Small, affordable cars are like mushrooms. They quietly go about their business in the soggy bottom of the market, tolerated more than celebrated. Occasionally, the fungi mutates into a truffle, and so it is with this less-respected branch of autodom.
The Nissan Versa is no market newcomer. Introduced in 2007, it's trudged along unloved in the U.S. while faring better in markets outside the States as the Tiida. As with cuisine, some regional flavors are an acquired taste. The Versa hatchback has a decidedly "big in Europe" thing going on, with its distinctive shape and tall-hatch proportions. Taking into consideration Nissan's close relationship with Renault, the styling even seems Gallically influenced. We nabbed a pair of Versas, an S with six-speed manual and an SL with CVT, to see if Nissan's efforts are fetid or delicious. Make the jump to find out.
Photos by Steven J. Ewing / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
Styling is one of the main weapons automakers have when prices are low. The Versa five-door comes off a little bubble-ish with its high-arching roof, but it's a boon to occupants. There's a squared-off C-pillar in back that doesn't consume visibility, and its reverse-cut suggests some Renault influence, as does the nose. New up front for 2010 is a redesigned grille, set between lamps that continue the European-influenced theme.
There will inevitably be detractors, but the Versa isn't styled for shock value. It's not so much pretty as it avoids the overt weirdness that can creep in when prices are low and hardware is pedestrian. Even in the flashy Metallic Blue that our SL tester wore, the Versa is relatively nondescript; the latest in a line of inoffensively styled Japanese hatchy things. Blending in isn't necessarily bad, and if you want more expressiveness, Nissan offers the Cube on the same underpinnings.
The interior follows the same design ethos of not rocking the boat. No element is overwrought on the cleanly-styled dashboard. The expanse of nothing that faces the front seat passenger cries out for a little something, though. At least it makes it easy to peg the quality of interior plastics and fit and finish, which is pleasing to the eye, if not the touch. All cars in this price range carry similar looks-decent-feels-nasty interior materials, and knocking the Versa for such would be unfair. While it's not an Infiniti-grade interior, the colors and materials come off as well-chosen. The dashboard and door pulls give an anti-style message, but they don't feel unfinished. The charcoal cloth upholstery and tan tweed headliner feel more luxurious than you would expect, and the whole interior milieu somehow evokes Golfs of the past.
The Versa's upwardly-bowed roof keeps the headliner off hairdos and also adds to an airy atmosphere inside. There's storage cubbies aplenty, and the ergonomics are a delight. The radio sits high in the dashboard, right at hand. Nissan offers a bargain-priced navigation unit in the Versa, a surprisingly high-end touch in a car that's in the $15,000 range. The Suzuki SX-4 offers standard navigation, but the Versa's integrated option is a slicker implementation.
Three big knobs for the HVAC are simplicity itself, and they back up their easy use with a tight, non-sloppy feel. It may seem a small thing, but controls without slack add to a feeling of build quality, and the Versa's HVAC controls feel better than those in some luxury vehicles we've tried. High-G cornering will send your beverages flying from the shallow cupholders, though the door cubbies accommodate bottled drinks.
Ergonomic complaints are few, indicating that the Versa's interior is a solid effort, overall. Some gripes include the steering wheel cruise control buttons, which could use identifying dots to lessen the need to look down while underway, and It would be nice to have some padding under your elbows, especially on longer drives. The gauges, however, are clearly seen through the steering wheel and the seats are a comfortable surprise. Plastics are hard to the touch, for sure, but there's not a cheap sheen on surfaces.
The base Versa comes equipped with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that hums out 107 horsepower. Both Versas we tried had the up-sized 1.8-liter, 122-horsepower engine. From the gutless performance of the larger engine, we can only surmise that the 1.6 is an engine for drivers accustomed to planning every move. It could be that we're used to explosive horsepower, but even with its short gearing, the Versa feels light on torque. Fortunately the engine doesn't mind revving, and it's just boomy, not rough.
