The all-new 2007 Nissan Versa arrives as an addition to Nissan's lineup and is now the smallest model you'll find in its showroom. The fact that it's partly based on the Renault Megane, a successful European small car, is a good start.
If you haven't driven a small car in some time you'll likely be pleasantly surprised at how big the Versa feels. There is decent head room, and even tall passengers will find rear seat leg room as good as that in many much larger cars or SUVs. Handling is crisp and parking is a breeze.
Initially, the Versa is only available as a five-door hatchback, but a sedan version will appear in Nissan showrooms later in the model year. Modern hatchbacks have improved considerably from the econoboxes of years gone by and the Versa is no exception with a well finished interior that includes good materials and plenty of modern conveniences and safety features.
The Versa competes with the lower priced Toyota Yaris and the more expensive Honda Fit, but it is slightly bigger than either. All three of these brand-new competitors are designed with relatively tall rooflines for increased interior comfort and visibility.
The Versa is smaller and less expensive than the 2007 Nissan Sentra, but it actually offers greater interior space and more versatility. Bottom line, the Versa is a large small car with good performance, plenty of safety features and versatility.
Nissan Versa S Manual ($12,450); S Automatic ($13,250); SL Manual ($14,450); SL CVT Automatic ($15,450)
From the front the Versa has some family styling cues from the Quest minivan including a highly raked windshield and a prominent grille. The triangular shaped headlights look classy. Overall though, it doesn't look that much different from other small cars on the road.
It's very different at the rear as the Versa almost looks a bit like a hatchback BMW. The edges of the tailgate are angled inwards surprisingly far toward the lower lip. It's probably designed this way to allow the trapezoid-shaped taillights to stay on the body rather than being mounted on the tailgate itself. It gives the rear end a unique character, though the tailgate opening is smaller than it could be.
The sedan version has a more conventional rear end that does not stand out nearly as much. For some that may be fine but in reality it is less versatile and makes the car look less appealing.
Even a six-footer shouldn't feel cramped as the rear seat legroom is best in its class and at 38 inches is as much as you'll find in cars such as the Toyota Camry and Ford Crown Victoria. It even comes close to that in the Chevy Suburban. Indeed, the Versa's rear seat legroom is more generous than in any other vehicle in Nissan's lineup, except for the humungous Armada SUV.
Nissan has made sure that most of the surfaces you touch, such as the armrests and door handles, have a soft feel to them. No hard plastics here. It's obvious Nissan listened to the criticism of the Quest minivan which was lambasted for its hard plastic surfaces. The cloth-covered seats are also comfortable without being too soft and offer plenty of side support.
The instrument pod contains three large, well-recessed gauges that are easy to read. The speedometer takes pride of place in the center and almost seems as if it is floating over the other two gauges.
Controls for the dash mounted radio and CD changer are well integrated into the center stack and although they are not very large they are easy to see and comprehend. There is a large volume knob in the center with a very visible power button.
Three functional, conventional knobs operate the climate control system. All in all there's nothing fancy about any of the controls although everything looks well finished. Two large cupholders are conveniently located under the center stack.
Keyless remote entry systems are now almost a standard on all but the least costly cars. The Versa goes one step further with its optional Intelligent Key, which allows for keyless starting of the engine, something that hithertofore has only been available in luxury cars.
Versa's versatility really shines when it comes to carrying the goods. There's a generous 17.8 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats in place. Fold them down and you've got 50 cubic feet, which is almost as much space as you'll find in a small SUV. Part of the reason for the spacious rear cargo space is due to careful design of the rear suspension so that it does not have any struts intruding into the interior.
That's not to say a CVT is not as good as a conventional transmission, but it is different. It delivers a much smoother drive as there are no gears or inefficient hydraulics involved. Instead, a series of belts are used to vary the drive ratio between the engine and the drive train. It works more efficiently than a traditional automatic, which is why the Versa equipped with a CVT delivers the best highway mileage. Around town it even has the same economy as one with a manual transmission.
Incidentally, although Nissan is offering a regular four-speed automatic transmission it intends to drop that in favor of just the CVT in the near future. Naturally, it will continue to offer a six-speed manual transmission for those who enjoy shifting.
As Nissan intends the CVT Versa to be the most popular model in the range that is the one we spent time driving. From the word go we were pleased with our experience in the car. It had plenty of zip and there was no problem merging into traffic on a fast free-flowing freeway. When you stomp on the gas pedal the sound of the engine revving instantly before the car accelerates can be a bit disconcerting to some. We found it not unpleasant, in fact it sounds kind of fun. Of course in regular stop-and-go traffic under slow acceleration there is no sensation other than the car moving forward smoothly with no sound or feel of shifting gears. It's certainly a far cry from the notch gear shifting that used to be all too common on small four-cylinder cars with automatics.
On winding roads in Tennessee, near where Nissan is building its new U.S. headquarters, we found the car's handling to be perfectly adequate. It's not sporty like a Mini Cooper, nor is it sloppy like budget cars of a few years ago. Sporty drivers might wish for more feedback from the steering and more power, but there's no reason for others to complain.
The Versa is one of the first cars in this price category to feature electric power steering. In the past we have been disappointed in the poor feel of electric steering but Nissan seems to have designed this system so it feels just as good as any hydraulically powered steering. No complaints here.
Thanks to the long wheelbase with wheels pushed out toward the four corners, the ride is better than one usually expects from a small car. Brakes are fine but again don't expect to race this car through a slalom. It wouldn't take much, though, for Nissan to upgrade components and produce a truly sporty version as the fundamental basics for a decent performance car are all there.
Nissan has made good use of its Renault parent by basing the Versa (known as the Tiida in the rest of the world) on the same underpinnings used for the popular Renault Megane in Europe. The Nissan Versa delivers decent performance and has a surprising amount of interior space. It feels much bigger than it actually is, which is also a good thing. The real joy, though, comes when its gas tank costs half as much to fill as it would for a large SUV, yet it'll go just as far, if not further, on that tankful without having to sacrifice much in the way of performance, space or luxury. It's no wonder the Versa is regarded as a near-luxury car in Japan.
New Car Test Drive contributor John Rettie filed this report from Nashville, Tennessee.