Americans like big cars. Even when designing a small car for the American market, it’s important that the small car be as big as possible. Sound like an oxymoron? It should. In a country where big is beautiful, the small practical cars go largely unnoticed, and so it is with the Nissan Versa. If you read TTAC regularly, you might know the Versa outsells everything in its segment, but did you know it just got a mid-cycle refresh? Even in the midst of a downsizing and belt-tightening economy, that news hasn’t made much of a splash. To find out if the cheapest four door car in America is worthy of more attention, we took a week to live with a Versa 1.8.
First things first, the Versa may hold the title of cheapest four-door car in America, but nobody actually buys the base model for good reason. Stripper doesn’t begin to describe the lack of features that $9,990 will buy you in 2011, and adding those features back into the Versa can more than double the price tag. Though the under-10K advertisement will get you in the door (of a decontented 1.6 sedan), merely selecting the hatchback will set you back $3,510 more (though the 1.8 liter engine comes standard on the five-door). Oh yes, and air conditioning, ABS brakes and an automatic transmissions are all extra. Clearly the Versa’s recession-ready reputation needs just a little adjustment.
From the outside, little has changed since the model was introduced, which is not a bad thing. Up front Nissan has lightly reworked the nose and headlamps, but they have left the car thankfully devoid of the awkward acid-trip styling that afflicts some small cars (I’m lookin at you Kia). The Versa’s side profile is plain-Jane in a a thoughtful, function-leads-form way; even the extra-large door openings in the rear are thoughtfully executed and entirely functional making ingress and egress a breeze. Of course if funky is more your bag, Nissan will be happy to sell you a Cube which is essentially a Versa with the weird turned way up. Or, for the fans of true automotive outsider art, there’s the Juke, which offers straight-outta-Arkham Asylum looks on a widened Versa platform. In any case, Nissan had room for a quiet, well-adjusted subcompact, and the Versa fits that bill well.
Inside the Versa, Nissan has added a much needed center armrest, tweaked some options packages and added optional Bluetooth and navigation options to the list while keeping base prices in the basement. Our tester came with both Bluetooth and nav, which worked surprisingly well given the discount pricing. $650 buys you the keyless-go package with Bluetooth, steering wheel audio controls and a leather steering wheel, and the navigation package with up-level audio commands a reasonable $610. For those willing to pay the monthly subscription, the Nav package also buys you an XM Satellite radio receiver and the Nav system has XM traffic built in.Also along for the ride in Nav package is a well-executed iPod interface. It’s obvious that Nissan had TomTom design the software for the nav system; it’s well laid out and as easy to use as an aftermarket unit. Oddly however you can’t type in an address while you are moving, but you can spend hours navigating thru your iPod on the same screen. What gives?
One excellent feature that is standard on all Versa models is an incredible 38 inches of rear leg room, a full two more inches than the recently inflated 2011 BMW 5 series sedan. Never before has small been this big. While the seats may be a touch firm for most adults, the ability to stretch out in the back will make up for some of it. As an aside, the Versa is quite possibly the cheapest vehicle on the market that can accommodate two rearward facing child seats with an average driver and passenger up front.
And when it comes to the Versa’s CVT transmission, I get the feeling that I’m going to part ways with the enthusiast-oriented review consensus. For some reason, reviewers tend to be critical of CVTs, complaining about feel or engine “buzz” (the CVT will hold the engine at a particular speed for extended periods of time). This CVT whine committee has even caused manufacturers to design their CVTs to mimic shift points in a traditional slushbox. Crazy talk I say: the CVT is the perfect transmission for the Versa or almost any small car. Why? Simple: hills.
Let’s face it, compact cars with tiny engines and hills are a bad combo to start with. If you toss in a wide or uneven ratio manual, or an ever-so-popular cheap 4-speed automatic, hill climbing becomes an arduous task. Thankfully, Nissan’s CVT allows the diminutive 1.8L 122HP 4 banger operate at its peak RPM to help you up grades that would make a manual Fiesta a chore to drive. Yes, the Versa buzzes like a Las Vegas vibrating bed sans the “magic fingers,” and yes the transmission feels “unnatural,” but these are small prices to pay for the ease with which the Versa hops up hills. Would I want a CVT in all cars? No, but in a discount car like the Versa, it’s perfect.
Despite the similarly low 127lb-ft of twist on tap, the Versa felt somewhat lighter than its 2828lb curb weight would indicate. On downhill grades I love a car with good engine braking, and again the CVT shines in this area. Since it’s always adjusting the ratio, it can maintain a very even engine braking feel at a wide range of speeds. So why is there an O/D Off button? It would have been better if Nissan had just called the O/D Off mode and “L” position on the shifter “L2 and L1” or just “Low and Lower.” In my hometown of San Francisco, controlling your decent speed is critical so the fuzz doesn’t ruin your day, as a result I found “Low and Lower” a true gem. Ready for the rub? Nissan saddles all auto-Versa models except the 1.8SL hatch with their fun-hating 4 speed automatic. And you guessed it: the 1.8SL does not start at $9,990 but $16,470.
Going around corners, the econo-box DNA of the Versa shines through.. and not in the good way. The narrow tires, 3,000lb curb weight (with driver and fuel), and electric power steering conspire to suck the fun out of any windy mountain pass. The Versa may pack more cargo than a Fiesta or a Rio 5, but you can leave your driving excitement at home in your Mazda 3 hatch. Corners are met with minimum roll but maximum tire squeal, making it difficult to drive the Versa briskly and subtly at the same time.
Our Versa tester rang in at a not-so-cheap-anymore $19,840, only a couple bucks off the similarly equipped Honda Fit Sport ($19,850). Comparisons to the Yaris and Fiesta are inevitable so here we go: The Yaris is long in the tooth and without some decent discounts on the hood buyers should look elsewhere. The Euro-flair Fiesta marches to a different drummer than the Versa or Fit, its driving manners and parts quality are superior, but its price tag can be a hard pill to swallow. While it’s not possible to similarly equip a Fiesta hatch as Ford does not offer a Navigation option, at $20,335 sans-nav, the Fiesta is a touch spendy but offers far more refinement. If you need the extra cargo, passenger or child seat schlepping room, the Versa is king of the hill. If you value handling and performance, wait for the Ecoboost Fiesta to roll next year. If you’re just looking for America’s cheapest car, good luck finding one on Nissan’s lot.
Readers who are following TTAC on Facebook were given the opportunity to ask reader questions of the Versa, here are your answers: Brett W: Better in person than in pictures. Kevin M: The tweaks are actually welcome. Steven W: They are tiny, aren’t they? Megan B: CVT all the way baby. James M: No rubber what-so-ever. John L: The sedan Sentra is bigger than the Sedan Versa in just about every way. Tony J: My sound meter is on the fritz, but according to Nissan: Sound level @ idle is 40.4db, @ Full throttle 75.7db and @ 70 mph cruise 67.4db.Robert H: I had the opposite problem, I couldn’t find a stripper if my life depended on it. Make of that what you will.
Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gasoline for this review.