Nissan Versa – roomy with a view to practical

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Small cars have much to offer.

Most obvious, of course, is their fuel economy. Using less gas is a good thing. Frugality is a good thing for the pocketbook — and the environment.

A low purchase price is another advantage.

A small car’s ability to zip in and out of traffic and make use of the slimmest parking spots is yet another plus.

But small cars are, well, small. In many cases that’s not a good thing and in many cases that’s what keeps families from purchasing small. People in many circumstances are forced to buy bigger — gas mileage, purchase price and maneuverability aside.

But if you can somehow squeeze into small, you might be willing to sacrifice the luxury of space to drive economically and more environmentally friendly. And that’s where the sub-compact Nissan Versa shines. And you don’t even have to squeeze.

Its passenger compartment is amazingly roomy for a car that stretches only 169 inches from bumper to bumper with a miniscule width of less than 67 inches. Packaging is one of its strong suits.

The Versa also makes car-pooling at 35 miles to the gallon on regular gas a smart choice.
If you’re looking for something more fuel efficient for the car pool, but worry that your passengers will quickly complain about new-found but unwanted intimacy, check out the Versa.

There’s ample room for four adults. And we’re talking about enough head room and leg room for two 6-footers in the second row. We were amazed at the rear-seat space in our Versa hatchback test car.

There are numerous small cars now on the market that come highly recommended. Competition in the so-called B segment is getting fierce. But few come with the passenger space offered by the Versa, particularly the 43 cubic feet available for second-row passengers. Rear-seat legroom is 38 inches, more than any vehicle in its class.

And when cargo hauling is the order of the day, the Versa delivers a class-leading 50 cubic feet of space with the rear seatbacks folded. Conversely, cargo area is on the small side at 17.8 cubic feet with the second-row in use.

While space and fuel efficiency are the most significant attributes of the new-for-2007 Versa, it has other desirable qualities including solid performance from a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine especially at lower speeds, a rich-looking and quiet interior and a relatively compliant ride befitting a bigger car with a longer wheelbase.

Although the Versa hatch has the rather ungainly tall-roof look of many of its competitors, it has better proportions than, for instance, the Honda Fit. It comes with the signature Nissan grille flanked by large headlight enclosures.

Excellent use of plastic and cloth give the interior a satisfying look, and that’s where you will live. So a well done cockpit is important. Even our base 1.8 S trim level test car had rich-looking and nice-feeling black suede upholstery. The driver’s seat was comfortable and sat its occupant up high for a commanding view of the road.

The dashboard area was adorned with a well-done faux carbon-fiber giving an upscale appearance. If you are a fan of automotive cockpits that look as if they’ve been transplanted from an F-15 jet fighter, forget it. The Versa has a straight up no-nonsense layout that’s easy to use. We were a bit put off by the Versa’s lack of storage cubbies, however. There is no center bin and no storage area left of the steering wheel.

A small covered storage compartment above the radio and a large glovebox are about it for your car collectables. The up-front cupholders can also be used for stuff if they are not in use for drinks.

On the brighter side there is a small slender tray next to the emergency brake handle designed to hold a modern cell-phone. And it’s located next to a powerpoint. Nice touch.

But not such a nice touch — there was no mirror on the driver’s sun visor in our test car. “Nissan needs to fix this immediately. Women drivers demand a mirror. This is the wrong place for Nissan to save a dime,” so complained the wife.

We found the 1.8-liter engine, which generates 122 horsepower, satisfying in stop-and-go traffic. Although it satisfactorily completed higher-speed merges and passing chores, it loses steam and is a bit noisy under higher rpms.

But we feel we had the worst of the three transmission choices — a four-speed automatic — for both performance and fuel economy. In addition to the four-speed, the Versa can be purchased with a six-speed manual in either the base 1.8 S trim level or the up-level 1.8 SL and with a CVT (continuously variable transmission) in the 1.8 SL.

Gas mileage with the four-speed is rated at 28-city, 35-highway. Move to the CVT and mileage goes to 30/36. The manual is rated at 30/34.

Not only do you get less gas mileage with the four-speed, but less performance as well. Performance with the CVT, our transmission of choice, has been measured at about 9.5 seconds from 0 to 60.

So here’s the tricky part. Do you settle for an otherwise well-equipped base model for around 15 grand or do you opt for the up-level model that comes with the CVT for about 16 grand? We would recommend a way to figure out how to finance a few extra dollars and get the CVT.

Our test vehicle carried a base price of $13,855. Add on antilock brakes ($250), a power package including windows, mirrors and locks ($700) and splash guards and floor mats and it took the bottom line to $15,065 including destination charge.

Going with the manual transmission will save $800. The deal breaker for us might be cruise control, which is standard on the SL, but unavailable at any price on the S. Also a problem for us is the unavailability of satellite radio on the S. A choice of XM or Sirius is a $300 option on the SL.

One thing that is standard across the lineup is solid safety. The Versa, which comes with front seat-mounted side airbags and side-curtain airbags for all passengers, has earned top scores in both frontal and side-impact collision tests.

If you have a hang-up on hatchbacks, the Versa is also available as a sedan. Note that fold-down rear seatbacks are only available on the SL trim level.

The Versa is far from a small sports sedan. What it is is a comfortable cruiser with scads of passenger space that is capable of obtaining more than 30 miles to the gallon. Is this the right car for the times? You better believe it.


Base price: $13,155; as driven: $15,065
Engine: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 122 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 127 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Length: 169.1 inches
Curb weight: 2,751 pounds
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Luggage capacity: 17.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 50.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 35 mpg highway, 28 city
0-60: 9.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Aveo

The Good:
• Excellent passenger and cargo space
• Good quality interior materials
• Commendable gas mileage

The Bad:
• Engine noisy at higher rpm

The Ugly:
• Such things as CVT, cruise control and satellite radio cannot be purchased as options on economically priced base trim level