2011Nissan Versa 1.8S 5dr Hatch (USA)

When the Nissan Almera reached the end of its intended production life, no direct replacement was offered in Europe. Nissan stated that they had struggled to win sales in the medium hatchback class, and that they felt they would be better served by offering something that bit different. They introduced the Qashqai, and found they had an instant success on their hands. They did, however, have a similarly sized hatchback to offer to other markets, with a car that had first appeared in Japan in 2004, and which was given the slightly awkward name of Tiida, and they followed this up with a saloon version called, even more clumsily, Tiida Latio. Although designed very much with Asian markets in mind, when Nissan US were looking for an entry level car to sit in their range underneath the Sentra which had just been enlarged, Tiida seemed to be the perfectly sized car to meet their needs. Built in Mexico, and launched under the name Versa (apparently in reference to how Versa-tile the car is!), the car made its US debut at the Detroit show in 2006, and went on sale as a 2007 model, in both 4 door saloon and 5 door hatchback versions.  The plan seems to have worked, as Versa was the best selling car in its class in 2009 and 2010. Last year, just under 100,000 cars were sold, which is 50% more than its next nearest sub-compact rival, the Kia Soul (not that anyone who would likely purchase a Versa would consider the Soul, or vice versa!).  Cheap economy cars in the US market have rarely been anything much better than automotive purgatory, so with the Versa now a staple of the rental car fleets, it was time to find out if this Nissan should be tarred with the same brush or whether it has real merit.
Versa is offered in both a four door sedan and a five door hatchback. In essence, the core of the range is the same, a 1.8 litre engine, and S trim. However, the range has evolved, so the sedan is also available with a slightly less powerful 1.6 engine, which only comes with a manual transmission, whereas the top spec SL hatchback is available with a CVT gearbox as opposed to the more conventional 4 speed automatic, or 6 speed manual. Nissan made headlines in 2009 when they launched the 1.6 Base Sedan, and quoted a list price of under $10,000. True, this car really was pretty basic, lacking even a radio, but it generated plenty of headlines for Nissan, who then probably managed to upsell a more costly version of the car. Even now, value pricing is one of the key strengths of the car, as not only is the purchase price relatively low, but it is a physically larger car than all of its price competitors, the Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent. My test car was a 1.8S hatchback, with optional automatic transmission,  which would retail for under $15,000.    
The 1.8 litre engine powering the Versa develops 122 bhp. Not perhaps a lot, but then this is a relatively small and light car, so I thought it was adequate to save the Nissan from being an embarrassment in traffic. The American press have complained, as is their inimitable wont, that the car is far too slow, as to them anything with a 0-60 time of worse than 7 secs is almost universally decried as underpowered. The official figures for this car are 0-60 in about 9.5 seconds, though to achieve that you would need to rev it pretty hard. That would be no undue problem, as the engine seemed capable of hard work, and protests far less than you might expect . I was impressed by the refinement, and the low noise levels. The gearing has been intelligently chosen to ensure not just that performance is acceptable, but so that once you are at a steady speed on the freeway, the engine is not working too hard, and consequently nor are your ear drums. 80 mph corresponds to just under 3000rpm. Wind and road noise were also quite well suppressed, so you could quite happily take the Versa for a long trip and not suffer unduly, which is absolutely not something I could say about the Chevrolet Aveo, whose road noise levels were almost unbearable over about 60 mph. I held the Versa at a steady 80 – 85mph on the I10 freeway, with no concerns, and I drove it 340 miles in one day. Thanks to the cruising speed, and also probably the fact that the previous renter had not truly filled the tank, fuel economy was a little disappointing, working out at 33 mpg (US). However, I filled the tank at one point, and drove 80 miles and the needle had still not moved from the “beyond full” point, so I strongly suspect that the Versa delivered rather better economy than my figures suggest.  I was not expecting the last word in steering and handling finesse, but what I found surprised me, and in a very pleasant way. For sure this is not up to Euro Focus standards, but it was very agreeable, and proved far more fun to drive on twisty roads than any of the more costly cars that I had sampled earlier in this trip. There is some feel to the steering, and the handling is tidy, with just a little bit of body roll. You could certainly take the bends with some gusto in this car and not worry about coming out cleanly on the other side. It rides well, too, thanks, I suspect, to a relatively long wheelbase. No problems with the brakes. There is a pull up handbrake between the seats. Visibility was also good, with plenty of glass, and good coverage from the mirrors which are a decent size and hence provide a good field of view behind you. As this is a small car, and a hatchback, judging where the back of the car is proved particularly easy.  The controls for adjusting the mirrors, electrically, are buried way down on the dashboard just above the driver’s knee, which was a little awkward, but once set, I did not need to change them again.
There are two ways of looking at the interior of the Versa. You could condemn it for the hard plastics that predominate, or you could look at the overall design and effect and conclude that for a budget car it is perfectly acceptable. I am inclined to the latter view. Yes, the plastics are hard, but part of the door casing is covered with the faux velour type material that you find on the seats, and the dashboard is livened up with some aluminium effect inserts which provide a visual lift. The dash itself is clear and unpretentious, just like the Versa. The instrument dials are surrounded by chrome rings, and impart their data clearly to the driver. There is a decent quality radio – sadly lacking XM/Satellite, but that was not a surprise – and big rotary dials for the air conditioning in the centre of the dash. Chunky column stalks do most of the rest, with small buttons inset on the steering wheel for the cruise control. The centre console contains a plastic moulding for two cup holders in front of the gear lever, and a small slot to the side of the handbrake. There is no central armrest or cubby there.   
You do feel that you are perched up high on the driver’s seat. There is no height adjustment available in the S model, but there is if you upgrade to an SL. Other adjustments are also manual. Despite the high seating position, I was able to get a comfortable driving position,and the seat itself proved very comfortable, definitely a cut above the once typical “economy special” levels of support that you would find in cheaper cars. The seats are trimmed in a sort of false velour/suede type material. By the standards of the class, the Versa is a roomy car. There is ample space for two large adults in the back, and three could fit at a pinch, and they would be far more comfortable than if they were forced into something like an Aveo. The boot is also of a decent size, and can readily be extended by dropping down the asymmetrically split rear seat backs. The cushions do not lift, so you do not get a flat load floor, as there is a noticeable height difference between the boot and the extra load space created. Inside the cabin, I found what must the largest glovebox I have seen in a long time, as not only does it cover quite a width of the dashboard, but it is incredibly deep from back to front. There is also a lidded bin on top of the dash and a small cubby hole in the middle of the dash, as well as the door pockets.
Equipment levels are modest, as you might expect given the price. Unlike the Base car, you do get a radio in this one, along with air conditioning. power operated mirrors, a rear wash wipe and (although it was not present on the test car), a rear parcel shelf. Upgrade to an SL, and as well as the CVT transmission, you get traction control, an anti-skid system, alloy wheels and an MP3 capability for the audio unit. The Base car is in the hair shirt spec category, lacking the radio, and anti-lock brakes.     
Nissan were probably well advised not to try to sell this car in Europe, where it would be construed as a rival to the Golf and Focus, although as the Tiida, it was subsequently made available in selected European markets, such as Ireland and Switzerland. I suspect it would compare very unfavourably to such competition. However, its US market position, as a cheap, entry level car makes far more sense. Indeed, it really does seem to offer something perfectly acceptable to those whose budget is limited but who want a brand new car, in the way that Chevrolet Aveo simply does not. To those who simply need a cheap car, or whose corporate rental policies limit them to a Sub-Compact car, fear not, as the Versa is surprisingly acceptable.
2011-04-19 20:15:48

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