In these days when $3-a-gallon gas is the reality and $4 may be just around the corner, small cars are making a lot more sense for commuters. Park the big luxury SUV in the garage during the week, replace your second car with an efficient little four-banger for the commute, and you’re likely to save a few thousand dollars on gas per year. That savings adds up quickly, leaving you more money to spend on weekend spa getaways, heirloom tomatoes at the local Whole Foods, or online poker games…however you’re inclined.
Automakers are getting ready for resurging small-car popularity, and this time they’re really taking advantage of the lessons learned in other regions of the world, where the price of gas is higher but, as small cars are often only cars, comfort is needed, too. Chalk in the long hauls that Americans routinely drive, and you can be sure their frugal and more comfortable small cars will be well received.
of the recent small-car brigade is the Versa (as in versatile). To be eventually
available in two four-door body styles, hatchback and sedan, the Versa is built
on Nissan’s new Global B Platform, which the smaller Nissan Micra shares, along
with Renault’s Clio — both cars successful in
Small car, big appeal
Of all the new small cars introduced over the past year — Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio — the Versa’s non-quirky styling, generous equipment, and upscale feel inside makes it staged to appeal to the widest range of buyers. Nissan is hoping especially to draw sales from Echo Boomers, the offspring of Baby Boomers, although the company admitted that buyers will come from all age groups.
Thanks in part to economies of scale and global
design-sharing, the Versa promises to be a bargain, and it’s a standout for a
number of reasons. While other competitors in this class are snazzed-up versions
of eco-boxes that are more modestly equipped (and powered) in other parts of the
world, the Versa is already sold as the Tiida in Japan, where it’s marketed as a
near-luxury car, with options like leather seating and a navigation system; and
it’s also already sold in China and
The 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine used in the Versa, termed MR18 within Nissan, is an all-new aluminum unit, designed particularly for the new platform and for compactness and high thermal efficiency. This engine has the intake manifold in front and the exhaust manifold in back — the opposite of Nissan fours in recent history — allowing smaller catalytic converters to be used. Its rating of 122 horsepower and 127 lb-ft of torque puts it near the top of the list in its class. The Sentra that’s on the way for this fall will have a 2.0-liter version of this same engine.
2007 Nissan VersaEnlarge Photo
The Versa we tested, over undulating backroads in
Quiet inside, for a budget ride
Refinement, especially powertrain refinement, is one of the Versa’s strong suits. The new engine has a silky-smooth, quiet idle that’s hard to notice, but rev it up and you’ll start hearing it. Compared to the Fit or Yaris, the Versa felt quieter inside with respect to both engine and road noise.
Wind noise, however, was an issue on our test vehicle. It seemed to be coming from the area of the front pillar and the side mirror. Admittedly, our test car was a pre-production example, so the trim and door seals might not have been quite up to par.
One of the reasons why the Versa just isn’t as sprightly as we expected is that it weighs more than much of the competition. Our test SL weighed in at 2779 pounds, which puts it at the top of the scales compared to competitors ranging from the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris to the Ford Focus.
In order to meet a low price point, Nissan left anti-lock brakes a stand-alone option, which allowed the budget to put side airbags and roof mounted side-curtain bags on the standard-equipment list. Active head restraints for the front seats and a tire-pressure monitoring system are also standard on all Versas.
Those seats are some of the most comfortable ones among small cars. With their style and passing inspired by those in the Maxima, they’re generously contoured and padded. In back, the very wide-opening doors make entry and exit easy, without ducking or contorting, and the seat itself is well contoured and rather comfortable. Nissan says that the size of the interior approaches that of mid-size cars, with a 72.3-inch-long cabin that has 94.4 cubic feet of interior volume and 17.8 cubic feet of cargo volume with the seats up (they fold forward easily, as with any good hatchback). Overall, the dash, instrument panel, and switchgear feel like they were lifted from Nissan’s more expensive offerings.
Standard equipment on the entry-model 1.8 S includes air-conditioning with filtration, a 120-watt AM/FM/CD sound system with four speakers, tilt-adjustable steering column, rear defroster, and body-colored mirrors, handles, and accents. The 1.8 SL upgrades to a 180-watt system with built-in six-disc changer, six speakers and aux input, plus cruise control, alloy wheels, height-adjustable seats, a rear center armrest with cupholders, keyless entry, power locks, windows, and mirrors, and an overhead console. Options include XM or Sirius satellite radio, an Intelligent Key entry system, Bluetooth hands-free phone compatibility, steering-wheel audio controls, leather trimmed steering wheel, a power sunroof, and a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer. There’s also a Sport Package available on the SL, which adds a rear roof spoiler, chin and side sill spoilers, and fog lights. Some larger wheels would complete the package. Nissan hinted that a NISMO version is already in the works.
Overall, those who enjoy driving will probably find that the Versa doesn’t feel quite as zippy and sporty as they might hope. But with the six-speed, some suspension tweaks, and a little more power, the Versa could be a pocket rocket on a tight budget.
And those looking for the comfortable, frugal commuter car won’t be disappointed, the Versa is a straightforward little car that defies the quirkiness of the Yaris and Fit, and feels roomy and refined beyond its bargain price.
Price: est. $12,000 base, $16,500 as tested
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Engine: 1.8-liter in-line four, 122 hp/127 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual, four-speed automatic, or CVT automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 169.1 x 66.7 x 60.4 in
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Curb weight: 2722–2779 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 30/36 mpg (CVT)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front-seat-mounted side airbags, side-curtain airbags, tire-pressure monitoring system, front-seat active head restraints
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power mirrors, tilt steering, 60/40-split folding rear seatback, rear defrost, cargo cover, four-speaker AM/FM/CD sound
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles