Thursday, March 26, 2015

Nissan Versa

The Nissan Versa is one of the most spacious subcompact cars on the market, with both the four-door sedan and the five-door Note hatchback model offering abundant interior volume. There's enough room in the back to comfortably fit two normal-sized adults, which is something that can't be said for most of this car's competitors.

The Versa is also one of the most affordable entries in the segment; there, the tradeoff comes in its very basic interior and minimal driving feel. Still, roominess often trumps both of those qualities, and the current Versa sells well against the Honda Fit hatchback as well as the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, and Toyota Yaris.

In other markets, the Versa is sold under different badges; the first-generation models were known as the Tiida elsewhere, while today's sedan is the Nissan Latio and the hatchback is now known simply as the Note in other markets.

MORE: Read our 2015 Nissan Versa review, and compare the Versa to its rivals

When the first-generation Versa was introduced back in 2007, it was the only subcompact to have a standard six-speed manual gearbox (something it no longer offers, sadly). Both the four-door sedan and the five-door hatchback were equipped with a 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. At first, a conventional four-speed automatic transmission was optional, but it was soon replaced by Nissan's new-at-the-time Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Nissan added Base models of the Versa sedan in 2009, powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 107 hp. A five-speed manual was standard there, as were manual locks and windows, while air conditioning, a stereo, and the automatic transmission were options, all to keep the price down. This lack of features also kept the weight down, making the 1.6-liter models a little more fun to drive, if not to be in for long periods of time. The 1.6 was only really adequate if you stuck with the manual transmission, however. Interestingly, the Versa 1.6 got slightly lower fuel economy than 1.8 models, with EPA ratings of 26 mpg in the city and 31 highway, likely due to gearing that was meant to compensate for the lower power output.

Versa S models were better equipped, including most of the basics the Base models forewent, while range-topping SL models came with upgraded sound, height-adjustable seats, power windows and locks, keyless entry, and standard electronic stability control. Although the Versa earned reasonably good safety ratings, in models prior to 2010 the Base and S models didn't come with standard anti-lock brakes or electronic stability control.

For 2010, in addition to the new safety equipment, Nissan added a slightly different grille to the lineup and made large, 16-inch alloy wheels optional, as well as a navigation and an XM Satellite Radio package. Intelligent Key and Rockford Fosgate sound remained major options.

The new Nissan Versa

The current Versa four-door model was entirely redesigned for 2012, trading its predecessor's slab-sided lines for more rounded—some might say bulbous—shapes, and the new Nissan corporate grille. An all-new Versa Note five-door hatchback with very different styling was added as a 2014 model early in 2013; the two share a common name and some underpinnings but not a single body panel. (You can read a first drive report on the Nissan Versa Note here.)

All current Versa sedans are powered by a 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. The Versa 1.6 S sedan--the cheapest model in Nissan's U.S. lineup--starts below $13,000, including a mandatory destination fee. Air conditioning is now standard, even at that price, though power accessories--windows, locks, and mirrors--are not. The 1.6 S gets notably worse fuel efficiency ratings (27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway) than better-equipped models, because it is available only with a five-speed manual gearbox or an optional four-speed automatic transmission. The higher-line models can be ordered with a more fuel-efficient version of Nissan's continuously variable transmission (CVT), which pushes the Versa sedan's ratings to 31 mpg city, 40 mpg highway.

The Versa continues to emphasize its value over any other attribute, helping the car appeal to folks who aren't necessarily looking for top performance or amazing fuel economy. It's a nice enough car to pilot in commuting, but the suspension is very soft, which hampers handling. While some interior materials have an inexpensive feel, both versions of the Versa use switchgear that's just like that in bigger, pricier Nissans. The rear doors open wide to a back seat that's very spacious for the class, easily accommodating two adults or three kids. Those who want the most versatility should choose the Note hatchback, although it costs slightly more.

The mid-range SV model adds the usual convenience items, including power windows and cruise control, while the top-of-the-range SL models can reach around $18,000 when fully optioned with navigation, XM NavTraffic, and USB/iPod controls. The new Versa seems even more bargain-basement than ever in its features and appointments, with drum brakes across the lineup; short, flat seats; hard-and-hollow-feeling dash and door trims; and rear seatbacks that don't fold forward on the more affordable models. Surprisingly, the Versa's safety ratings aren't stellar either.

When it comes to safety, the Versa fares relatively well. Both the sedan and Note hatch receive four stars out of five overall from the federal government. The sedan is the only model to have  been fully tested by the IIHS, which gives it top "Good" scores in all but the newest frontal crash test, where it receives a "Poor" result. As a result, the four-door Versa does not get the agency's Top Safety Pick nod.

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