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.
Nissan engineers have granted the Versa a controlled and comfortable ride which absorbs bumps well and without any ill effects on handling. Likewise, braking is well modulated and effective. If there was a weak point to recognize about our drive, it had to be those Continental ContiPro Contact tires fitted to our tester, which squealed like a distressed pig at the slightest provocation.
Fun to Drive
Based on our tester, Nissan seems to understand the concept. Our Versa's interior was marked by tight, securely-fastened panels and pieces, with the only demerits doled out for a loose front center armrest cover and inconsistent gaps around the glovebox. No, it's not perfect, but we've seen much worse in luxury cars costing several times the Versa's price. Likewise, the exterior was largely free of issues, featuring consistent gaps as well as properly aligned body and fascia panels. Except for some orange peel texture in the paint, our Nissan Versa test car was a fine example of proper fit and finish.
The Versa's interior carries its own share of highs and lows. Kudos for the matching plastics, the door inserts that match the seat material, and the alloy-like finish on the shifter plate, door handles, steering wheel spokes, gauge rings, and door switch panels. Not so appealing is the dash that is comprised of multiple pieces, allowing for a hodge-podge appearance and the likely collection of dust and dirt in the multiple seams.
Rear seat passengers enjoy small storage pockets on the doors and a couple of small cubbies. Again, the 1.8 SL goes one further with a fold-down center armrest that includes two cupholders. Unfortunately, there are no handy map pockets on the front seatbacks.
Price of Test Vehicle: $17,255 (including a $605 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 1.8-liter four-cylinder
Engine Horsepower: 122 at 5,200 rpm
Engine Torque: 127 lb.-ft. at 4,800 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Curb weight, lbs.: 2,739
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 30/34 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 24.8 mpg
Length: 169.1 inches
Width: 66.7 inches
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Height: 60.4 inches
Leg room (front/rear): 41.4/38.0 inches
Head room (front/rear): 40.6/38.3 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Five
Max. Cargo Volume: 50.4 cubic feet
Competitors: Chevrolet Aveo, Dodge Caliber, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Rio, Kia Spectra, Scion xA, Scion xB, Suzuki Forenza, Suzuki Reno, Toyota Yaris
So she says to me, why not? Why not take the kid in the Versa and head out to Costco for a 68-pack of toilet paper, fourteen cases of coffee and a couch?
Joking about the couch. At the time, at that moment, I thought my wife was insane. That little car, all that cargo, the kid. Yes, the interior materials are nice, the seats are comfortable and it seems like a value, given its sub-$15,000 starting price. The Versa also has a peppy ride, for an econobox. But all of that – in there? After getting every stick of Costco goods – and a few things from Home Depot – into the back of that car, with kid in booster, I was most impressed with the interior, its cargo space and the design. It's a treat to drive a smart, small car, one that could actually live big enough for a family to use. Of course, for that to happen, Dad and Mom will have to suck it up and get used to a powertrain that whines like a brat and rocks around corners like a boat, but they could do it. They really could – but then, why? With a real-world rating of only 24 miles per gallon, what's the next reason to buy a Versa?
Nissan Versa – Christian Wardlaw's Opinion:
This is a terrific little car. It's peppy, handles decently, offers a compliant ride, has comfortable seating front and rear, and offers the utility of a hatchback in a uniquely styled package chock-full of quality materials and thoughtful touches. Check out the one-touch operation of the driver's window and sunroof. Note the soft-touch materials in all the spots where the driver and passengers are likely to touch. Enjoy the iPod input jack for the impressive audio system. Feel secure with the side curtain airbags. There's even an available keyless locking and ignition system. Little about this car says low-budget to me. The seat adjustment levers are poorly located, there is a smattering of inexpensive plastics, and the manual transmission exhibits a vague, rubbery quality combined with a clutch that can be hard to use. Otherwise, from the refined and rev-happy motor and responsive brakes to the tall driving position and outstanding control layout, the Versa is a great way to combat rising fuel prices as long as you keep your foot out of the accelerator (we didn't, and got terrible mileage). Plus, it's stylish to boot. If you're in the market for a small car, you need to test drive the Nissan Versa.
Photos courtesy of Nissan and Ron Perry