Nissan Versa brings classy feel to
By John Gilbert, special to SNS
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.