Surprisingly, the 1.8-liter engine is better when teamed with Nissan's XTronic CVT instead of the six-speed manual transmission. Unfortunately, the XTronic is only available in the SL trim level, sticking bargain hunters with a four-speed conventional automatic if they want a shiftless Versa S or 1.6. Nissan does some of the best CVTs in the business, and even with a smallish four-pot, the Versa avoids the breathless-rubber-bandy experience common of small engines and gearless transmissions.
A six-speed manual also isn't common in this class of vehicle, and the great promise from such a ratio-spread is phenomenal fuel economy. Nissan went the other route, with smaller ratio gaps between gears. This approach probably lends performance to the 2,700 pound Versa S, though it's not a point-and-shoot driving experience. On the highway the engine spins around 3,000 RPM at sane speeds, adding more boom to the zoom, and stirring the transmission is video-gameish with a disconnected-yet-smooth shifter action.
The Versa is softly tuned, making it a comfortable rider. Despite that, the chassis doesn't flail around if you force it to rough-house. Make no mistake, there aren't any sporting intentions here. A beam axle is used out back, enhancing the rear load area at the expense of all-out handling. Steering points the car without doing much else, like communicating tire grip. Braking is likewise unexceptional in use. The pedal is pleasingly firm, and the Versa's disc/drum setup with ABS, electronic brake force distribution, and brake assist brings things to a halt. Simple and straightforward.
The Versa's mission is to soothe your nerves as you appliance around. There's a lag time between turning the steering wheel and the chassis responding, and the general impression is that the Versa is tuned to feel bigger than it is. It's at the big end of its class, and the EPA even classifies it as a mid-size car. It's tough to argue with the idea that the Versa could convincingly stand in for cars with larger footprints. There's plenty of space inside, a useful hatchback body style and it's rather comfortable. There's also far less wind noise in the Versa than in the Cube, and its styling is also more mainstream – a plus in many books.
Despite the promise of a six-speed transmission and relatively low curb weight for these times, fuel economy for us was a disappointing high-20s in mixed driving. City mileage with the 1.8-liter engine, however, is definitely better than traditional mid-size cars, and the spacious interior and hatchback brings near wagon-like usefulness to your driveway for far less than $20,000.
The Versa is large for its class, for sure, and it's filled with class-appropriate materials while driving more refined than you'd expect from its position in the Nissan pecking order. Our only question after sampling the Versa is: Why is there still a Sentra? In the inexpensive-not-cheap car realm, the Versa has a lot to offer, and its substitution of calm where others go frenetic will please potential buyers – and steal a few Sentra shoppers in the process.
Photos by Steven J. Ewing / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Versatile, roomy and easy on the budget.
The Nissan Versa is a nimble subcompact with comfort, performance, versatility, and generous interior space. It's easy on the budget to buy and easy on the budget to operate. The 2010 Versa features fresh styling and an upgraded interior.
The Versa is a big and roomy inside with decent head room and leg room and lots of hip room, making it a good choice for larger drivers. Its big, cushy seats are comfortable. Back-seat passengers will find rear-seat leg room as good as that in larger cars and SUVs. The cabin is nicely finished and offers all the modern conveniences.
Yet the Versa offers the small-car virtues of nimble handling, easy parking, and lively yet efficient performance with excellent fuel economy.
The Versa is slightly bigger than the lower priced Toyota Yaris and the more expensive Honda Fit. All three are subcompacts designed with tall rooflines for increased interior comfort and visibility. The Versa is the smallest car you'll find in Nissan showrooms: Smaller and less expensive than the compact Nissan Sentra, but offering greater interior space and more versatility.
For 2010, Versa gets changes outside, inside, and functionally. All models have a new grille and wheels, and revised interior fabrics and finishes. The SL Hatchback model gets sport front and rear fascias, body side sills, fog lights, and rear spoiler as standard equipment. An optional navigation system is being offered. Other changes for 2010 include auxiliary input added to the base audio system; Interface System for iPod added to the upgraded radio.
Most models come with a 1.8-liter engine, though the stripper sedan model comes with a 1.6-liter engine.
Fuel economy for the Nissan Versa depends on the powertrain. Best is the Versa SL with CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) with an EPA-estimated 28/34 mpg City/Highway. Versa S gets 26/31 mpg with six-speed manual, 24/32 with four-speed automatic. The base sedan with 1.6-liter engine gets 26/34 mpg with five-speed manual, 26/33 with automatic.
