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.
The latest 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 Europe. But the Versa isn’t really that tiny. At about 169 inches long for the hatchback and 176 inches long for the sedan, with a long wheelbase of 102.4 inches, it impresses as a direct replacement for the Sentra. The new Sentra that comes out this fall will move more upscale in terms of appointments and equipment while keeping its price in the same range as the current car.
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 Mexico . Here in the U.S. , you won’t find leather seats and a nav system on the options list, but it promises some generous equipment and competitive performance, especially considering that it will be bargain-priced at around $12,000.
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.
Nissan is offering the Versa with three transmissions, either a standard six-speed manual, a conventional four-speed automatic, or an "Xtronic" CVT automatic transmission. The four-speed automatic will only be optional on S models, while the CVT will be optional on better-equipped SL models. According to Nissan officials, eventually all Versas will have either the manual gearbox or the CVT, and the four-speed is offered as a stop-gap solution while production of the Jatco-supplied CVT ramps up - part of Nissan’s plan to sell one million CVT-equipped vehicles worldwide by 2007. The same CVT unit will also be supplied to Nissan for the Sentra, and also to DaimlerChrysler for the Caliber. With the CVT, the Versa is rated 30 mpg city and 36 highway - actually better than with the six-speed manual (30 city, 34 highway), but not the best in its class.
The Versa we tested, over undulating backroads in Tennessee, was a well-equipped SL model with the optional CVT. Performance with the CVT is quite impressive, except from a standing start. Stomp the gas pedal from a stoplight, and the Versa doesn’t exactly leap forward; it gathers revs first and then from 10 mph or so accelerates very impressively up to speed. CVTs suffer from a rubber-band effect - the tendency for a delay from the time you press on the gas and the real passing power happens - and this is no exception. We also found it a bit difficult to keep a steady speed out on the open road. With the gas pedal floored, the revs would go up to about 5600 rpm and stay there, all the way to 80 mph and beyond. Shifting the lever to the S mode, which allows more engine braking and more revs under acceleration, the revs would go to about 5800 rpm on full throttle.
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.
You can feel that weight in the way the Versa handles as well; it translates to good stability at highway speeds, but it doesn’t handle as crisply at low speeds as the Honda Fit, nor does it have much feel of the road transmitted through the steering wheel via the electric-assist power steering. Handling at the limit is remarkably neutral, with less of the heavy understeer that’s so common in budget-priced small cars that don’t have worlds of grip. In general, the ride was comfortable, soaking up severe bumps but a little jittery on the small ones. Braking, as handling, is perfectly adequate but not overtly sporting. There are discs in front, drums in back, as is typical for a car in this price class.
Standard and Optional
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.
Assembled in Aguascalientes, Mexico, the Versa hatchback will go on sale this July, while a sedan version won’t reach dealerships until next January. Nissan hasn’t announced prices yet, but officials hinted that a well-optioned SL model will be in the $16,000 range.
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.