Nissan Versa – Driving Impressions: Making due with less is something we've all learned about at some point in life. Maybe it was when Dad got laid off, maybe it was during that drought in 1994, or maybe it was soon after receiving that initial tiny check from your first “real” job after college. Making due with less invariably involves a degree of sacrifice, like eating Kraft macaroni and cheese day in and out, watching the lawn turn brown to ensure there's enough tap water to boil your tasty and now familiar dinner, or driving home a relatively efficient, $17,000 Nissan Versa rather than a Nissan Armada SUV.
Regardless of what motivates the purchase of a small car – sticker price, fuel economy, size – subcompact vehicle buyers are growing in numbers, yet unlike the scenario more than 30 years ago, when small cars were little more than tinny boxes with a seat and a relatively efficient engine, today's subcompacts require minimal sacrifice. The 2007 Nissan Versa, for one, provides comfortable seating for four (with tighter quarters for five), standard side- and side-curtain airbags, air conditioning, a spacious interior and cargo area, and four-season-friendly front-wheel drive. A few thousand dollars more buys an upgraded interior and the power features the majority of buyers want. If there are detractions, they'd be the Versa's questionable styling and the 122-horsepower engine, the former just a fact of life and the latter capable of being run hard while still returning mileage in the 25-mpg range. Sacrifice shmacrifce.
Competition within the subcompact class is heating up thanks to new arrivals such as the 109-horsepower Honda Fit and the 106-horsepower Toyota Yaris. The 2007 Nissan Versa outdoes them both with its 1.8-liter, dual overhead cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine cranking out 122 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 127 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm. Three transmissions are available: a standard six-speed manual, an optional four-speed automatic, and an optional continuously variable automatic. Every Versa is guided along its path by a power rack-and-pinion steering assembly, while a suspension system comprised of front struts and a rear torsion beam, aided by anti-sway bars, controls the ride. Front vented discs coupled with rear drums are charged with stopping the smallest Nissan currently sold on these shores, available in five-door hatchback form and a soon-to-arrive sedan version. The Versa hatchback offers up to 17.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, compared to 21.3 cubic feet in the Honda Fit and 16 cubic feet in the five-door Kia Rio SX. Interior dimensions are generally similar to the competition, except the Versa provides a noticeable jump in rear leg room versus the Fit.
Base Versa hatchbacks, carrying the 1.8 S designation, are priced at $13,055 including a $605 destination charge. Besides the 122-horsepower engine and six-speed manual gearbox, the bare-bones Versa 1.8 S comes with suede door inserts, air conditioning, a 120-watt sound system with a CD player, a tilt steering wheel, 15-inch steel wheels rolling on 185/65 tires, a cargo cover, front-side and side-curtain airbags, front active headrests, and a tire pressure monitor. That covers the essentials for just more than $13,000, though the 1.8 S can be upgraded with options such as a four-speed automatic transmission ($800); a Power Package with power windows, power doors locks, keyless entry, and padded door armrests ($700); and four-wheel antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution ($250).
Starting at $15,055, the Versa 1.8 SL adds 15-inch alloy wheels, height-adjustable front bucket seats, upgraded cloth upholstery and soft-touch interior plastics, a rear fold-down armrest, a 180-watt stereo with a six-disc CD changer and MP3/WMA player, an iPod jack, the 1.8 S model's Power Package, cruise control, and a lower front console. Buyers of the Versa 1.8 SL may also opt for an Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission ($1,000); a Convenience Package with a keyless ignition system, voice-activated Bluetooth connectivity, and steering wheel audio controls ($700); a power sunroof ($600); a Rockford-Fosgate sound system ($300); a Sport Package with body accents and front fog lights ($700); and Sirius or XM satellite radio ($350).
Our Red Alert tester, a 2007 Nissan Versa 1.8 SL hatchback, was equipped with enough goodies to jack the price all the way up to $17,255, including the Convenience Package, power sunroof, Rockford-Fosgate sound system, antilock brakes, and satellite radio.