Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
Recessions can create windows of opportunity, and Nissan certainly realized this when it rolled out the Versa 1.6 in November of last year. Up until that point, the S had been the Versa's most affordable trim level, but the 1.6 -- equipped with a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine and a thinned, positively emaciated list of available features (one that excludes basics like power windows) -- undercut its price by thousands. The manufacturer's intent was clear: to create a value-filled car that would appeal to the most cash-strapped, recession-plagued shoppers.
The resolutely sensible 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 sedan does certain things quite well. Its roomy interior facilitates comfort, and its spacious trunk adds utility; its cabin also features a fair number of soft-touch surfaces -- a rarity in the ultra-budget segment. But like the single-minded college student who chooses study hall over beer-drenched bacchanals, this practical Nissan isn't exactly a party animal -- both the Honda Fit and the Hyundai Accent are more fun to be with.
The 1.6 is so tightly focused on frugality that it doesn't even allow you the indulgence of happily humiliating yourself with air-guitar solos at red lights -- believe it or not, this trim isn't available with a radio. Thankfully, it comes pre-wired for audio, so adding some tunes shouldn't be much of a problem.
The 2009 Nissan Versa might be less convivial than the Fit, but its base price is almost $5,000 cheaper; more than just inexpensive, this Nissan is the most inexpensive new car on the market. And when you put it all together, the Versa 1.6 -- with its spacious cabin and comfy seats -- delivers more than most would expect, given its unassuming price. If the words "basic" and "inexpensive" sum up what you're looking for in a new car, you'll want to spend some time getting to know this very cheap date.
Under the hood is an industrious 1.6-liter engine good for 107 horsepower and 111 pound-feet of torque; it's paired with a five-speed manual transmission. On paper, this combo is less saucy than that of the manual-equipped S, which is decked out with a six-speed manual transmission and a 1.8-liter engine serving up 122 hp and 127 lb-ft of torque.
Surprisingly, though, the 1.6 doesn't come across as being a step down from its more endowed sibling. It never feels overwhelmed on the road, and its transmission actually feels more compliant than that of the S -- its shifter is more direct and easier to engage. Acceleration is capable. Our 2009 Nissan Versa test car made it from zero to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds, a time that ties the Hyundai Accent's and beats the 10.2-second jog of the Honda Fit.
Ride quality is somewhat mushy; on the plus side, though, bumps and inconsistencies are kept at arm's length. Steering is nicely weighted, but less precise than that of others in this class. The slalom run was completed at 63.3 mph -- a speed that's slightly ahead of the Fit's, but 2 mph slower than the Accent's.
Chalk this loss up to the Versa's towering stature and corresponding higher center of gravity. Our test-driver noted that while its response time is initially better than the Accent's, the sedan's tall height doesn't work in its favor as it tackles the cones. The Versa manages a decent showing when it comes to braking. A panic stop was achieved from 60 mph in 132 feet, a figure that's slightly ahead of the Fit's (136 feet).
The Versa 1.6 is rated at 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined. This fuel economy is about average for the segment -- neck-and-neck with that of the Fit and the Accent, but trailing that of the ultra-frugal Chevy Aveo (30 mpg combined) and Toyota Yaris (32 mpg combined).
The 2009 Nissan Versa rewards its pilot with a clear view of the road ahead thanks to its high, upright driver seat. Our test car wasn't equipped with height-adjustable seating, but its standard tilt steering column allowed for some customization of the driving position. The oversized seats are plush and comfortable, though some editors noted that they became less agreeable on longer road trips. Front legroom is ample, and the tall Versa offers more headroom than most rivals.
Rear legroom is class-leading; however, the Versa's relative narrowness makes its backseat a tight fit for three passengers. Taller editors complained that the rear-seat cushions were too short to properly support their longer limbs.
There's quite a bit of road and wind noise to contend with; our editors noted whistling coming from the A-pillar, along with abundant tire slap. The engine also becomes unpleasantly raucous when pushed. While most competitors are pretty clamorous, there are more serene choices to consider, like the Hyundai Accent.
Circled with metallic trim, the 2009 Nissan Versa's gauges feature attractive fonts and a legible layout. Heating and air-conditioning are governed by the tried-and-true three-knob setup that's intuitive and easy to use. Less user-friendly are the sedan's window cranks; they're placed quite low on the door, and this makes them awkward to access. When you want to roll down the windows in low light or at night, the floor-grazing location of the cranks makes them difficult to find.
Decent storage opportunities are to be had within the cabin. The door bins are wide and deep; there's also a deep glovebox, along with covered center-console bins. The space normally occupied by a radio has a fairly capacious storage nook. The sedan's four cupholders are well-placed -- they're on the center console, but they're far from the shifter, so you can use them without compromising your ability to change gears.
The sedan's second row is spacious enough to accommodate a rear-facing child seat placed directly behind the driver, with enough room for even our taller editors to fit behind the wheel. Its trunk is roomy, too -- with 13.8 cubes of space, the Versa's is one of the larger trunks in its segment, and it's generous enough to gulp down golf clubs and a standard-size suitcase. However, accessing the trunk is a bit of a hassle, since there's no trunk release latch within the cabin. The trunk locks every time it is closed, and can only be opened by inserting the key.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Versa's sheet metal -- with its inoffensive curves and meek snub nose -- is nondescript, but in its favor, it doesn't look ultra-cheap. The car's exterior could easily trick onlookers into thinking it costs more (well, a little bit more) than it actually does, and the same is true of its cabin. Seats are swathed in supple tricot suede, and the same fabric lines soft-touch panels on the doors and the dash.
Our test car's panel gaps and alignment were in keeping with economy-car norms -- in other words, they were pretty inconsistent. In some places, the alignment was fine, but the gaps on our car's trunk were so wide they initially fooled us into thinking someone had left the trunk open.
Who should consider this vehicle
Its spacious trunk and roomy cabin make the 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 a good choice for smaller families with an eye on maximizing savings. Bargain-minded seniors will also like it for its high, comfortable seats and easily accessible cabin. Finally, this sedan is a must-see for all new-car shoppers seeking the most basic transportation at the lowest price.
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