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In the past, to drive a small and inexpensive car was like eating a bowl of Top Ramen: Every taste was a reminder of what we weren't getting in a package of the most basic ingredients.
Now, however, fueled by burgeoning demand and increased competition, carmakers are offering much more savory automotive fare, full of appealing ingredients, for surprisingly low prices. It's like getting a can of Wolfgang Puck's minestrone for the cost of packaged noodles.
This trend is, of course, being led by the Asian manufacturers, who have lots of experience building and selling econocars around the world and have been quicker to adapt those platforms to the fickle demands of the American market. Among the contenders are the Chevrolet Aveo, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio5, Scion xA, Suzuki Reno, Toyota Yaris and this little morsel, the 2007 Nissan Versa.
Before now, testing this sort of small and inexpensive car — all of these have base prices of less than $15,000 — used to be like wrapping our bare thighs with barbed wire, but today's crop of cheap cars affects us less like penance and more like a prayer answered.
In fact, this Versa SL, which wears a small smattering of options, tasted pretty good.
Definition of a world car
The first offspring of Nissan's marriage with Renault to arrive on U.S. shores, the Versa is an amalgam of Japanese technology, French design and Mexican manufacturing (the same factory where the Sentra is built), trimmed and tuned for an American audience. Sold elsewhere under the Nissan Tiida badge, the hatchback Versa arrives this July with a base price of $13,255. A sedan version will follow after the first of next year.
The Versa's got the same goofy-looking profile of most small and tall hatchbacks, but it's moderated somewhat by the long, 102.4-inch wheelbase. Powering the beast is an all-aluminum, 1.8-liter DOHC four that was especially designed for the car. Its 122 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque are above average for the class and a six-speed manual transmission is standard. A four-speed automatic (optional only on S models) and a continuously variable transmission (only for SL models) are also available.
The front brakes are disc, the rears are drum and ABS is a $250 option, but six airbags are standard. We like the standard fitment of active headrests and the tire-pressure monitor system as well. Standard running gear is 15-inch steel wheels with 185/65R15 all-season tires. SL models, like our tester, ride on alloy wheels.
Loads of content
Nissan's Versa strategy is rooted in the car's high levels of standard equipment and a spacious, well-tailored interior. Base S models arrive with plenty of amenities, from a CD player and air conditioning to a tilt steering column, variable intermittent wipers and 60/40-folding rear seatbacks.
The higher-content SL packs a 180-watt stereo with an in-dash six-disc CD changer; cruise control; a soft pad across the top of the instrument panel; driver-seat height adjustment; woven cloth seat trim; a rear-seat center armrest with cupholders; rear door pockets; remote keyless entry; power door locks, windows and mirrors; an overhead console; and a map lamp. Our tester wore the optional $700 Convenience Package, which includes an Intelligent Key entry system, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, steering wheel audio switches and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. It also had the $300 Audio Package that adds a Rockford Fosgate-powered subwoofer and better speakers.
That's a very generous list of equipment for less than $17,000. So, what's the catch? Where did Nissan cut back so it could offer such a deal?
A nicely finished and roomy cabin
Well, it sure wasn't in the car's interior, which is spacious and well-tailored. With its tall roof, headroom isn't an issue except for NBA players, and the combined front and rear legroom lets 6-foot-plus passengers sit comfortably at all four positions. Yes, a fifth person can be wedged into the rear center seat, but only if they're especially friendly with their outboard companions. The Scion xA comes close to providing the same measure of legroom, but Honda's Fit offers almost 5 inches less rear legroom.
However, that also gives the Fit more luggage capacity (21.3 cubic feet) with the seats up than the Versa's 17.8 cubic feet. With the seats folded, though, the Versa's capacity stretches to an impressive 50.4 cubic feet compared to the Fit's 41.9 cubic feet.
Even in base trim, the upholstery is an upscale-texture suede tricot, the plastics appear to be pulled down from an upper-class car and even the faux carbon-fiber trim doesn't look too faux. The front seats, however, lack adequate side bolstering, and the cushions are too short for optimum thigh support. More comfortable are the rear seats, which are nicely sculpted and raked, and the seat cushions are slightly elevated for good forward visibility.
We found nothing wrong with our relationship to the thick-grip steering wheel, manual shifter and pedals, and the dash panel's switches and gauges were well placed for easy access and clarity. Unlike some recent cars aimed at a younger market, there are no "trick" lighting schemes or weird gauge placements to confuse the most important issue, the simple act of driving.
No chills, no thrills
And this is where the Versa shows its major compromises. It isn't being touted as a sport hatch, and it surely isn't. It's fairly quick off the line, but once the engine reaches 4,000 rpm, it begins to grumble loudly about the increased revs. Nor is the 1.8-liter four as smooth or refined as the Honda's smaller 1.5-liter engine, and though the Nissan engine is rated higher in both horsepower and torque, our testing showed it was no faster than the Fit due to the Nissan's extra 255 pounds of weight.
Pound through the gears of the quick-shifting six-speed and the Versa hits 60 mph in a leisurely 9.5 seconds. It takes 9.3 seconds in the Fit. The quarter-mile run is also a snore — 17.1 seconds at 81 mph. So it's no pocket rocket, but it's easy to drive, with a light clutch and short-throw shifter, and it averaged 26.8 mpg during our week of mixed driving.
