2011 Nissan Versa 1.8S Sedan (USA)


These days, we will live in a globalized world. In case there is any doubt about this, you only have to look at the impacts to the economies of the world following events in 2008 and the ensuing “credit crunch”, or the disruption to supply chains in all sorts of unexpected ways and places following the Japanese Tsunami in March 2011. The automotive sector is truly global, too, dominated by a small number of very large companies who have achieved their position of dominance by a combination of strong product and sales success, and heavy investment including merger and acquisition activity. However, when it comes to designing a truly global car, that is all rather more difficult, and most manufacturers who have tried have either failed completely or had to introduce either some level of local variation or even completely different models to suit the tastes, budgets and needs of their prospective purchasers. Nissan is a case in point. Once one of the largest Japanese car companies, firmly rooted in Japan, they are now part of the same group as Renault, and they have manufacturing plants all around the world, producing a bewildering array of models, only a subset of which are ever seen in one geography. Success has become all about spotting what can be shared and what has to remain unique. When the medium sized Tiida and Tiida Latio were launched in Japan, Nissan Europe took the view that these cars were not really for them, and they decided to concentrate on the Qashqai to capitalise on the growing popularity of SUV and Crossover type vehicles. They did relent in some European markets and try to sell the Tiida, but low sales volumes evidence that their initial judgment was sound. However, for the US where despite a continued love of larger vehicles, there is still a sizeable market opportunity for sub-compact cars, and also entry level vehicles which could engender some potential brand loyalty as consumers look to trade up, the Tiida looked more promising. Duly adapted for the American market, and assembled in Mexico, the car was called Versa and it was launched at the 2006 Detroit Show as a 2007 model. Since then, it has dominated the sub compact sales charts, selling over 100,000 units a year. It has been a staple of the rental car fleets, as well, so perhaps it is not a surprise that having sampled the Hatchback version earlier in the year, I have now had the chance to drive the 4 door sedan as well.    
I came to the Versa having spent a few days driving a couple of cars (Sonic and Patriot) neither of which could be described as anything other than a bit sluggish, so this little Nissan, even though it had less power than even the diminutive Chevrolet, immediately felt like it had some life in it. Indeed, the 4 cylinder 1.8 litre engine is quite peppy, and it endowed the Nissan with surprising levels of acceleration and urge compared to what you might expect from the bargain basement end of new car motoring. Developing 122 bhp, the engine revs freely and proved to be quite a refined unit, even when pushed quite hard. It was coupled to a four speed automatic transmission, which did a good job at helping to make the most of the power, changing up and down very smoothly. Noise levels are reasonably well suppressed, with only moderate contributions from engine, road and tyres, meaning that a long freeway trip would not the act of purgatory that it certainly was in an Aveo I rented back in 2010. There is a price to pay for exploiting the liveliness, and it comes at the pump, where, just as with the Hatchback model, parsimony is perhaps not as great as you might expect. I achieved 31.5 mpg US, which amounts to 37.7 mpg Imperial. Not too bad in absolute terms, but I think prospective owners would hope for more from a small and light car. Maybe this is the trade off you have to make for the fact that the car is actually quite good to drive, with well weighted steering and handling that feels utterly safe but which allows you to tackle the bends with far more aplomb than I was to do with the car that came after this one in my schedule.  The ride is good, Nissan having got the balance right between enough compliance for comfort without ruining the driving characteristics. The brakes were fine, working well. There is a central pull up handbrake lever. I also had no issues with visibility, with a good field of vision from the mirrors, and of course this is quite a small car (by American standards), so manoeuvering it and parking up presented no problems at all, even though you could not tell exactly where the stubby tail finished.  
Things are not too bad inside the Versa, either. Of course it is not a luxury car, and the plastics are not going to worry the likes of Audi, but they are perfectly acceptable, and the overall fit and finish is good. There is a lot of grey, of course, but there is a contrasting silver panel in front of the passenger, and part of the door casings are trimmed with that sort of faux velour that also features on the seats. The dashboard itself is neat, and everything falls readily to hand. A single cowl covers the instruments, which comprise speedometer and rev counter, and smaller gauges for fuel level and water temperature. Column stalks operate the indicators, wipers and lights. The central part of the dash comprises two large air vents which sit either side of a small cubby unit, then below this is the rather basic audio unit and rotary dials for the air conditioning. It is all quite simple, especially when you compare it with the ever fussier interiors of so many cars these days, but it works and it gives you the feeling that it is all solid enough that it will still be working in many years time.
