Nissan Versa offers low price, high mileage

Sunday, January 20, 2008
The 2008 Nissan Versa ranks first in federal government fuel economy ratings at more than 30 miles per gallon in highway driving and at least 24 mpg in city driving. (Associated Press)

The 2008 Nissan Versa isn't your run-of-the-mill, entry-level car.

Sure, the Versa's starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of $13,255 for a sedan and $13,355 for a five-door hatchback make it Nissan's lowest-priced model -- car or truck. In fact, the 2008 five-passenger Versa has the second lowest starting price of any Japanese-branded new car offered in the United States.

Only Toyota's Yaris, with a starting price of $11,960, has a lower starting price as a 2008 model.

But the Yaris is a subcompact, while the Versa is decidedly not a little car. According to U.S. government classifications, the Versa's size and roomy interior -- with more backseat legroom than a Nissan Sentra and more passenger volume than a Honda Civic -- makes it a mid-size auto.

That's not all.

Among all nonhybrid, 2008 midsize cars, the Versa ranks first in federal government fuel economy ratings. All Versa models are rated at more than 30 miles per gallon in highway driving and at least 24 mpg in city driving. This means a Versa driver can potentially go more than 400 miles on one fill-up of the 13.2-gallon gasoline tank.

I just wish the Versa looked more interesting. The hatchback has a neat shape, but the sedan is ho-hum.

And on both sedan and hatchback, the Versa front end is similar in looks to that of a Nissan Quest minivan -- which is hardly praise.

Inside, the Versa can seem mainstream and uninspired in base S trim with suedelike upholstery. In the test Versa S sedan, the dashboard and gauges looked plain, and the black fabric on the seats not only provided painful static shocks as I departed, it held tight to crumbs and dust.

And I hardly agree with the $155 pricing for Nissan floor mats.

Driver and passengers can enjoy good views out of the vehicle, thanks to relatively high seat positions compared with traditional cars. Riders didn't have to drop down into their seats and sit low to the floor in the test vehicle, because the Versa stands just over 5 feet tall -- taller than a Honda Civic sedan.

But be aware that it can be difficult for a driver to see what's directly behind the back bumper of the Versa; the trunk lid sits up high.

In the back seat, three people sit close but not too close, and legroom of 38 inches is surprisingly generous -- there's only 34.5 inches in the back seat of a Sentra and 34.6 inches in a Civic sedan.

Front- and rear-seat headroom of at least 38 inches also is better than what's found in typical entry-level cars. In fact, without a sunroof, the Versa offers more than 40.5 inches of front-seat headroom -- even more than what's found in a larger, pricier 2008 Toyota Camry.

Trunk space is decent at 13.8 cubic feet. This is more than the 13.7 cubic feet in a Yaris sedan and the 12 cubic feet in a Civic sedan.

Size and room aren't the only highlights of the Versa.

The 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine provides good pep -- it seems even more powerful than its reported 122 horsepower and 127 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm.

In the test car, the engine was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission that shifted quite smoothly. The car felt especially responsive at startup and low speeds; the Versa responded vigorously to slight touches on the gas pedal.

Keep in mind the Versa has the smallest displacement engine that Nissan offers in the States. The Sentra, which is Nissan's step-up sedan from the Versa and starts at $16,375, is powered by a 140-horse, 2-liter four cylinder.

I did hear the Versa engine as it worked, though, and road noise came through regularly from the 15-inch tires.

The front-wheel-drive Versa isn't a heavy car. It weighs some 2,700 pounds -- about the same as a Civic sedan -- and can feel lightweight as it travels.

While the test Versa sedan handled nimbly around town and on country roads, it didn't exactly convey a refined ride. Driver and passengers felt road bumps along the way, and big bumps brought harsh jolts. Also, the Versa can be buffeted while traveling in high wind conditions.

Curtain and side-mounted air bags are standard equipment on every Versa. But electronic stability control is not offered. And antilock brakes are a $250 option on lower-level models -- if buyers also get the optional power package and cruise control.

The Versa also is not top-rated in federal government crash test ratings. Instead, it received across-the-board four out of five stars for both frontal and side crash protection.

By comparison, the smaller 2008 Honda Fit earned five out of five stars for frontal crash protection as well as five stars for front-seat-passenger protection in a side crash.

The Versa has done well at Nissan. Versa's 79,443 sales in 2007 helped account for the company's 75,000-car sales improvement vs. 2006.

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