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  • 2008 Nissan Versa 1.8 S HB

    Posted on September 1st, 2007 ninarussin

    The Nissan Versa is a stylish hatchback with exceptional fuel economy, priced under $15,000.
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Nissan Versa

    2008 Nissan Versa

    People love to hate hatchbacks. For those of us old enough to remember the AMC Gremlin, that bias isn’t unfounded. But unlike the subcompacts of the 1970s, today’s hatchbacks are sporty, versatile, and fun to drive. The Nissan Versa competes against the likes of the Mazda3 and Kia Spectra: all five-door subcompacts that are big on fuel economy and versatility.

    The Versa hatchback has a sportier exterior than its sedan counterpart, and the two-box configuration gives it more cargo room. Best of all, base price on the S grade is under $13,000. The test car, fitted with optional cruise control and antilock brakes, costs $14,535 including the destination charge.

    Power comes from a 122-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual gearbox. As small as the engine is, the manual transmission is the best choice. I found myself just under redline when I accelerated onto the highway, and when passing. There’s so little torque that it’s hard to start up in second gear. Then again, with average fuel economy of 29 miles-per-gallon, second-gear starts aren’t really necessary. My only concern is long-term durability on a drivetrain that has to work so hard to develop power.

    The six-speed transmission is easy to shift, and the clutch is light enough that stop and go driving isn’t difficult. Gears have a reasonable amount of range. There’s a reverse lockout ring that protects the only gear without synchros. The shift lever is longer than it needs to be, more like a truck shifter. I never used the sixth gear. Driving around town, I wanted to stay well within the power band, which was easier to do in fifth.

    The front-wheel drive configuration keeps most of the weight over the front axle: a plus on wet or snow-covered roads. The Versa can easily take on the occasional dirt road but don’t try negotiating a challenging trail. Ground clearance is a scant six inches, and lack of all-wheel drive means the engine can’t send torque to the rear wheels if traction gets dicey in the front.

    Great fuel economy is one of the Versa’s biggest assets. A hundred miles of city and highway driving ate up just over a quarter of the car’s 13-gallon tank. In addition to having a rather small engine, the Versa is also very light. Curb weight on the hatchback model is about 2,700 pounds. Use of high-strength, galvanized steel makes the unit body more impact and rust resistant.

    Front and rear stabilizer bars keep the car flat in the corners. The suspension is reasonably compliant, braking is firm but not grabby, and the power-assist steering yields a good on-center feel. The fifteen-inch wheels are big enough to keep the car stable at speed, though I’d prefer mags to hubcaps. Visibility around the car is good: I didn’t notice any obvious blind spots.

    Considering its price, the Versa has a high level of standard safety features including front, side and side curtain airbags, a tire pressure monitoring system and active head restraints that help to prevent whiplash during a rear-end collision. The standard halogen lamps throw a good beam of light at night. A standard rear wiper keeps the large back window clear of rain and snow.

    Antilock brakes are available as a $250 option, that also includes electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. That’s not a bad price for antilock brakes but there’s a catch. The option is only available if the buyer also adds the $700 power package that includes power windows, locks and remote keyless entry. Cruise control is a stand-alone $200 option.

    Comfortable seating for four

    The interior is simple but well laid out. I found the driver’s seat easy to adjust, with adequate lower lumbar support. I was surprised at how comfortable the second-row seats are: there is plenty of leg and headroom for the average adult. Cloth upholstery is standard. Front doors have map pockets with bottle holders, while the rear doors have map pockets. The center console includes two large cupholders for the front passengers and two for the passengers in back, as well as a 12-volt power point and change holders. There is a nice size covered shelf above the audio controls large enough to hold several compact discs, a cell phone or PDA. The glove compartment is pretty small: big enough for the owner’s manual and registration, but not much else.

    The standard audio system includes an AM/FM radio and CD player. Buyers who want to upgrade the audio system, add a MP3 jack, Bluetooth compatibility or satellite radio need to buy the more expensive SL grade.

    The second-row seats collapse by pulling a loop on the seatback. It’s a simple, one-step operation. I was sorry to see that the seats don’t also tumble forward: doing so would make the extended load floor flat. With the second-row seats in place, there’s enough room in back for some luggage or a week’s worth of groceries. Folding the seats makes the cargo area large enough for a bicycle, though the bump created by the second-row seats makes it harder to slide the bike inside. People who ride regularly will probably want to add a roof-mounted rack. A standard cargo cover is easy to remove in order to load tall cargo in back.

    After driving the Versa for a week, I’d have to say that it’s an easy vehicle to live with: small and maneuverable around town with adequate power for the highway. I enjoyed being able to slip into small parking spaces and still have some room left over. I also enjoyed racking up the miles without stopping at the gas station to fill up.

    The Nissan Versa is produced at Nissan’s Aguascalientes, Mexico assembly plant, and is currently on display at dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: The Versa hatchback is a lot of car for under $15,000, with comfortable seating for four, a high level of standard safety features and exceptional fuel economy.

    Dislikes: The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is short on low-end torque.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $12,650*
    Price as tested: $14,535
    Horsepower: 122 Hp @ 5200 r.p.m.
    127 lbs.-ft. @ 4800 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No 
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly:
    Fuel economy: 26/31 m.p.g. city/highway
    Comments: *Base price does not include a $625 destination charge.

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