Nissan Versa Review

Jay Shoemaker
by Jay Shoemaker
Years ago, I found myself killing time in a London wine bar. An English gentleman and I were busy amusing ourselves with fine wine and, um, English food when a pair of extremely attractive unattached ladies strolled into the bar. Uninhibited by the best Bordeaux, we enticed these French beauties to join us at the bar. The women eventually escaped our charms to establish base camp at their own table. I continued to stare longingly at our lost companions– until one of them stretched her arms above her head to reveal unshaven underarms. The Nissan Versa was like that.

When I first saw the Versa, I was immediately smitten by its Gallic flair. Its obvious Renault roots (it's the Clio's sibling) bless the model with style and grace in a chi-chi shape. From the front, the Versa's broad grin offers welcome relief from the Honda Fit’s angry eyes and the Toyota Yaris’ fish-face. The little Nissan’s profile is sporty and elegant; the rear light’s angular slash adding the perfect touch of modern aggression. The rear makes the car look narrow and tall (in the grand French tradition) and the 15” wheels are straight out of Toon Town but hey, you can't expect a baguette to look like a loaf of Wonder bread.

With an overall length under 170 inches and a starting price below $15k, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Versa serves-up an econobox interior. Au contraire. The Versa’s large greenhouse gives the car’s cabin an incredibly spacious feeling, only slight marred by the large pillars at the rear quarters. The rear seating area is huge; I can think of few mid sized cars offering more spacious accommodation. My 1.8 SL tester came dressed in a light colored checked interior: the automotive equivalent of cut-price couture. The dash materials were sufficiently well formed and assembled to make the Versa’s chump change sticker seem like the deal of the century. That same low cost of entry buys some tres chic high-tech: Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio prep, keyless ignition and steering wheel controls.

Fire up the little nipper and you soon discover that the throttle response is programmed to delude you into thinking you that there’s more than a 1.8 liter mill up front. Hell, I even chirped the tires when I started out. Once underway, the Versa's erstwhile powerplant sounds as wheezy as 65-year-old pack-a-day man. Needless to say, the 122hp Versa is only quick for the first 25 feet. After that, the four-banger runs out of desire faster than a Viagra-deprived Hefner. I understand why we need to suffer the slings and rubber bands of CVT transmissions in hybrid cars, but I’m not sure why Nissan chose one for this application. The Xtronic slushbox gives slush a bad name, while the over-sized stalk controlling its activation is a particularly unattractive interior accoutrement.

The Versa’s uncomfortable seating makes a bad situation worse. The front chairs sit too high. With no compensatory telescoping steering wheel, I felt like a herniated bus driver. The deeply unsporting seating position is mirrored by the sub-compact's ride quality, which makes a down pillow seem like a block of concrete. In fact, the Versa’s feather-filled feel made me scared to corner. When I could no longer avoid the need for lateral progress, body roll was less than expected– considering the Versa’s tall, boxy architecture, tiny-tot tires and over-supple suspension. Unfortunately, despite the Figgie pudding ride, the Versa reacts to rough roads with sharp reports, translated without delay or filtration to the car’s occupants. Torsion bar? Torture bar is more like it.

In an attempt to distract myself from the mechanical miscues, I turned my attention to Versa’s sound system. While the head unit looked impressive enough, in a multi-button LCD sort of way, the tunes were as weak and unbalanced as an anorexic greyhound. My tester also lacked [optional] ABS braking The omission was hardly reassuring; the left pedal somehow managed to feel both soft and wooden. That said, the Versa’s combination of front discs and rear drums are class standard, and effective enough given the speeds involved…

I really wanted to like the Nissan Versa. The exterior has panache, the interior’s spacious and friendly, the price is outstanding and the fuel economy beyond reproach (30/36). Ultimately, I couldn’t get past the engine drone, soft suspension and awkward driving position. While I suppose there are American consumers who will accept these foibles as part of the car’s “charm,” I’m sure pistonheads would enjoy any number of better groomed machines. For those who ignore this advice, well, vive la difference!
Jay Shoemaker
Jay Shoemaker

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  • Davejay Davejay on Nov 01, 2008

    Quick note on the fuel economy of this car: I bought a 2008 6-speed SL, and at first was underwhelmed (I was getting around 24-25, strictly city driving.) I had read that the mileage would improve after the break-in period, but it didn't seem to. Well, after the first oil change, things have perked up significantly; suddenly I'm getting 27-29 on the same city commute, and on a nearly full-tank two-way commute on the 5 in CA (including long stretches of 80+mph and total-standstill traffic), I got 31 (which is the EPA highway estimate.) So yes the interior is awesome and the exterior endearing (with the headlights, taillights and pinched hood, it looks kind of like a French take on a stretched VW Beetle) and the handling is mediocre, but now that I'm getting good economy and I've learned how to have fun driving it (wasn't used to the low torque at first), I'm calling it a win. Just for snicks and grins, though, I checked to see how much it was worth at CarMax, and it's worth a tad more than I owe on it (with very little put down) -- so no complaints from me whether I keep it or not.

  • Daddyof2 Daddyof2 on Apr 20, 2009

    I always subscribe to the notion that its fun to drive a slow car fast. I had a chance to test drive the 6 speed sedan version of this car and I was pleasantly suprised with the room, power and amenities it offered for only 15k. I stepped into the cabin not expecting VW tactile pleasures, Lexus refinement, nor BMW driving dynamics. I was however suprised by the fact that I could put a rear facing child seat behind me, still have room to row the shifter and break traction in first gear. It has everything a person needs to get back and forth to work, and has a fun 6 speed manual to at least make you feel your driving fast.

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