Nissan adds comfort, a few extra horses, and Versa-tility to the subcompact class
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.
High-powered Hemis are fun, but for everyday usability and efficiency, the 122-horsepower Nissan Versa provides plenty of gusto for scooting around town, and with a little patience, will even climb to excessive speeds on the highway. Of course, too much of that and you end up with a combined fuel economy rating of 24.8 rather than a figure in the 30s. At least that's what happened to us. There's not a lot in the way of power reserves, so make sure to leave some room for freeway passes. A bit unique to this class, the Nissan Versa's smooth six-speed transmission makes shifting fun in a compact, though limited power behind each gear means you're shifting a lot, and the clutch is a bit grabby just before its release point. Also worth noting is that despite that six-cog transmission, revs still climb past 3,000 rpm at highway speeds.
It would seem that Nissan created the Versa as an economy car first, with everything else coming in second, including handling. With its relatively tall body, the 2007 Nissan Versa can get tossed around a bit on a windy, wide-open stretch of road. However, this little hatchback, wagon, or whatever category-of-the-day you want to place it in can hold its own on twisty roads with minimal body roll and a controllable amount of understeer. With hands planted firmly at the 9 and 3 positions, a driver's tactile senses will pick up some road feel, and the level of responsiveness is fine for an everyday compact, though Corvette and Mitsubishi Evolution owners need not turn green with envy.
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.
It may be susceptible to cross winds, but the 2007 Nissan Versa's tall body allows for generous amounts of glass that afford plenty of visibility. Checking lanes before merging is a cinch thanks to a clear view all around. Ample side mirrors aid in the effort. If there are any things to complain about, they'd be the rear pillars that are just a hair on the wide side, and rear headrests that slightly hamper visibility. However, these are minor issues and likely only noticed when one is specifically looking at areas for possible improvement.
Fun to Drive
For drivers familiar with more powerful vehicles, the only challenge here is getting used to the 2007 Nissan Versa's 122 horsepower. A test drive of the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit should help put things in perspective. Once acclimated, there's some fun to be had wringing out the four-banger for a spirited jaunt, while rowing through the six-speed tranny can be quite entertaining. The Versa's powertrain provides a level of fun (not a particularly high level, but a level of fun nonetheless) uncommon to compact rides. Even corners can garner some smiles, provided you pay the squealing tires their due respect and stay within the limits.
Apparently, Nissan never got the memo specifying crummy seats for economy cars. Instead, the Versa features great front buckets that are spacious, soft yet supportive, and in the case of the versions like our 1.8 SL, height-adjustable. Also on SL models are padded door sills, padded door armrests, and a padded fold-down center armrest, all serving to increase the comfort level. A tilting, leather-wrapped steering wheel is smooth to the touch and provides for a suitable driving position, while padded plastic on the center console and lower doors prevent knees from rubbing against hard surfaces in hard corners. Even with the seat jacked up, the Versa affords front occupants generous head room, and wide-opening doors permit easy entry and exit. Our only notable gripes include insufficient side bolsters and a shifter that feels an inch or so too low.
Like the front buckets, the Nissan Versa's rear bench seat is a comfy place to watch the miles roll by. Cushions are soft, outboard passengers are granted adjustable headrests, and 1.8 SL models feature a fold-down center armrest as well as padded door armrests and sills. Riders of all sizes will appreciate generous amounts of overall room, while soft seatbacks ensure long-legged travelers' knees won't be bruised. The 60/40 split folding seat is set at a comfortable recline position; the center seat, with its raised center armrest acting as a hard plank, is the least hospitable spot and not favored for long trips. Finally, the design of the rear doors may cause passengers to rub a pants leg against the wheel well when stepping out of the Versa.
Economy cars are purchased for a number of reasons, yet add a quiet ride to that list and you're typically setting yourself up for disappointment. Not so with the 2007 Nissan Versa, a model that is designed to keep out a surprising amount of noise. There's some non-intrusive wind whistling at highway speeds, minimal road noise, and squealing tires that accompany every corner attacked with the slightest bit of spirit, yet none of it is terribly bothersome, and all is well within the expected bounds of an economy car. Even the four-cylinder engine is quiet except for when it's wrung out, at which point it remains relatively refined.