The 2010 Nissan Versa is available as a four-door Sedan or five-door Hatchback.
The base Versa ($10,990) is in the Sedan body style only and powered by a 1.6-liter engine of 107 horsepower. It comes with air conditioning (which can be deleted for a savings of $1,000), pre-wiring for audio. Anti-lock brakes are optional ($250). The five-speed manual is standard, but the base Versa is available with a four-speed automatic ($11,990).
All other Versa models come with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine of 122 horsepower.
Versa S Sedan ($13,100) with six-speed manual or four-speed automatic ($14,100) and Versa S Hatchback ($13,150) with manual or automatic ($14,150) come standard with cloth upholstery; air conditioning with micro filter; four-speaker, 90-watt AM/FM/CD stereo; tilt steering column; anti-lock brakes (ABS), and 185/65R15 tires on 15-inch steel wheels. The Hatchback features a 60/40 split folding rear seat. Options include a Power Plus Package ($930) with power windows, power door locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control, door armrest pads, rear-door map pockets, and automatic door locks; and Vehicle Dynamic Control with Traction Control ($370).
Versa SL Sedan ($16,100) and SL Hatchback ($16,530) are fitted with the Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). Versa SL models are upgraded with premium woven seat fabric, a more adjustable driver's seat, split folding rear seats, center armrests front and rear, the Power Plus Package, a 180-watt stereo with an in-dash six-CD changer and MP3 capability, and 15-inch machined alloy wheels.
A Convenience Package for the Versa SL Sedan ($650) includes an Intelligent Key system, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. A Premium Package for the SL Hatchback ($980) includes everything from the Convenience Package plus 16-inch alloy wheels. A Moonroof Package ($600) for the SL Hatchback adds a power glass sunroof and illuminated visor vanity mirrors. Both SL models are also available with the Nav/SAT Radio ($610), which includes a navigation system with five-inch screen and XM Satellite Radio.
Accessories include splash guards ($110), floor mats ($155), auto-dimming inside mirror ($125), and aluminum kick plates ($130). A rear roof spoiler ($250) and a new cargo organizer ($160) can be added to the Hatchback.
Safety features include frontal airbags, side-impact airbags, roof-mounted curtain airbags, front-seat active head restraints, and a tire pressure monitoring system. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) are standard on the S and SL trim levels and an option ($250) on the base model.
The Nissan Versa looks bigger than it is. One reason for that is an exceptionally short rear overhang: Very little of the car extends past the rear wheels.
Coming at you, the Versa has a broad, somewhat V-shaped grille flanked by triangular headlights. The SL Hatchback, with its front spoiler below the bumper, has a more aggressive and sporty look.
At the rear ends of the Sedan and Hatchback things are, expectedly, much different. With the Hatchback, the side edges of the tailgate angle sharply inward to clear the cat's-eye taillights. With the Sedan, the taillights are different but the trunk lid still angles inward. We like the Hatchback a little better, especially the SL version with its roof-mounted spoiler.
The Sedan is nearly seven inches longer than the Hatchback and has a more conventional rear end, with a trunk. The Sedan is handsome enough, with its long, tapering sail panels.
We find the Hatchback more appealing. We like its distinctive styling and it's more versatile than the Sedan.
The huge front seats in the Nissan Versa are roomy and comfortable. As with the other cars in this class, the Versa driver gets lots of legroom and headroom. In terms of hip room, however, the Versa is a real standout. The width and the substantial structure of the front seats may make the Versa a great choice among subcompacts for big drivers. The cloth-covered seats are comfortable without being too soft and offer plenty of side support.
The back seat is particularly impressive. As you get in you'll be pleasantly surprised by the size of the rear door and how the front edge of the rear wheel well does not intrude as you step in. There are many larger four-door sedans and even many large SUVs that have smaller rear door openings. Even a six-footer shouldn't feel cramped as the rear seat legroom is at or near the top of the class. The Versa Sedan gives up about half an inch of rear-seat headroom to the Hatchback, but that's not all that much.
