A car for the economy: 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6

The new-for-2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 is the lowest-priced midsize sedan on the market. (Associated Press)

Give carmaker Nissan credit for offering shoppers a deal. Just as the U.S. economy was taking a dive late last year, the company introduced a new version of its Versa sedan that's priced so low, it competes with used cars.

The new-for-2009 Versa 1.6 Sedan isn't some tiny car, either. It's classified as a mid-size because of its generous 94.3 cubic feet of passenger space and nearly 14 cubic feet of trunk room. Its interior is the largest of any entry-level car.

Best of all, the new Versa's starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $10,710, which makes the Versa 1.6 the lowest-priced mid-size sedan, by far, on the U.S. market.

Typical mid-size sedans, such as the 2009 Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, have starting retail prices of more than $19,000.

Now, there is a catch: The base Versa 1.6 is compact in length on the outside -- about the same length as a Honda Civic sedan.

But the Versa 1.6 has a taller profile than a Civic, which helps explain why the Versa sedan's measured interior room is large enough to warrant the "mid-size" label conferred by the federal government. Vertical space inside is so generous even people in the back seat have 37.9 inches of headroom.

The other thing that stands out in the base 1.6 sedan is that it is stripped down. It comes with roll-down windows, manual-only door locks and outside mirrors, no air conditioning and no radio. Yes, they really still make cars like this.

I wouldn't recommend an A/C-free car in this day and age, and Nissan thankfully offers a next-level-up sedan that includes A/C for a starting retail price of $11,710.

Note the prices put this Nissan squarely amid several-year-old used Hondas and Toyotas that are popular among car buyers. The prices also undercut the $13,640 starting retail price of the Hyundai Accent sedan.

Still, even with air conditioning, the test Versa 1.6 arrived without a radio, a key fob or power windows, power door locks or power mirrors. And you know what? That was OK, because it had lots of spunk and was fun and economical to drive, even if it wasn't fancy.

The 107-horsepower, 1.6-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine in this version of Versa is smaller and less powerful than the 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter four cylinder that has been the only Versa engine thus far.

The 107 horses don't sound like a lot, but the Versa comes with a five-speed manual transmission and weighs just 2,521 pounds, so it zips along roads with vigor. Without trying, I repeatedly squealed the tires pulling away from stoplights, and when I worked the manual tranny well, I could move quickly around double-parked cars and into traffic openings.

Torque peaks at 111 foot-pounds at 4,600 rpm and compares with 127 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm in regular Versas.

I was surprised at the refined sounds of the engine and how quietly it idled.

Regular gasoline is just fine in this car, and it cost in the low $30s to fill up the decent-sized, 13.2-gallon tank at today's prices. A tankful is good for some 380 miles of combined city/highway travel, if the government's fuel mileage estimates of 26 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway are achieved.

This mileage rating is higher than that of any Scion car.

Seats in the Versa feel like pliable foam and in the tester were covered with ho-hum black fabric.

I was struck by the plain black plastic cover on the dashboard where a radio usually is installed. I figure that sometime after the initial Versa 1.6 purchase, buyers will cobble together the money to install a nice aftermarket sound system.

The car managed road bumps better than expected, considering its low price, and had predictable front-wheel drive handling.

There's a tinny sound when the unlined trunk lid is slammed shut, but noises coming into the interior weren't overly obtrusive.

There are only four head restraints inside, but there are seats for five. The back seat has a flat seat cushion, and passengers sit up a bit higher than those in the front seat.

One thing that bugged me, though: Not even the driver gets height adjustment for the seat in the Versa 1.6. So, at 5-foot-4, I had to be content with my position behind the steering wheel.

I liked how much room was in the very deep glove box. It's needed because there's nothing in the center console to cover what's stored there.

Outside, the test Versa's gray/silver color didn't make the already bland styling memorable. The car's not ugly, but it's definitely not distinctive.

Door handles are finished in black plastic, which is typical in low-priced cars, and the 14-inch tires with wheel covers looked small. Most cars today have larger-diameter wheels and tires.

I wound up using the trunk to store a briefcase, shopping bags and just about any other sizable items that I was carrying. It was just easier to put the key in the trunk and get at the items there than it was to fuss with getting these things out of the back seat.

This is because the only door with a key lock is the driver's door. So, to access the back seat, I had to reach back or over to manually unlock a backseat door, then get out and open the door.

Standard safety features include front, side-mounted and roof air bags and front-seat active head restraints. Antilock brakes are optional.