Once again, Japanese automakers are here with new fuel-stingy models when gasoline prices are soaring. The Nissan Versa is a member of the new trio of compact 2007 economy cars from Japan built for entry-level buyers to take a bigger bite out of the American auto market.
The other trio members are the Honda Fit (April 3 AutoTimes) and Toyota Yaris (April 24 AutoTimes). They're here because Japan's former entry-level Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra have been sized and priced out of the entry-level market.
The Versa four-door hatchback is the trio member arguably best-suited to the U.S. market because it feels and drives like a larger car and is generally more comfortable than the Fit and Yaris. (A four-door Versa sedan arrives later this year.)
The front-drive Versa has the longest wheelbase (distance between axles) and the roomiest interior, with an impressively large rear seat area. It's much longer overall than the Fit and is virtually the same length as the Yaris, both being a tad more than 169 inches long.
The Versa is the most powerful member of the trio. Its sophisticated 1.8-liter, 122-horsepower engine has chain-driven overhead camshafts for lower maintenance and is large for this class of car. This Nissan is also several hundred pounds heavier than the Fit and Yaris, weighing 2,722 to 2,779 pounds, depending on trim level and equipment.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard, while a conventional four-speed automatic and a more efficient continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) are available.
Estimated fuel economy should help attract buyers. It's 30 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway with the manual, 28 and 35 with the four-speed automatic -- and a sparkling 30 and 36 with the CVT. Only regular-grade fuel is required.
Versa list prices range from $12,450 to $15,450. The car comes in base S and upscale SL trim levels.
Standard for the S are air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/CD audio system, tire pressure monitoring system and 60/40 split-folding rear seats.
Standard safety items include front- and curtain-side air bags. Anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution for surer panic stops are optional, but an anti-skid control system isn't offered for either trim level.
The SL, which starts at $14,450, adds cruise control, aluminum alloy wheels, in-dash 6 CD autochanger with MP3 playback, remote keyless entry and power locks, windows and mirrors. I tested the Versa SL with the smooth CVT, which makes good use of the engine's power band.
The Versa does 0-60 mph in 9.5 seconds -- respectable for an economy car. Acceleration is lively in town and merging into fast traffic, and 65-75 mph passing provides no anxious moments.
Steering is responsive, although coarse road surfaces can be felt through the wheel. The Versa handles confidently, although it is designed more to provide a plush ride for a small car than the sharpest handling. The brake pedal feels good, but stopping distances are average.
Options include a sunroof, satellite radio and keyless starting -- you just need to twist a plastic lever on the steering column when you have a special "key fob'' in the car.
The Versa is built in Mexico and shares its chassis with proven European-market Nissan and French Renault models. That's because Nissan and Renault are related, and such sharing saves Nissan a lot of money.
No wonder, then, that the Versa has decidedly French-influenced styling, which long has been offbeat. For instance, the Versa hatchback's rear side windows slant forward at the bottom and are countered by a back-sloping rear hatch to create an offbeat triangular rear roof pillar.
The styling also creates a rather high, oddly shaped cargo opening, although cargo space is generous because a "twist beam'' rear axle allows for a deep cargo area.
Rear seatbacks can be flipped forward to enlarge that area, but back seat bottoms don't fold forward. One thus is left with a stepped extended cargo floor -- with seatbacks that sit higher than the cargo floor and don't lie flat with it. The interior thus isn't as versatile as it should be.
Doors open wide for easy entry, and a high roof and long wheelbase allow lots of room for five tall adults. Still, four is a more practical number because the center of the back seat is too high and hard for comfort; it's best to flip down the rear center armrest, which contains two conveniently placed cupholders.
Low cupholders at the front of the console, though, invite spills. But front doors have bottle holders, and all doors have deep storage pockets. There also are good-sized interior storage areas.
The quiet, fairly high-quality interior's front seats are large and comfortable, with decent manual adjusters. Visibility is good in all directions, and gauges in the no-nonsense dashboard are deeply set but easy to read. Controls are logically placed, and the sound system and rotary climate controls are commendably large. Rear windows lower all the way.
The heavy hood is held open by a prop rod that new Versa owners initially might have difficulty finding because it's attached to the underside of the hood. However, it's easy to reach fluid filler areas in the uncluttered engine compartment.
The Fit, Yaris and Versa all have pros and cons. But many small-car buyers might find the Versa is the best all-round auto of the trio for American driving because of its big-car feel and roominess.
2007 NISSAN VERSA HATCHBACK
LIKES: Roomy. Lively. Good road- ability. Refined. High fuel economy. Distinctive styling.
DISLIKES: Odd-shaped cargo opening. Rear seats don't fold flush. Low front cupholders.