PROS Exceptional interior room for exterior size, Big-car ride, Above-average fuel economy
CONS Unimpressive brakes, Mediocre acceleration from base engine, Antilock brakes not standard
When Nissan launched the Versa back in 2007, the Asian automaker hoped its new subcompact would win over the hearts of buyers looking for a small car that didn't feel tiny. Little did everyone know that high gas prices and an economic downturn would make purchasing a small car fashionable and position Versa well against its competitors.
As 2007 rolled into '08, subcompacts suddenly became popular and automakers rushed to update, freshen, and add features to these traditionally Spartan automobiles. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Aveo, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris were all bare-bones transportation and Versa, with its upscale interior and more powerful engines unexpectedly became a welcome alternative for many buyers.
Since its launch Versa has sold well, slotting in at the bottom of Nissan's lineup and allowing the slightly larger Sentra to stretch its legs a bit in both size and price. For 2009, Nissan adds a new entry-level model with lower prices and a more fuel-efficient engine.
Versa is available as a four-door sedan or four-door hatchback. Both are front-wheel drive and seat five on front buckets and a three-place rear bench. New for the '09 model year are the price-leading 1.6 Base and 1.6 sedans. They are powered by a 107-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Returning are Versa S and SL, which come as a four-door sedan or four-door hatchback. Those models have a 122-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder.
Standard safety equipment includes front-seat active head restraints, tire-pressure monitor, and dual-front, front-side, and curtain-side airbags. Antilock brakes with brake assist are optional on all models. Stability control, park assist, and rear-view monitor are not available.
The 1.6 S lists for $9,990 and comes only with manual transmission. Standard equipment includes tilt steering wheel, variable-intermittent wipers, rear defogger, theft-deterrent system, 185/65HR14 tires, and wheel covers. The 1.6 is available with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission and ranges in price from $10,990 to $11,990. It adds to the 1.6 S air conditioning and an interior air filter.
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8 SL
Base Price: $16,210
As-Tested Price: $19,120
Built in Mexico.
Engine: DOHC 1.8-liter I4
Transmission: CVT automatic
Drive Wheels: front-wheel drive
S models range in price from $13,100 to $14,110 and come with either a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic. They add to the 1.6 power mirrors, AM/FM/CD player and 185/65HR15 tires. Hatchback S models get a cargo cover, intermittent rear wiper/washer, and split-folding rear seats.
SL models come only with automatic transmissions. The SL sedan gets a four-speed and the SL hatchback gets a continuously variable transmission. Starting price for the SL sedan is $16,100 and the SL hatchback starts at $16,330. The SL models add to the S cruise control, height-adjustable driver seat, center console, power windows, power door locks, keyless entry, AM/FM radio with in-dash six-disc CD/MP3 changer with digital-media player connection, and alloy wheels.
Options include a leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, keyless access and starting, remote engine start, Bluetooth cell-phone link, sunroof, illuminated visor mirrors, Rockford Fosgate sound system, satellite radio, iPod adapter, rear spoiler, side sills, fog lights, interior accent lights, and cargo organizer. Versa is built in Mexico and has a $720 destination charge.
Get up and Go The new 1.6-liter engine offers acceptable around-town acceleration but passing power is substandard and the engine isn't as smooth as it should be. For best performance stick with the manual transmission.
The 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine in Versa is larger than engines found in most direct competitors. That gives the Versa a little more spunk off the line and slightly better passing response than most of its competition.
That's not saying much because nearly all of these small cars favor efficiency over acceleration. From a stop, Versa accelerates like your typical subcompact with a 0-60 mph time in the 10 second range. On the highway there's enough power to merge, but it's best to plan plenty of extra space in passing situations.
The four-speed automatic isn't the smoothest transmission around, but it gets the job done and doesn't hunt between gears in hilly terrain. An additional gear or two would be welcome, but it's understandable at a $14,000 price point. Those looking for a smoother automatic would be smart to a step up to the SL hatchback with its slick CVT.
Versa's fuel economy is impressive, but not quite as good at some of its competition--a result of having a slightly larger engine. EPA ratings for the CVT-equipped SL are 27 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. That compares to 28/35 for the Honda Fit and 29/35 for the Toyota Yaris. Nissan recommends regular-grade fuel for the Versa.
On the Road With its long-for-the-class wheelbase, Versa rides more like a midsize car than a typical subcompact. That translates into good composure over bumpy roads and a refined and comfortable ride on smooth roads. There's a slight amount of bobbing on wavy roads but it is not disconcerting.
Versa is exceptionally good at quelling undulating motions frequently found on concrete-slab expressways. This is an area where most subcompacts suffer unnerving rocking motions set up by the road's construction.
When the path grows twisty, Versa's surprisingly accurate steering and nimble size make it somewhat fun to drive. There's a fair amount of front-drive nose plow in tight turns and the skinny tires don't have much grip, but overall Versa feels comfortable on expressway ramps and in quick lane changes.
Sadly, the brakes don't offer much stopping power and the numb pedal is difficult to modulate. Additionally, antilock brakes should be standard, regardless of price point.
Unlike other subcompacts, Versa's cabin is quite peaceful at highway speeds. There's some tire thrum and a bit of wind noise, but overall the Versa is one of the quietest subcompacts on the market.
NHTSA Crash-Test Results, 2009 Nissan Versa
|Front Impact, Driver ||4 stars|
|Front Impact, Passenger ||4 stars|
|Side Impact, Driver ||4 stars|
|Side Impact, Rear Passenger ||4 stars|
|Rollover Resistance ||4 stars|
Behind the Wheel Versa sports a well-designed interior that's highlighted by easy-to-reach audio controls and large dials for the climate-control system. Materials are more than acceptable for the price and the SL has a surprising number of soft touch surfaces.
Driving position is upright and the large front-bucket seats are very comfortable. There's decent leg room and ample head room for large adults. Outward visibility is excellent to all directions. SL models get a center arm rest that makes long-distance commuting more comfortable.
Competitors should take note of the Versa's roomy back seat. It offers more leg and head room than many midsize cars. The seats are also very comfortable. Clearly Nissan made the most of Versa's 102-inch wheelbase when designing the interior.
Cargo room isn't outstanding considering the hatchback design, but it's still more than adequate for a weekend's worth of stuff. Dropping the rear seat will increase cargo capacity. Sadly, those seatbacks don't fold completely flat, making for an uneven load floor. Interior storage is highlighted by large front-door map pockets and an oversized glovebox.
Bottom Line Just because a car is small doesn't mean it has to be cheap or substandard. Versa is exactly the opposite, it's a small car that thinks it's a midsize sedan. There is enough room for a family of four and the ride is quite comfortable. Throw in the impressive base price and Versa becomes a must-see for subcompact shoppers. As with any vehicle purchase, shoppers need to be careful with options as they can quickly jack up the price.
While competitors fall all over themselves offering more versatile interiors, more fuel-efficient engines, or trendy designs, Nissan played it safe with Versa. It's a car that can easily do double duty as a family hauler and a long-distance commuter and that gives it a leg up on the competition. Now if Nissan could only add antilock brakes to the standard equipment list . . .