Hopes fuel-miser sedan boosts sales in U.S. as hatchback bias slow to fade
Americans prefer sedans over hatchbacks, while less-affluent Europeans prefer more versatile hatchbacks, partly because many families overseas make do with just one car. They can't grab a second vehicle like an SUV if more room is needed when, say, shopping for large bulky objects.
Nissan thus hopes to increase U.S. sales of its 2007 Versa economy car by recently adding a four-door sedan to the Versa hatchback line. While attitudes are slowly changing, many Americans still equate "hatchback" with cheap economy cars of years ago.
Other new members of the early 2007 Japanese trio of 2007 economy cars are the Toyota Yaris sedan and Honda Fit, which comes both as sedan and hatchback.
The trio again shows that it's amazing how Japan's automakers luck out by introducing fuel-stingy new vehicles when U.S. gasoline prices soar. They've been introduced because Japan's Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic have been sized and priced out of the entry car market.
The well-built Versa comes in S and higher-line SL trim levels, with prices ranging from $12,550 to $15,550. In fact, both the sedan and hatchback start at $12,550 and end at $15,550.
Even the entry S sedan has air conditioning, electric power steering, tilt wheel, console, AM/FM/CD sound system, variable intermittent wipers and rear defroster.
Move up to the SL and you get power windows and door locks with remote keyless entry (in a $700 Power Package option for the S) and body color power sideview mirrors. The S also adds a height-adjustable driver's seat, cruise control, in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer, digital media player connection and alloy wheels.
Standard for all Versas are front side air bags, curtain side bags and a tire pressure monitor. But anti-lock brakes are a $250 option, and the S requires the Power Package option to get them.
Options exclusive to the SL include a $600 power sunroof and a $700 Convenience Package that contains keyless access and starting. Satellite radio is $300 for the SL. Curiously, it requires anti-lock brakes and the Sunroof and Convenience packages.
The Versa hatchback (Aug. 20, 2006, AutoTimes) is the roomiest, most comfortable member of the trio. The new Versa sedan lacks the hatchback's extra cargo room for bulkier objects but should prove more acceptable to Americans.
Trunk room is good, and cargo space can be increased by folding the rear seatbacks forward. They sit flat, but the cargo opening is rather high and the trunk lid has conventional mechanical hinges.
The front-drive Versa feels and drives like the largest car of the trio because it has the most power, roomiest interior, smoothest ride and an especially roomy back seat -- although the hard center of that seat is uncomfortable for a third rear occupant.
At least there's a fold-down rear center armrest containing handy cupholders. And four tall adults fit comfortably. The 1.8-liter, 122-horsepower four-cylinder engine (other trio members have a 1.5-liter engine) calls for lots of revs for the best performance but delivers lively acceleration in town and decent highway performance.
The engine transmits power through a six-speed manual, four-speed automatic or continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). My test Versa sedan had the decent manual transmission, which works with a clutch that is light but has a long throw.
The manual helps deliver an estimated 30 mpg in the city and 34 on highways, while the automatic figures are 28 and 35. They're 30 and 36 with the super-efficient CVT. Only regular-grade fuel is needed. With gas topping $3 per gallon, those figures should help sell more Versas.
Steering is quick, and there is a good trade-off between ride and handling. The brake pedal has a progressive action.
Large outside door handles are there for quick entry to the quiet interior, and front seats provide good side support in curves and during quick maneuvers. The white-on-black gauges are fairly easy to read, although they're almost too deeply set.
Controls are easy to use, doors have storage pockets and rear windows lower all the way. But front cupholders are set very low -- almost beneath the center of the dashboard.
New owners might scratch their heads while looking for the hood prop because it's seems almost hidden on the underside of the hood. But fluid filler areas are easily reached in the uncluttered engine compartment.
The attractively priced Versa's mission is providing basic transportation, but it does that in fine style.
2007 NISSAN VERSA SEDAN
LIKES: Roomy. Lively. Good roadability. Fuel-thrifty.
DISLIKES: Low front cupholders. High cargo opening. Awkward hood prop.