Nissan has made sure that most of the surfaces you touch, such as the armrests and door handles, have a soft feel to them. No hard plastics here.
The instrument pod contains three large, well-recessed gauges that are easy to read. The speedometer takes pride of place in the center and almost seems as if it is floating over the other two gauges.
Controls for the dash mounted radio and CD changer are well integrated into the center stack, and although they are not very large they are easy to see and comprehend. There is a large volume knob in the center with a very visible power button. Three functional, conventional knobs operate the climate control system. All in all there's nothing fancy about any of the controls, although everything looks well finished. Two large cupholders are conveniently located under the center stack.
The optional Intelligent Key allows for keyless starting of the engine, something that up until now has only been available in luxury cars. We don't recommend it. Tow truck operators tell us they get a lot of calls dealing with keyless starting systems. And we don't find them a big benefit.
Cargo versatility is a strong point for the Hatchback. There's a generous 17.8 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats in place. Fold them down and you've got 50.4 cubic feet, which is almost as much space as you'll find in a small SUV. Part of the reason for the spacious rear cargo bay is the careful design of the rear suspension so that no strut towers intrude into the interior.
The Sedan offers a 13.8 cubic-foot trunk, which is good for the class.
Fuel economy for the Nissan Versa depends on the powertrain. Versa SL with CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission, gets an EPA-estimated 28/34 mpg City/Highway. Nissan has been a standout in CVT technology. In addition to delivering exceptional fuel economy, it's very smooth and most drivers probably won't notice it's anything other than a regular automatic.
A CVT doesn't shift gears like an automatic transmission. Instead, a segmented belt rides up and down on cone-shaped pulleys to vary the speed ratio between the engine and the drivetrain. It works more efficiently than a traditional automatic, which is why the Versa equipped with a CVT delivers such good highway mileage. Around town it has the same economy as a manual transmission, better than an automatic, in other words.
We've been pleased with the Versa. It has plenty of zip and there's no problem merging into traffic on a fast free-flowing freeway. When you stomp on the gas pedal the sound of the engine revving instantly before the car accelerates, a phenomenon of the CVT, can be a bit disconcerting at first. We found it not unpleasant. In regular stop-and-go traffic under slow acceleration there is no sensation other than the car moving forward smoothly with no sound or feel of shifting gears. It's certainly a far cry from the clumsy gear shifting once common on small four-cylinder cars with three- and four-speed automatics.
On winding roads in Tennessee, near where Nissan is building its new U.S. headquarters, we found the car's handling to be perfectly adequate. It's not sporty like a Mini Cooper, nor is it sloppy like budget cars of a few years ago. Sporty drivers might wish for more feedback from the steering and more power, but there's no reason for others to complain.
The Versa is one of the first cars in this price category to feature electric power steering. In the past we have been disappointed in the poor feel of electric steering, but Nissan seems to have designed this system so it feels just as good as any hydraulically powered steering. No complaints here.
Thanks to the long wheelbase, with the wheels pushed out toward the four corners, the ride is better than one usually expects from a small car.
The brakes are fine. If you decide on the base model we strongly recommend ordering the anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist for their ability to help you possibly avoid an accident.
The Nissan Versa delivers decent performance and has a surprising amount of interior space. It feels bigger than it actually is, which is a good thing. There's lots of room for back-seat riders. The Hatchback offers big cargo space. The Versa gets excellent fuel economy, particularly on the highway. The CVT works well, though it will feel a bit different at first.
New Car Test Drive contributor John Rettie filed this report from Nashville, Tennessee. John F. Katz added some commentary.
Nissan Versa base Sedan, five-speed manual ($10,990); base Sedan, four-speed automatic ($11,990); S Sedan, six-speed manual ($13,100); S Sedan, automatic ($14,100); S Hatchback, manual ($13,150); S Hatchback, automatic ($14,150); SL Sedan ($16,100); SL Hatchback ($16,530).
Options As Tested
Premium Package ($980) includes Intelligent Key system, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, steering wheel audio switches, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 16-inch alloy wheels.
Nissan Versa SL hatchback ($16,530).
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