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Nissan Versa offers fuel economy, sportiness

By April 28, 2009

Democrat automotive columnist

Introduced about a year ago, the new Nissan Versa does achieve excellent fuel economy but not at the sacrifice of quality or performance. That perhaps best describes what the Versa does best, inexpensive to acquire, passes gas stations like a speeding bullet, yet surprisingly roomy and stylish.

Built in two bodies, a square back station wagon and a notch-back four-door sedan, the Versa at 176 inches long (sedan, the wagon is just 169 inches) measures into the class of cars formally belonging to the likes of Civics and Corollas. The long wheelbase of 102.4 inches means the wheels are pushed out to the corners. Being classed as a compact car under the EPA guidelines, the Versa is just two cubic feet from being considered a mid-size car, which begins at 110 cubic feet of interior room volume and trunk capacity. Not bad for a vehicle of just 66.7 inches in width.

Part of the VersaÕs size comes from being tall at 60 inches, so you can be assured of top hat interior headroom. Nissan has always had edgy cars and the Versa is no exception. It uses its high beltline to define the hood and trunk and leaves the lower character line to accentuate the front wheel flares, which are typical Nissan, cut off sharply and pronounced. One area of the design is the rear roof line Ñ perhaps more formal in nature Ñ which makes the car look taller although the long cabin aids ingress and egress.

Under the hood is another Nissan edge, power. Standard is a 1.8-liter transverse mounted inline dual overhead cam, 16-valve four banger that knocks down 122 horses at a low 5,200 rpm and 127 pounds of twist at 4,800 rpm. Depending on the model of the Versa (either an S or an SL), it comes standard with a six-speed tranny, however this S model tester had a four-speed auto, which adds $800 to the price (the SL gets a CVT that costs a $1,000 more than the manual).

Performance with the four-speed auto is good, with 0-60 mph arriving in under nine seconds, a compact car benchmark (8.92 seconds). Passing performance will not disappoint you either, with a 50-70 mph simulated pass stopping the chrondex in 5.12 seconds, which just seven years ago was a benchmark number for mid size sport sedans. Not bad. However, ascending a step grade will slow that number to 9.68 seconds Ñ adequate but nothing to write home about.

Comparing Versa to its competition, such as the Scion, it stacks up nicely in performance and fuel economy with the added value of significantly more interior room. In the fuel miser aspect of the Versa, which is one of the reasons to acquire such a car, the EPA rates it at 24/32 mpg city/highway (in 2007 it achieved 28/35 mpg using the prior EPA laboratory cycle). That translates to about 31 mpg in rural country driving and about 35-38 mpg on the highway. Very good, but not excellent. But then again 31 mpg is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering its performance level, which would improve even more with the standard six-speed manual along with the driving fun quotient.

Throttle response is quite lively even with the automatic and you will be mildly surprised at the quickness of acceleration in part-throttle demands.

Compact econoboxes arenÕt expected to drive like European sport sedans. Hey, what do you expect for about $14,000? With that said, the not so little Versa handles beautifully. Its power rack and pinion steering points the car in the desired direction, with the car taking commands from the helm perfectly. DonÕt get the impression that the Versa is a boat, but if it were, it would be a small sport boat, perhaps like a Sea Doo jet drive.

Suspension is MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam in the rear, pretty standard in this class of super econoboxes. It has antiroll bars at both ends and coils in all four corners. Tires and wheels are of the steel variety with hubcaps (remember just because your head resembles a hubcap doesnÕt mean you are a big wheel) with a today diminutive size of 15X5.5-inch wheels shod with 185/65 all-season radials. Hey, you donÕt buy a Versa to run down the Ferraris at Laguna Seca. But the Versa may be fun at an autocross. Autocrosses are a closed course about a quarter to a half mile in length with a 12- to 15-foot-wide chalk marked twisty, tight race course, also usually delineated by cones. You may get up to 50 mph and any larger parking lot can serve the event.

ItÕs the kind of event that you literally yank the steering wheel left and right as you navigate the tortuous course and with the quick out-of-the-hole acceleration, nimble secure handling, the Versa would be a blast.

Ride quality is excellent, smooth on the superslab with a quiet demeanor, perhaps one of the quietest of econoboxes, with little road and wind noise, while handling more challenged pavement quite well also, ranking at or near the top in this category of super econoboxes. The engine turns 2,750 rpm at 70 mph and is church mouse quiet.

Safety in the form of six airbags is standard except for ABS brakes, which are a necessity that will cost you a small $250. Stops with the front discs and rear drums with the optional ABS were a little long at 48 feet. Halogen headlights do a good job when the sun goes down.

Another area where the Versa shines is inside. The seats are done in a very luxurious cloth with a deep nap. And this same material also found its way to the door paneling, making it the nicest door paneling in this category of car. Instrumentation is almost full, but the important gauges are present: a tach, speedo and fuel gauge. A blue indicator serves as a temp gauge telling you the engine is not yet up to running temperature, so donÕt turn the heater on (it slows down the warm-up process on cold mornings).

Front seats are large and very comfortable with the rear doing a very nice job of coddling your passengers as well with humongous leg and head room where that long wheelbase and squared off roof line helps aplenty. Trunk capacity is a cavernous 14 cubic feet (almost).

So what is the sticker shock for this fuel sipping Versa? How about $14,055 including $625 for the trucker from Smyrna, Tenn. And it would be $800 less if you went with the preferable six-speeder. That was the price of a Mercedes 450SL (originally called a 350SL) some 35 years ago. Options are few, but a couple are important. ABS is priced at $250 (a bargain), cruise control is another bargain at $200 and the power package is advisable at $700 and includes power windows and locks, remote keyless entry and a couple of other items like a glove box light. Power mirrors are standard. One thing is for sure, this Versa will hardly shortchange you.

Larry Weitzman

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