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NEW CAR REVIEW
Nissan Versa brings classy feel to economy subcompacts
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (SNS) – The word among more perceptive auto manufacturers is that "Small is going to be large" in the U.S. automotive market, and Nissan is among them, introducing the 2007 Versa as a challenge to more fuelish large vehicles, and claiming size and power superiority over its rivals from Honda and Toyota.

 

A flurry of recently unveiled large and luxurious SUVs may be attributable to the finalization of designs that started four years ago when size and power were the objective of every car-maker, or it may just be bad timing.

The public is living in today’s world, with possible glances to tomorrow, which makes it seem more as though the big-truck makers haven’t noticed gasoline prices rising and vaulting to or beyond $3. Again.

Perhaps analysts who are probing to explain why General Motors and Ford are suffering financially, while Honda, Toyota and Nissan – among others – increase their sales, and market share, need to look no further.

Without apologies to the big trucks, Honda introduces a new subcompact Fit, smaller than the enlarged Civic, and Toyota is introducing the Yaris, a replacement for the unpopular subcompact Echo, after enlarging the Corolla.

And now Nissan assembled a couple of waves of automotive journalists in Nashville for a late-April unveiling of the Versa. The Versa 4-door hatchback will hit showrooms in July, with a notchback 4-door sedan following at the end of this calendar year.

A newly designed aluminum1.8-liter four-cylinder "MR" engine, with dual-overhead-camshafts, produces 122 horsepower at 5,200 RPMs and 127 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 RPMs. A six-speed manual transmission brings the full power to life, and a new CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic also will be available.

  The cars, which will be built at the Nissan plant in Mexico, where the revised Sentra also is assembled, have EPA fuel-economy estimates of 30 in city driving and 34 on the highway with the stick, 36 mpg with the CVT. To start with, a four-speed automatic will be available, until enough CVTs can be built.

Nissan marketing types said the name, Versa, links to the term versatility.

Could have fooled us; with the intro based at the historic Hermitage Hotel right here in Music City, some of us suspected that the name meant the "Versa" might be followed by the "Chorusa."

Sure enough, Nissan also used the occasion to sing the praises of a newly renovated 2007 Quest minivan. Some of the more startling interior features of the Quest at its 2004 introduction have been toned down on the 2007, in a move from unique to more mainstream.

Nissan bailed out on the cylindrical center stack and high center-dash-mounted instrument cluster, after only three years, because, as Quest marketing manager Kelly Hamilton said, such innovations "polarized most," and were "not user-friendly, or aesthetically appealing to most." Hmmm.

The 2004 features were innovative, aesthetically attractive, and extremely user-friendly, if I were the user, but subjective praise didn’t equal enough sales to battle the Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna, let alone the Chrysler minivan fleet.

But enough digression. It was appropriate to introduce the Versa in Nashville, which is going to be the new home office of Nissan in the U.S. A stylish and fun-to-drive little car, the Versa also has some nicely sophisticated features.

Used to be, the smallest cars were the most fuel-efficient, but also were stripped of anything resembling refinement, and comfort or luxury were out of the question.

The Civic, Corolla and Sentra were among those that displayed those deficiencies, and only when Mazda came out with the dazzling new Mazda3 a year ago did the Civic, Corolla and Sentra make decided upturns in size and flair.

That left room for the new breed of smaller cars, aimed at the small-car segment that currently accounts for more than 1.9 million vehicles if you combine entry level and compact.

  That’s 11 percent of the total U.S. vehicles sold annually.

The Civic, Corolla and Sentra now reach compact, leaving behind subcompact, which is the niche the new breed of cars is battling to fill. The best thing about the new segment, besides good gas mileage, is a price point below $15,000, and in the case of the Versa, starting just under $12,000.

As gas prices rise, and 14-mpg SUVs and trucks seem less-appealing to commute-to-workers, small gas-sippers that offer sufficient comfort and convenience features could explode to unforeseen levels.

Nissan identifies the Versa as the first "no-compromise subcompact to hit the market" in the U.S. Marketing manager Joe Samfilippo said the Versa has an edge on the Fit and Yaris because it has more power, more front legroom, more rear headroom, legroom and kneeroom.

A feature such as firmer, better-quality foam in the bucket seats makes a ride or drive in the Versa a cut above many competitors.

However, noting that the Versa rivals the Sentra for size and interior room, and has a larger, 1.8-liter four-cylinder compared to the 1.5 engines in the Fit and Yaris, I asked if possibly the Versa has more room and more power is because it is a larger car with a larger engine, while the Fit and Yaris were purposely aimed to be smaller cars with smaller engines.

Turns out, Nissan introduced a car called the "Tiida" in Japan last fall, where it competes as a small luxury car in a class above the Fit and Yaris.

That car now comes to the U.S. as the Versa.

The Versa is the first one on the global "B" platform, shared by Nissan and Renault, which was the financial savior of Nissan several years ago. The two companies worked together on the car, including the responsive DOHC engine, and the six-speed stick shift is a Renault design, while there are many other shared components.

Product manager Orth Hedrick gave us a close-up examination of the Versa’s attributes, as my driving partner and I drove through the countryside, through small towns like Lynchburg, Murfreesboro, and Shelbyville – places that had always been just words to me previously.

The Minnesota Twins always had a low minor league affiliate in Lynchburg, and a whole passel of stock car racers and country guitar pickers came from Murfreesboro and Shelbyville, for example.

Driving the car on some curvy roads, I found it to have plenty of spunk, and the electric power-steering felt like it might be too light at low speeds, but it firmed up at speed to afford precise cornering and a good feel.

The base Versa S has 60/40 split fold-down rear seats, micro-filter air conditioning, a 120-watt, 4-speaker audio system with a CD player, tilt steering, variable intermittent wipers, and front, side, and roof-mounted sided curtain airbags, and a tire pressure monitoring system – all standard, for under $12,000.  

Move up to the Versa SL, and a 6-speaker, 6-CD audio with 180 watts is standard, along with other upgrades, such as 15-inch wheels, driver’s seat height adjustment, keyless entry, cruise control, and soft-padded instrument panel.

Options include antilock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, and, on the SL, Bluetooth phone, remote audio switches on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, a Rockford Fosgate audio upgrade, and power sunroof. A Sport package also is coming, with sill trim, front and rear spoilers, and foglights. Satellite radio is another option, either XM or Sirius.

With enough options, you could turn the $12,000 Versa into a $16,000 mini-luxury-car. First thing I would do is put 16-inch wheels and lower profile performance tires on the little front-wheel-drive beast to turn good handling into sporty-firm.

But as Hendrick pointed out, competitors compromised on interior space, "so we concentrated on making a spacious interior."

If its assets are because it’s a bigger car with a bigger engine – as long as it gets 35 miles per gallon, and can be bought for $12,000.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.