What's New for 2009
The 2009 Nissan Versa sedan is now available in value-leading 1.6 Base and 1.6 models powered by a new 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine.
For all the exciting, uniquely styled vehicles Nissans sells, the 2009 Versa isn't one of them. This is a car that looks plain, drives plain and just generally emotes plain. It makes vanilla seem spicy and an Amish girl look like Amy Winehouse. OK, so maybe that goes a mile too far, but the fact remains that the Nissan Versa will never set your heart a-flutter when you approach it in your garage, or make girlfriends go "Oh, it's so cute!" However, the little Versa hatchback and sedan will provide comfortable, fuel-efficient transportation for commuting and errand-running. If that's all you're expecting, the Versa is definitely worth a look -- just don't expect anything more.
For 2009, both Versa body styles carry over virtually unchanged with the exception of a new, smaller 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine for entry-level sedan models. The 1.6 won't blow the doors off anything not made by Smart, but helps keep the base Versa cheap. Other Versa models roll with a gutsy (for a subcompact, that is) 1.8-liter four that strikes a good balance between performance and fuel economy. For the best of both, we highly recommend the Versa SL hatchback and its continuously variable transmission (CVT). Both sedan and hatchback feature a tall body that looks kinda goofy to our eyes (especially the sedan), but certainly provides an airy cabin feel. The hatchback boasts impressive cargo space, although the folding rear seat doesn't fold completely flat as it does in Honda's Fit.
One area where the 2009 Nissan Versa shines is in feature content. While the base car has little more than a stereo and A/C, the higher-level SL trim can be tricked out with such niceties as Bluetooth, keyless ignition/entry, sunroof, satellite radio, iPod integration and upgraded speakers. If you want lots of toys for a low price, the Versa is certainly attractive. A Scion xD is also worth a look if you desire more interesting styling.
As gas prices rise, fuel-efficient compacts like the Versa are becoming more popular. Nissan's is one of the better entries, albeit only for the right type of buyer. To wit, we had a pair of class-leading subcompact hatchbacks in our long-term test fleet: the Versa and a Honda Fit Sport. During its yearlong stay, the Versa SL hatchback left our enthusiastic staffers cold, so it struggled to reach 16,000 miles -- most long-term test cars hit the 20 grand mark. Over the same time, the Fit didn't have a problem hitting the 20,000-mile goal, a credit to it being more fun to drive and having (ironically) a more versatile cargo hold.
Consequently, we'd recommend the Fit before the 2009 Nissan Versa. However, more comfort-minded consumers may better appreciate the Nissan's quieter cabin, cushier seats and higher available feature content. Just be prepared for plain.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The compact 2009 Nissan Versa is available in four-door hatchback and sedan body styles. The two lowest trim levels -- 1.6 Base and 1.6 -- are available in sedan form only. The 1.6 Base comes standard with 14-inch steel wheels, a tilt steering column, intermittent wipers and not much else. The 1.6 adds air-conditioning. Stepping up to the S trim level brings a choice of either the hatchback or sedan body style with standard 15-inch steel wheels, air-conditioning, a 60/40-split-folding rear seatback (hatchback) and a four-speaker stereo with CD player. The Power Package for the S adds power windows and locks, rear door map pockets and remote keyless entry, and there's also an available cruise control package.
The Versa SL adds the content of the S trim's optional packages as well as 15-inch alloy wheels, driver seat height adjustment, 60/40-folding rear seats (sedan) upgraded cloth upholstery, softly padded door armrests, a rear-seat center armrest and a six-speaker stereo with in-dash six-CD changer, auxiliary audio jack and satellite radio preparation.
Optional on the SL is a Convenience Package that adds keyless ignition/entry, Bluetooth and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. Also available are a sunroof, satellite radio, iPod integration (requires satellite radio) and an audio package with a 100-watt Rockford Fosgate subwoofer and upgraded speakers. The Versa SL hatchback can additionally be equipped with a Sport package that adds a rear roof spoiler, a lower body kit and foglights. Interior accent lighting is optional on all Versas.
Powertrains and Performance
The front-wheel-drive 2009 Nissan Versa comes with one of two engines. 1.6 Base and 1.6 sedans are powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that makes 107 horsepower and 111 pound-feet of torque. The 1.6 is paired with the standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic. All other Versas feature a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 122 hp and 127 lb-ft of torque. The Versa S comes standard with a six-speed manual, while a four-speed automatic is optional. The latter transmission is standard on the Versa SL sedan. The Versa SL hatchback comes with a CVT that improves performance and fuel economy.
Acceleration is about average for the segment with the 1.8-liter engine, with the Versa's 0-60-mph performance taking 9.5 seconds. Expect the 1.6-liter engine to lag a few paces behind. Nissan says the 1.6 will return 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway (33 with the automatic). This is barely better than the 1.8. EPA-estimated fuel economy for the 1.8 with the four-speed automatic -- 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined -- while the Versa SL with the CVT gets 27/33/29.
The 2009 Nissan Versa comes standard with front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Antilock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist are an option on all Versas, a fact that's ridiculous given it costs a mere $250 -- or the same as a rear spoiler. Nissan should make ABS standard and just bump the price up, as most folks expect this feature. In fact, most dealerships will likely stock only Versas with antilock brakes.
In government crash tests, the Versa scored four out of five stars for all occupants in both front and side tests. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Versa its highest rating of "Good" in the frontal-offset and side crash tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
The Nissan Versa's interior is notable for its spaciousness. Its tall roof makes headroom a non-issue, and its expansive legroom lets 6-foot passengers sit comfortably in either the front or rear. A fifth person can be wedged into the rear center seat, though the Versa's skinny body makes it a squeeze. Interior design is plain, but controls are simple and easy to use. Optional items like keyless ignition/entry, Bluetooth and satellite radio are welcome goodies in this budget-friendly car.
One feature we particularly liked during our time with a long-term Versa SL hatchback was the super-soft front armrests that stand in stark contrast to the hard, unwelcoming surfaces usually found in economy cars. We also found the overstuffed front seats comfortable during hour-long commutes, but support faded on longer drives. Unlike Honda's Fit, the Versa hatchback's split rear seat doesn't fold even with the cargo floor, but lowering it reveals a sizable 50.4 cubic feet of space. Likewise, the sedan's 13.8-cubic-foot trunk is on the large side for its segment, but doesn't come close to being as Versa-tile as the hatchback.
Despite owning one for a year, it's hard to remember driving impressions of the Nissan Versa, as it provides thoroughly forgettable transportation from Point A to Point B. This is without doubt a vehicle for those who don't care about driving excitement.
A soft suspension and those squishy seats combine to cosset the driver's backside with a relatively cloudlike ride for such a small car, but the suspension gets out of sorts with multiple people aboard or over rough pavement. That soft suspension doesn't do the Versa any favors around corners, either, and the tall body and artificial steering feel further detract from the experience.
The 1.8-liter engine is a strong point, though, as it offers a solid midrange punch that makes it more than adequate around town. Just don't expect much from the base 1.6-liter mill, which was brought stateside solely to help keep the base Versa's price under $10,000. Our long-term Versa tester came equipped with the six-speed manual transmission, and although we usually recommend rowing your own gears in low-powered vehicles, the Versa is an exception. The low-effort clutch was difficult to modulate, while the shifter was rubbery and toylike. We're not fans of the four-speed automatic either, so if you can spring for the SL hatchback and its CVT, do so. We also highly recommend getting the optional antilock brakes for obvious safety and performance reasons.