Versa is designated a sub-compact in US speak, which means “small”. However, it is not that small inside, and indeed, you could easily put four people and some luggage in this car without the same difficulties that you would encounter with many other cars in the class. Leg and head room for the rear seat passengers are good, though whether a third passenger would want to sit there for long is perhaps a moot point. The raison d’etre of this version of the car is its separate boot, which is a nice regular shape, but it is not as big as I was expecting, being fairly short from front to back, though it does stretch across the whole width of the car. It had no problems accommodating my suitcase and laptop back, with plenty of space to spare, though, which is not something I could say about the Sonic. Inside the cabin, there is a very large glovebox, though I was perplexed to discover that it is not the same inside as in the hatch model I drove earlier in the year, and there are reasonable door bins, as well as a lidded cubby high up on the dash and a lipped area in front of the gearlever.     
It is when you look at the equipment levels of the car that you see how the price has been kept down, Or rather, when you look at what you don’t get. The most obvious omissions are two convenience features that we all take for granted now: no central locking, and no electric windows. Yes, you have to insert the key into the barrel of the lock and twist it, and the only way of locking and unlocking the other doors is with the lever on the door panel. Combined with a boot that can only be opened with the key, I can well imagine that you could end doing what used to be commonplace: locking your keys in the car. The lack of electric windows is perhaps less of a nuisance, though it is something you rarely encounter at least in the front of a car these days. You do get electric mirrors, though, adjusted from a switch that is mounted awkwardly low on the left of the dashboard.  You also get air conditioning, and a perfectly acceptable AM/FM radio with single CD slot. There was no badging on the car to indicate its trim level, which led me to suspect that it was in fact not an S model, but the version which has not name. However, on reviewing the standard specifications and looking at Hertz’ paperwork, I think it probably was an S. That means that there are two versions below this one, and one above. The absolute bottom of the range,the “Base”, a car introduced for under $10,000,  was a headline grabber, comes with the 1.6 engine, only as a 5 speed manual, and lacks anti-lock brakes and brake assist, air conditioning and a radio, and probably sold in very small quantities. There is then the nameless model which adds air conditioning and anti-lock brakes, but lacks the radio and power mirrors of the S mode. At the top of the range is the SL model, which gains traction control and an anti-skid system, alloy wheels, an upgraded audio unit, remote central locking, electric windows and cruise control, as well as a height adjuster for the driver’s seat. At $16,650 for the SL Sedan, though, this is a lot more money than that attention grabbing “Base”. Unlike the Hatchback models, reflecting the fact that the sedans are cheaper, model for model, a 1.6 litre engine is available as well as the 1.8 unit that was in the test car. I do know that the test car was a 1.8, as it said so on the chassis number plate.
As with the Hatchback model, I had to conclude that what for it is trying to do, the Versa is actually pretty decent. Sure, the sedan version looks a bit gawky at the back, but for those who want a small cheap car in the US, this one has much to recommend it. An all new Versa model has debuted – in saloon guise only for now – for 2012, and I am sad to report that initial reviews suggest that far from being an improvement, it represents several steps backwards in terms of quality, fit and finish and is not as good to drive. It is not the only 2012 debutant to do this (Honda’s new Civic has been soundly condemned for the same traits), and doubtless results to some extent from the huge cost pressures that face manufacturers. If customers want cheap, then they will get cheap, and they may not always like it. Discovering for myself how much of a let down the new car is in reality is the task for another day, but for now, let me conclude by saying that, even more so than with the Versa Hatchback, whilst this car is not really designed for European tastes in a B/C segment car, in America, for those who need a car of this size and price, the 2011 Versa is well worth consideration.
2011-12-01 07:55:34

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