Over smooth pavement, the ride quality is good, but the Versa's suspension compliance over rough road surfaces didn't impress us, its wheels tending to hop over obstructions rather than settling quietly back into place. The car feels tall in the corners, which is accentuated by plenty of body roll.
Through our slalom course the Versa was almost 5 mph slower than the Honda, and it pulled only 0.73g on the skid pad compared to the Fit's 0.79g. To be fair, the Fit we tested was a Sport edition and had the advantage of wider, lower-profile tires. A good set of performance tires would do similar wonders for the Versa's handling.
The electric power steering, however, is too slow to be called sporty, and it's hampered by on-center vagueness. Braking, too, was not exemplary. Even with the optional ABS, the Versa needs 136 feet to stop from 60 mph; the Honda needed only 123 feet. Credit again the Fit's grippier tires and lower mass.
It all depends on what you need
The Versa is an acceptably comfortable cruiser. As a commuter car, you couldn't find a nicer cockpit to stow passengers, but forget about running the canyons quickly. For its price, the list of equipment is hard to beat, and it's put together with higher-quality materials than recent bottom-end Nissans. Except for its rather pedestrian dynamics, it's a substantial banquet of goodness in a category that used to be as rewarding as a crust of bread.
System Score: 7.0
Components: The Versa's standard stereo has six speakers and an attractive head unit that is easy to use. The system plays MP3 CDs and has an auxiliary jack for connecting handheld MP3 players like an iPod. Our Versa was also equipped with the optional Rockford Fosgate-powered subwoofer and in-dash CD changer. Bluetooth and satellite radio are rare in cars like this but Nissan offers them as options.
Performance: The Versa's stereo offers decent sound and the sub delivers needed punch at the bottom end. The bass won't wow the homies on cruise night but it does offer a more full sound compared to the standard audio system. The highs are reproduced nicely, and boosting the treble brings out some of the details in the music.
This stereo's low point is separation. Too many different notes and sounds are competing for attention and it all turns into a sonic mess at high volumes. Also, there's no midrange adjustment, which is a disappointment. On the other hand, this system does have an MP3 auxiliary jack — nice for the price (Honda's Fit and Toyota's Yaris have it, too).
The head unit is clean-looking and attractive, with a large volume knob placed in the center. We also like Nissan's newly revised steering-wheel-mounted buttons. They are a significant improvement and are easier to use in the dark or without having to glance down — plus they have a nice tactile quality.
Best Feature: MP3 jack.
Worst Feature: Lack of serious bass.
Conclusion: Considering the Versa's price and competition, the audio system is right where it should be. It doesn't have a premium sound but it's not disappointing either. Overall this base stereo is very good but not exceptional. — Brian Moody
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Nissan Versa won't wow anyone but it does seem to be a more substantial, roomy car than others in its class like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. With the manual transmission it's also more fun to drive than both of those cars. The Versa also seems like a more refined, higher-quality vehicle than the Yaris. In this category of low-priced, basic transportation I'd probably pick the Versa over the competition solely because of the roomy interior. Maybe if I were single I'd go with the Scion tC, but my coupe days are well behind me.
It's a good thing Nissan just introduced a new Sentra at the North American International Auto Show because the Versa is a clear step above the current Sentra. Nissan gave the Versa a fairly nice interior. It's not upscale but it is of a higher quality than we've previously seen in cars like the Sentra. Nissan also deserves credit for making sure the Versa has an MP3 auxiliary jack, because buyers in this segment are going to expect that kind of thing. The availability of Bluetooth and Intelligent Key in a car at this price point is also very impressive.
The Versa hatchback offers typical hatchback storage space and a variety of rear-seat configurations, but the deal-breaker for me, the one thing that might actually get me to buy this over similar cars is the rear-seat legroom. It's very comfortable and there's plenty of room for a rear-facing child seat.
Even though the Versa's pricing starts at around $12,000, it seems more like a regular car — I like it because, unlike other cars in this class, the Versa doesn't force me into a compromise just because I want or can only afford a subcompact.
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says:
It's now officially crowded at the bottom end of the economy car segment: Nissan's Versa is one of six small hatchbacks competing for your new-car dreams and marginal credit rating in 2007. When I saw the Versa at the Detroit show in January, I thought its larger 1.8-liter engine, roomy backseat and mildly aggressive styling might set it apart, but after driving it, I'm not sure it has the personality to dominate this class.
Granted, the 1.8-liter engine does provide impressive passing power. Problem is, all the good stuff resides above 4,000 rpm, and the engine is noisy and unrefined at these speeds. I enjoyed shifting the six-speed manual gearbox, but most buyers will probably end up with the CVT, which gives you considerably less control over the powerband.
At a constant cruise, the cabin turned out to be surprisingly well insulated from wind and road noise. And the ride quality was comfortable and stable at high speeds. Handling isn't bad for this class, either, with nicely weighted steering and a predictable cornering attitude. Put on some stickier tires and the Versa would get around turns pretty quickly. Brake pedal feel is mediocre, though, and even moderate efforts send the front end diving for pennies.
Inside, Nissan's Versa has all the right stuff: comfortable seats, simple controls, an MP3 player jack and decent-quality materials. It's a very livable setup, but there's no one thing about the Versa that makes me want to run out and buy one instead of a late-model used car. And that could be an issue as Nissan positions its new hatchback against the ultrarefined Honda Fit and always-cool Scion xB.
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