Compared to sedans and coupes, five-door hatchbacks like the Versa are, well, versatile. And while this little Nissan may indeed be more cargo-friendly than a Honda Civic Coupe, it has its limitations, such as a trunk opening that's a bit narrow and a low tailgate when it's raised – watch your head. The second-row split bench seatbacks don't fold flat and lack a tumble mechanism, serving to limit available space. A handy cargo cover attaches to the seatback with Velcro, making for quick and easy removal. The trunk is ample when the second-row bench is raised, but the combination of forward-angled rear glass and the reclined seatbacks may prove to be a problem when attempting to transport tall boxes. And for models with the optional Rockford-Fosgate sound system, a large subwoofer eats up valuable real estate on the left side of the cargo area.
As an economy car priced well below $20,000, shoppers considering the 2007 Nissan Versa would be right to expect materials commensurate with the figure on the sticker. That's an issue of materials quality, which we'll discuss on the next page – build quality is an entirely different issue, one focused mainly on how well the materials fit together, and should be top-notch regardless of price.
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.
In addition to being well built, the Nissan Versa includes materials not entirely typical of an economy car. In particular, the 1.8 SL model offers upgraded cloth upholstery and padded plastics with matching grain patterns, a huge improvement over the hard panels found in not only other inexpensive vehicles, but pricier models, too. We were also pleased to find the leather on the shift knob and steering wheel to be soft, while the mesh headliner overhead imparted a sense of quality. Furthermore, there was a solid feel to the dials and controls. Cost-cutting can sometimes be easy to see, especially when a manufacturer is hell bent on keeping the price down, but such measures are hard to recognize in the Versa 1.8 SL. The 1.8 S, lacking the SL's upgraded interior materials, likely conforms to what buyers expect in an entry-level economy car.
Beauty is only skin deep. Believe that, and you and the 2007 Nissan Versa should get along fine. Otherwise, y'all might have some intimacy issues. Visually, the Versa has its shares of positive cues, such as the signature Nissan grille, swept head and taillights, and a slightly raised hood that suggests there's some power under the skin. But the hatchback's tail needs some work, since the rear-angled side glass and forward-angled D-pillars break up the design flow, and the greenhouse, while benefiting visibility, looks disproportionately tall.
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.
It may be a small car, but the Nissan Versa delivers big in terms of interior storage. Up front is a huge glovebox, large storage pockets with integrated cupholders featured on each of the front doors, and a deep slot above the radio on the instrument panel. The 1.8 SL includes a center armrest with lined storage, an overhead sunglass holder, and numerous little cubbies for cell phones, parking cards, or various other types of commuting or road trip paraphernalia. Two additional cupholders are positioned forward of the shifter.
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.
If there's one reason to consider the 1.8 SL version of the 2007 Nissan Versa, it's the availability of certain options. In particular, upgraded speakers with a Rockford-Fosgate subwoofer can only be had with the 1.8 SL, as is the case with XM or Sirius satellite radio. That's above and beyond the standard 180-watt sound system which includes a six-disc CD changer, MP3/WMA player, and an auxiliary jack for your iPod. Basic radio controls include a dial for volume and buttons for seek and tuning functions. There are also clearly marked, easy to use audio controls on the steering, but again, these are features unique to the Versa 1.8 SL (when equipped with the Convenience Package).
The Nissan Versa's climate control system is a good example of simplicity at its finest. Mercedes-Benz and BMW, with their fancy COMAND and iDrive central control systems, may have you thinking there's a better way. Don't believe it. Instead of burying functions within a confusing electronic setup or offering poorly marked miniscule buttons, the Versa offers three dials – one for fan speed, one for temperature, and one for airflow direction. That's it, basic and effective.
For the ultimate in easy-cheesy controls, pick up a 2007 Nissan Versa 1.8 S without any options. That way you'll get a ride with crank windows and manual locks, leaving little question about where various power buttons are located. However, if you're anything like us, you've grown accustomed to having electric motors manage the windows and locks, and therefore appreciate a car like the Versa, where such buttons are logically placed on the door panel right where you'd expect. Power mirror controls are placed on the left dash by the driver's knee, which after the door switch panel, is the second place most folks would look. Rounding out the familiar placement locations are cruise control buttons on the steering wheel and sunroof buttons placed overhead.
Test Vehicle: 2007 Nissan Versa SL Hatchback
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
Nissan Versa – Brian Chee's Opinion:
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