Caroline Pardilla, Deputy Managing Editor
A clown car phenomenon is sweeping the auto industry. The Scion xA, Honda Fit, Kia Rio5 and Toyota Yaris are all not only comically shaped but capable of cramming five passengers into their diminutive proportions. Born out of rising gas prices and long wait lists for hybrids, this trick gets you high fuel-efficiency and a low sticker price without having to sacrifice people-hauling capability.
A new player in the subcompact circus, the 2007 Nissan Versa is the first shared platform between Nissan and its parent company Renault. Built on the carmaker's "B" platform, the Versa already populates roads all over the world as the Renault Clio and Nissan Tiida.
We've already tried out the brand-new subcompact competitors from Honda and Toyota, and were mightily impressed with the Fit, but not so much with the Yaris. Eager to see where the Versa hatchback fell into the order of small things, we sampled two versions for this first drive, one with a six-speed manual transmission and one with the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Coming attractions When the new Versa hatchback hits dealerships in early summer 2006 (late 2006 for the sedan version), economy-car shoppers will get to choose between two trim levels. The base 1.8 S is simply equipped with air conditioning, power mirrors, a split-folding 60/40 rear seat, 15-inch wheels and a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic. If you're worried about the safety angle, Nissan has you covered, as every Versa comes standard with front-seat-mounted side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags.
Those seeking more conveniences can go with the 1.8 SL, which comes standard with alloy wheels, cruise control, power windows and locks, keyless entry, an in-dash CD changer, an auxiliary input jack for MP3 players, alloy wheels and a six-speed manual or Nissan's Xtronic CVT.
We sampled a silver 1.8 SL hatchback CVT and a blue 1.8 SL six-speed, both optioned out with the ABS Package (ABS, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and BrakeAssist), Convenience Package (Bluetooth, a keyless ignition system and a leather-wrapped steering wheel) and a sunroof. Although a base model starts at $12,300, the 1.8 SL starts at $14,950, and our testers cost between $16,000 and $17,000.
Other options include a sport package, an audio package, satellite radio and leather seats.
Decent cosmic powers Yes, Nissan is still offering a conventional four-speed automatic transmission as an option on the base S model. Although the carmaker expects the 1.8 S with the conventional automatic to be the volume seller, it admits it's only offering the transmission as a stopgap measure. Fact is, there just aren't enough CVTs to fill demand because the same unit will be used in the redesigned 2007 Sentra. Both cars will be built at the same plant in Mexico.
Powered by a DOHC, 1.8-liter inline four, the front-wheel-drive Versa packs 122 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 127 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Pound on it and the engine grows loud and buzzy above 4,000 rpm, but not enough to deter us from finding its 6,500-rpm redline.
Although our CVT-equipped SL hatch provides peppy pickup when jumping on the freeway, we still prefer the Renault-designed and -built six-speed manual that seems to get more thrust out of the little engine. It also has a smooth clutch engagement and slick shifter.
Mileage with the CVT is an estimated 30 city and 36 highway versus 28/34 with the four-speed automatic and 30/34 with the six-speed manual.
At a constant cruise, the cabin is surprisingly well insulated from wind and road noise, and the ride quality is comfortable and stable at high speeds. Nissan has tuned the Versa's suspension specifically for American roads and driving styles, and the result is a little car with a solid, tied-to-the-road feel. We might even call it sporty.
The steering is also nicely weighted and precise. Often electric assist systems like the one in the Versa have an artificial feel, but not this time. The brakes, on the other hand, feel a bit wooden.
Itty bitty living space? The Versa surprised those who boarded it after prejudging the car too small to possibly be comfortable. On a dare, one editor took off with the baby Nissan and two friends for a weekend getaway, packing up luggage for three and two days' worth of groceries. Although bringing a fourth passenger seemed unthinkable due to the overflow of cargo taking up half of the backseat, no one complained about feeling boxed in. The comfortable seats, wide-open visibility and cupholders for all (dual front and rear) helped lessen their claustrophobia.
On an errand that unwittingly landed one editor parallel-parked in front of a Southern California Nissan dealership, the Versa drew out the curious 20-person sales team, none of whom had ever laid eyes on this all-new hatchback. For entertainment's sake, two meaty 6-foot-5 car salesmen squeezed into the backseat. "It's actually comfortable back here!" they laughed, sitting shoulder to shoulder with their knees grazing the front seats.
Although the Versa is the entry-level replacement for the Sentra, which will move up a notch in price in the '07 lineup, this subcompact actually outdoes the well-known sedan in interior space. Even compared to the redesigned 2007 Sentra, the hatch offers a class-leading 38 inches of backseat legroom, beating the Sentra's 34.5 inches. The hatchback's cargo space also overshadows the Sentra's 13.1-cubic-foot trunk space with 17.8 cubic feet (13.8 for the Versa sedan).
However, alongside direct competitors like the Fit, Yaris and Rio5, the Versa isn't the tiny titan it's billed to be. Although it has the most rear legroom, the Fit surpasses it in cargo volume (21.3 cubic feet) and rear headroom (38.6 inches versus 38.3).
At your fingertips Opinions were mixed on the Versa's interior materials quality. Swathed in a charcoal décor, both of our testers were furnished with attractive cloth upholstery and nicely textured plastics. Even the armrests on the door panels and center console are pleasantly cush. Despite the small touches of fake brushed aluminum, several editors felt the materials exuded a cheap roughness often associated with Nissans.
We liked the clean layout of the round gauges and the simple design of the radio and climate controls. Adjusting the temperature and fidgeting with audio settings while driving is a breeze. And with ample storage areas built into the doors, dash and center console, we always had a place for our knickknacks. The location of the seat controls is our only quibble. They're on the driver's right instead of the left because the door panels are too close to the seats for them to be in the traditional location. At least the driver seat is height adjustable.
Drum roll, please The more time we spent in the 2007 Nissan Versa, the more we grew to appreciate it. Sure, many editors found its looks unappealing, but compared to other clown cars in its price range, it packs in a lot of technology, horsepower and interior space for your money. Nissan hopes that trick will distinguish the new Versa from its many rivals.
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