Nissan's new hatchback big on versatility

Friday, September 15, 2006

The new-for-2007 Nissan Versa is a perfect example that consumers don't have to appreciably downsize their lives to buy a downsized car.

Just 14 feet long, the five-door Versa hatchback has a wagon-like 50.4 cubic feet of cargo room with rear seats folded and more headroom and rear-seat legroom than traditional small sedans like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Nissan's own Sentra.

Better yet, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $13,055, the Versa hatchback is priced at least $1,700 less than the Corolla and Civic and is $750 less than the 2006 Sentra.

Introduced in summer as an early 2007 model, the Versa five door is Nissan's new, smallest car in the United States and is among several new, small hatchbacks on the market this year that include the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit. The Versa is shorter in exterior length and narrower by a few inches than the current Sentra, which is Nissan's previous smallest car here.

But the Versa is big on versatility -- part of the reason Nissan gave it its name -- and on uplevel features.

Would you believe a small car that offers Bluetooth wireless phone connectivity and Intelligent Key keyless entry as options?

These features are typically found on luxury cars.

For fuel economy, the top-level Versa comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that helps boost fuel economy to 30 miles a gallon in city driving and Nissan-leading 36 mpg on the highway.

And all Versas have six air bags, including head curtain air bags, as standard equipment.

In U.S. government testing, the front-wheel drive Versa earned the top five out of five stars for front- and rear-seat occupant protection in a side crash. It received four out of five stars for protecting front-seat occupants in a frontal crash.

On the outside, the hatchback has a short hood followed by a minivan-shaped passenger compartment. Because the front end is similar to the styling of Nissan's Quest minivan, I sometimes thought the Versa looked like a shrunken minivan.

But if I didn't focus on the similarity to the Quest, it looked more like a neat little hatchback.

Either way, though, the new Versa didn't attract attention from passersby during my test drive.

It is nicely sized for maneuvering but the ride can be a bit rough over broken road surfaces.

I enjoyed sitting up a bit from the pavement, not low to the floor.

The Versa's separate front seats are almost as sizable as those in the Nissan Maxima larger sedan.

But it took some getting used to the fact that manual seat adjustments for these seats were by the parking brake lever and the transmission shifter in the middle of the car, not on the outer sides of the seats.

And inside, two front passengers can feel a bit as if they are sitting with their elbows quite close.

Door windows are larger than expected for good views out. In fact, rear-door windows open all the way down.

There's decent space at the rear-door openings to allow people to get their feet inside. This is because the Versa's wheelbase -- the distance from the middle of one wheel on one side to the other wheel on the same side -- is unusually lengthy.

But three people in the back seat sit really close together, and the middle person doesn't have a head restraint.

Thankfully, there's no appreciable hump in the rear floor to interfere with the generous 38 inches of rear-seat legroom.

I just wish the Versa SL hatchback tester had less road and wind noise.

Even at less than highway speeds, I detected wind noise coming from between the outside mirrors and the pillars by the windshield. Tire noise only disappeared when I traveled on new asphalt surfaces.

The Versa's CVT and 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder can add noise, too.

While engine noise was unobtrusive in gentle driving around town in the test vehicle, it became obnoxious in pedal-to-the-metal accelerations when the four-cylinder buzz was incessant and wasn't accompanied by any immediate, assertive torque.

Maximum torque is 127 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm.

The base Versa transmission is a six-speed manual. A four-speed automatic also is available. But also note that the Versa is one of the few non-hybrid cars on the U.S. market offering a CVT, too.

CVTs don't have set gears to manage engine power and send it to a vehicle's wheels. Rather, CVTs seek to operate continuously in an optimal, unlimited gear range to be as efficient with fuel as possible.

Nissan officials say the CVT provides an 8 percent to 10 percent fuel economy improvement over a conventional, four-speed automatic.

Unfortunately, though, the CVT is only in the top-of-the-line Versa SL, which has a high starting price of $16,055.

Meantime, three other small cars that are lighter in weight than the Versa by at least 290 pounds -- the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent -- get higher fuel economy ratings from the government than does the Versa with CVT.

So budget-conscious buyers might consider saving thousands of dollars and getting a Versa with standard six-speed manual, instead, since it has the same 30-mpg government rating for city driving.

Only the highway rating is less than a CVT-equipped Versa hatchback -- 34 mpg instead of 36.

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