2010 Nissan Versa SL – Click above for high-res image gallery

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.

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