nissan's Canadian PR reps eagerly pointed out. That isn't a ton of room, but consider this – the tiny Micra is more capacious than the larger Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris and Mazda2.

It's more powerful than many of its larger classmates, too. Nissan uses its HR16DE 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine here in the Micra, offering up 109 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 107 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. It won't blow your hair back, but considering the Micra's base curb weight of just 2,302 pounds, it's more than enough power. (The Mirage only makes due with a puny 74 hp, after all.) Fuel economy isn't particularly impressive, but it's still respectable, with manual-transmission models estimated to return 27 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg highway. Yes, even the larger Versa Note (which employs the same engine with the same output figures) is more efficient when equipped with Nissan's continuously variable transmission, but that added fuel-sipping is arguably canceled out with its higher initial cost of entry.

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What's surprising about the Micra is how well-sorted its suspension is.

Speaking of CVT, that's one part of the modern-day Nissan equation that's missing from the Micra. A five-speed manual transmission is offered with every trim level, but rather than employ a more efficient and more expensive CVT, Nissan has chosen to offer the Micra with a four-speed automatic borrowed from the previous-generation Versa. I drove both – the manual offers unsurprisingly long throws but a nicely weighted, linear clutch, while the 4AT is smooth and unobtrusive enough that I simply shrugged it off as being acceptable. Neither transmission is particularly engaging, but both work as advertised.

What's actually surprising about the Micra is how well-sorted its suspension is. That's likely due in part to its larger-car underpinnings, along with being initially designed for European and Asian tastes. Over the relatively rough roads of Quebec's countryside, the Micra handled bumps and blemishes with a very comfortable, never crashy nature. In fact, this smallest Nissan offers better ride quality than most of its competitors. The steering is really light and decidedly vague, and when I had a chance to put the Micra through an autocross course, the car was prone to loads of understeer and body roll – a gymkhana special this is not, though that was clearly never Nissan's intention. Where the Micra really excels is in the city, with its easy maneuverability and 15.2-foot turning radius – a figure that beats everything in the super-small and B-segment classes (except the Mirage, at 15.1).

Around town, the Micra is a perfectly pleasant little thing, and out in the country, piling on the miles wasn't a wholly boring affair like it is in some cars this size. Without having the opportunity to drive them all back-to-back, my gut says I prefer the Micra's dynamics to that of the Versa and Versa Note, not to mention the larger Toyota Yaris. Heck, in terms of suspension tuning alone, I'd rather pilot a Micra than even the Sentra sedan. It's a good little thing, you betcha.

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Nissan USA's position is that it doesn't need the Micra as a bottom-end Versa replacement.

In 2013, the Versa four-door was Nissan's fourth-best-selling model in the US, behind the Altima, Rogue and Sentra, with 117,352 units sold. The hatchback-only Chevy Spark, which is but $180 more expensive, managed to find just 34,130 sales during that same timeframe. The Versa Sedan is indeed a major success here in the States – a market that, despite proven data, still seems to prefer sedans to hatchbacks. Interestingly, the Versa Sedan was actually Canada's third-best-selling Nissan in 2013, and it's now being phased out in favor of the Micra.

But that just wouldn't work here in the States. The Versa Sedan is already the best-selling car in its class, and while the Micra's hatchback shape makes it functional for carrying lots of cargo, the larger four-door is huge inside for passengers. You can't argue with that, so I totally get Nissan USA's position that it doesn't need the Micra in this market, at least not as a bottom-end Versa replacement. Even if Nissan did add the Micra to its US lineup, that $9,998 price tag probably wouldn't carry over as advertised. American customers wouldn't necessarily cotton on to the stripped version, especially when our cheapest, $11,990 Versa comes standard with things like Bluetooth and A/C. In Canada, you have to pay $14,798 CAD to get those things on your four-door Versa – well over than the $11,898 CAD base MSRP.

The poutine craze has made its way through Detroit and is finding new friends all across the US. It's not for everyone, and this gravy-and-fries extravaganza won't be usurping cheeseburgers and hot dogs as American favorites anytime soon. And though US customers won't be letting go of their midsize sedans and pickup trucks (and Versas), methinks this little Micra has what it takes to carve out a space for itself, should Nissan ever decide it needs another small car in our market.


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