Recently Nissan dropped off a brand new 2008 Versa SL hatchback at the AutoblogGreen garage for a week's worth of commuting and grocery fetching. The Versa was introduced to the US market in mid-2006 as a 2007 model to fill the slot that opened up below the Sentra when that car did what so many cars do and grew larger and better equipped. At the time the Nissan said the Versa was built off their B-platform which implied that this was a B-Class or sub-compact car on a par with the Honda Fit.
The first few times I saw a Versa on the road it certainly appeared smaller than it actually is. As we all know appearances can be deceiving and the Versa's size proved to be no exception when I climbed behind the wheel. Nissan's new baby is in fact a C-Class car measuring within a half inch of a 2007 Ford Focus hatchback with one notable exception. The Versa stands 3.6 inches taller giving this car a cavernous interior for its class. The Fit, by comparison, comes in nearly a foot shorter overall and six inches shy in wheelbase.
Find out what it's like to live with the Versa after the jump.
The Versa is available in two body styles, a five-door hatchback and a four-door sedan. Given the fairly tall roof-line, the hatchback proportions actually seem to work better than the version with a trunk. The hatch also adds some extra utility for carrying large items, making it useful for college students moving their stuff to a dorm or apartment. The base of the Versa's windshield extends out over the front wheels leaving a fairly short hood and small fixed triangular windows at the bottom of the A-pillars. The overall design of the Versa was clearly done with functionality in mind. The top of the rear doors extends all the way and in fact the top-rear corner is the rear-most part of the back doors.
From that corner the vertical cut-line actually slopes forward slightly as it descends. It looks slightly peculiar at first but as soon as you climb in the back seat you realize the utility of the design. Rear seat passengers will never hit their heads on the door openings. Getting in and out of either the front or rear seats is a breeze and parents with young kids will have absolutely no problem reaching in to maneuver them into car seats of booster seats. Adult rear seat passengers will also find that they have an exceptional amount of both head and leg room. The middle perch however is probably best left with the center arm-rest folded down.
Up front, the layout of the controls and instruments is logical and attractive if a bit sparse, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. For a car in this class it's fairly well equipped with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and redundant audio controls on the steering wheel spokes. The stereo had a single disc CD player and the now obligatory auxiliary in jack for connecting an MP3 player. For those who order the optional up-level audio system with XM satellite radio there is a further option of an iPod interface. The base stereo sounded decent and also included Bluetooth functionality for a similarly equipped cell phone. Incoming calls caused the radio to automatically mute and then return to the previous volume after the call.
The front seats were reasonably comfortable and offered decent lateral support although they could use more lumbar support and a longer lower seat cushion. There are two cup-holders in the front end of the console which were a bit of reach and two more molded into the door pockets although these were less usefully shaped then those in most recent Fords. The SL convenience package that also included the aforementioned Bluetooth and steering wheel controls also includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel and the intelligent key system. The so-called intelligent key is a fob with a transmitter in it. When you approach the car with the key in your pocket or purse, pressing a small black rubber button on the either of the front door handles or by the hatch release causes the doors to unlock. Close the doors and press the button again and the horn beeps and the doors lock up.
Inside the car there is no starter button like the larger Nissans, instead you leave the the fob in your pocket and reach the ignition switch. Instead of inserting the key you just twist the switch with your fingers and the engine starts. But what happens if your battery dies and fob doesn't work? Just pull on the end of the fob and out comes a standard key. Overall the quality of the interior materials is on a par with comparably-priced vehicles with most of the surfaces aside from the arm-rests being hard plastic but nothing shiny. By far the most overwhelming trait of the interior is the spaciousness. The tall roof and upright seating means that any four adults less than about 6'2" or so should have no complaints.
With the back seats in their upright position, the cargo space is large at 17.8 cu.ft and usefully shaped as well. With the 60/40 split folding back seats the maximum volume grows to 50 cu.ft. The only hitch is that the seats don't fold flat. The backs sit on top of the cushions leaving a several inch step in the cargo area. Not a big deal and not unusual in this class, but still annoying.
All Versas are propelled by a 122 hp twin-cam four cylinder engine displacing 1.8L with rather meager 127 lb-ft of torque that peaks at 4800 rpm, not far below the 5200 rpm power peak. The propulsive effort that's available is transferred to the front wheels by one of three available transmissions. The standard configuration and probably most desirable setup is is a six speed shift and clutch for yourself unit. Optional choices are a four-speed automatic in the base S trim level and the SL trim that offers Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable unit.
Our test unit had the six speed which has fairly vague gates and a rubbery feel to the shifter, especially at first. After a day of getting used to where the gates are, it definitely felt better which is a good thing because drivers will spend a lot time rowing the lever. That limited maximum torque and high peak speed mean that passing or even maintaining speed climbing a big hill almost invariably means a down shift or two.
Those downshifts mean more revs and commensurately more noise. Cruising the highway at 70 mph equates to just over 3,000 rpm in sixth gear at which speed the Versa is impressively quiet. If you push the engine beyond that level though it starts to get buzzy but no one reading this site would ever do that anyway, (would you?). This is a case where the approach taken by Volkswagen with their TSI engines in Europe would probably be superior.
The VW 122 hp 1.4L TSI produces 147 lb-ft of torque at only 1,500 rpm and, thanks to the smaller displacement and direct fuel injection, gets better fuel economy. This is the approach of smaller, direct-injected and boosted engines that many other companies like GM, Ford and other are all pursuing over the next couple of years and Nissan will probably follow sure as well. The extra torque of such an engine means the driver doesn't have to rev the engine as much, efficiency is improved and the car is quieter.
Through curves the Versa is fairly responsive but ultimately understeers on its 185/65R15 tires on aluminum wheels. Over the rough stuff the suspension does a good job of absorbing the imperfections in what passes for pavement in Michigan (are you noticing a pattern here yet in my reviews?) and the dampers keep the body where it should be relative to the road and tires. There isn't much feedback from the steering and again it isn't really expected in the class. The Versa won't pass for a sports car, but it won't make you nauseous either.
The Sapphire Blue test Versa came out to a bottom line price of $16,520 including the destination charge. Over the course of a week on my usual driving cycle, it averaged just under 28 mpg, which is decent but certainly not exceptional. At 2718 lbs, the Versa is on the heavy side and about 250 lbs more than the smaller Fit and 100 lbs more than the five-door 2007 Focus. Once you get a feel for the vague shifter it's actually quite pleasant to drive, and roomier than most competitors and even some larger cars without being too huge itself on the outside. Overall it's worth checking out if you're shopping for a small car especially if you carpool or haul up to three kids around.
Other cars in the AutoblogGreen Garage: