The Truth About Cars » 1.8 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 15 Jul 2014 20:01:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » 1.8 Review: 2011 Nissan Versa 1.8S Wed, 27 Oct 2010 18:25:04 +0000

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.

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Review: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze (German-market Spec) Mon, 25 Jan 2010 14:27:26 +0000

People buy cars they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like. That’s why hardly anybody in Europe is buying the Chevrolet Cruze, which has been on sale over here since last summer. It’s an affordable car that you might need but you won’t want, and which won’t impress anybody at all, because it’s just not that desirable. Allow me to explain…

The Cruze uses GM’s global Delta II platform, which is also the underpinning of the new Opel Astra as well as (in basic structure) the Chevy Volt. We Euros get Cruzes built in Korea but you in North America will have yours made in Michigan. It’s a conventional sedan, though in Europe at least, a hatchback and station wagon will follow.

The Cruze is Jetta-sized, but I’d say it looks better: less bloat, lower beltline, crisper shapes, good proportions. It manages to be both distinct and clean, with the major exception being the odd “headband” across the grille that encloses the recklessly large Chevy bow tie. If that is supposed to look sporty in a Jane Fonda, 1980′s aerobics way, it serves its purpose.

The interior is good, within the cut price idiom. For a Daewoo, the Cruze is short on depressing Korean genericness and long on generic-but-OK GM stuff, such as the standard cow’s tongue steering wheel and annoyingly deep-set instrument pods. It’s a bit fussy but not in a particularly creepy way, and I actually liked the cloth-befitted dashboard – fabric being generally preferable to dead cow. Finish and the selected plastics are quite OK. 

What is really good is available space: the Cruze has plenty for four. This is more than a commuter car: I could deal with sitting in the back for hours on end and the trunk could handle all my trip luggage too (as it has a capacity of 16 cubic feet). Oddly, GM likes to stress that the trunk has indentations enabling space for two golf bags – I didn’t know that golfers were a cheap-car-buying demographic yet.

Not to forget, the Cruze has fared very well on the newest Euro-NCAP crash tests.

This is a really cheap car, so I’d gladly accept an interior that isn’t quite VW-standard if it saved me thousands. (You can get one like my tester for €15k, which is around 30% less than a comparable Jetta in Germany. And entry-level Cruzes start at €12k, which is the average price of cars that are two sizes smaller).

But some things just aren’t worth a low price. Case in point: the Cruze’s engine. The 1.8L machine produces 140HP of which I could only feel around 105 actually doing any work. And what little output it could muster produced more than its share of an unlovely noise. It’s an old-school engine that has somehow found its way into a new car, and it ruins the experience. Picture a car that feels well-made but which at highway speeds has a gruff, obtrusive, strained sound coming from its engine department: that’s what the Cruze I drove was like. (I also spent an hour in a Cruze equipped with the 110HP 1.6L engine. It’s slightly sweeter, but the sound is still gruff, and it’s so weak you have to thrash it all the time, so it’s not an alternative). Apparently the Diesels are the pick of the bunch, but they come at a steep, three-grand price premium. At a reported 25MPG, the tested 1.8L is not exactly economical either.

I didn’t like the overly snatchy brakes or the late-action clutch, either. And speaking of snatchiness, the ignition lock is snaggly.

In contrast to the engine, the Cruze’s ride and handling are perfectly acceptable in the grand scheme of things. The Chevwoo doesn’t communicate like an Euro-market Focus or cosset like a Renault Megane but it felt capable at a wide range of jobs – city, highway, high-speed (110 MPH) autobahn. The bias is definitely on comfort, but the ride-handling compromise is quite good. And wind and ride noises are pleasantly low.

But back to the engine problem: how can it be that a major car company introduces a new global model with a dud motor? Well, I’m going to speculate that this is the product of a major planning malfunction; it’s the only explanation I can think of. Somewhere along the line, somebody upstairs at GM may have realized that the Cruze had as much interior space as the poorly-packaged, larger yet cramped Opel Insignia / Buick Regal. And that it beats the similar Opel Astra on several counts – but all at a seriously lower price. How to protect the Opels from the Chevys? How to keep the Daewoo off Buick’s neck?

Instead of letting the brands fight it to the finish in the way (for instance) that VW does with Skoda, GM seems to have cheapened the Cruze by installing an obsolete engine. (Obviously, GM has some good small engines on tap; why else wouldn’t they use one? Cost can’t be that much of a factor.)

I have to tell you that it’s a personal thing for me: just as I don’t trust a man who dyes his hair, or I don’t trust a banker, or a teetotaler, I don’t trust a car maker that willingly adulterates one car in order to protect another.

Porsche did it with the 914 and with the Boxster in order to protect the 911, and thereby earned the distrust of first Setright and then Clarkson. (And just look what has happened to Porsche in the mean time). GM does it with the Cruze, so why would I buy one, or recommend it to anybody I know?

I mean, everybody makes mistakes, but to install a crummy engine in a new global car on purpose sounds like what a company would do that is trying to pull one over you. Just think of what kind of unseen short cuts they might be taking, quality-wise.

If you wanted to be generous, you could forget this possibly petty matter of trust. Instead, you could say that this is a pretty decent, useful small car that will hopefully be equipped with a much better engine when it leaves North American factories next year. But as it is right now, there are around a dozen better cars on the market, most made by trustworthier companies.

[Editor's Note: The US-spec 2011 Cruze will offer an available 1.4 liter turbocharged engine in addition to the 1.8 liter base engine tested here]

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