The all-new 2007 Versa holds significant potential for Nissan; as small cars represent about 60% of all new car sales in Canada. It is also the most competitive segment in the industry. The reason for the potential is that it has been a long time since Nissan mounted a meaningful challenge in a market dominated by Honda and Toyota. The company’s answer is a car that’s not really a small car after all, as the Versa has more in common with vehicles that verge on mid-sized – it’s based on the popular Renault Megane sold in Europe.
From the outside, the Versa has a dramatic appearance, one that bears a strong likeness to the funky Nissan Quest, albeit in shrunken form. This may sound derogatory, but the Quest is a standout in a sea of boxy minivans and so the styling elements carried over add character to the Versa’s sheet metal. It’s also pretty obvious that Renault’s influence outweighed the Asian take favoured by most in the segment.
The Versa S starts at $14,498 with the manual transmission. Standard safety equipment includes dual stage front airbags, side impact airbags for front seat passengers as well as drop-down side curtain airbags. Anti-lock brakes are a $500 option. The SL brings nicer upholstery, power windows, locks and mirrors, air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes and aluminum wheels, which is not bad for the extra $2,600.
Inside, the passenger cabin has surprising leg- and headroom. In fact, there’s more rear seat legroom in the Versa than in my mid-sized SUV, which allows adults to sit comfortably. Cargo capacity in the hatchback measures 17.8 cubic feet with the rear seats in place. Folding the seat flat increases the usable space to 50 cu. ft., but with a catch – the fact the seats do not fold flat into the floor limits the practicality of the extra space.
From behind the wheel, the drivers’ seat is very comfortable and the adjustments plentiful. Mounting the levers on the right side of the seat is somewhat unusual, but it turned out to be the better way as they fall readily to hand. The steering wheel is also adorned with audio controls, although they occasionally get in the way when dialing in a full lock. The other ergonomic foible is the steering wheel rim – it and the spokes are thick enough to block some of the instruments whenever the wheel is turned off centre.
Visibility to the front and sides is excellent. The extra visibility provided by the small pane of glass cut into the gap between the A pillar and the front doors is particularly welcome. However, the thick rear pillars and the high hatchback glass are a hindrance when backing up into a tight parking spot.
Versa’s power comes from a 1.8L, inline, four-cylinder engine that churns out 122 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. It can be hooked up to a six-speed manual, a four-speed automatic or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The SL tester arrived with the latter. Now this thing is purported to marry the fuel economy of a manual transmission with the convenience of an automatic.
In real world driving, the CVT proved to be an acquired taste. Off the line the ratios provide a peppy feel and the impression of healthy acceleration. Keep your foot down and the continuously variable box winds the engine up to within a whisker of redline and keeps pushing until you back off. The problem is that standing on the gas when merging with highway traffic makes for a lot of noise. The CVT’s upside is low engine revs at highway speeds, and so the fuel economy (rated at 7.9 L/100 km city and 6.1 L/100 km highway) is very good.
The other problem is encountered when the driver wants a speedy kickdown. When passing a slower vehicle on a two-lane road the engine/transmission combination seems to take along time to respond. To some the noise and lazy response will be relatively minor and part of the adjustment needed to appreciate a CVT. Others will opt for the conventional four-speed automatic transmission, which feels alive and responsive and adds more pizzazz to the Versa.
On the highway, the long wheelbase and suspension combine to deliver a comfortable ride. Around town the same ride feels firm over small bumps, but softens up over larger obstacles as the suspension travel increases.
The Versa won’t live on as a tuners delight or build a reputation as a street rod, but for someone looking for a spacious commuter car with civilized road manners and decent fuel economy for an affordable price, the Versa is definitely worth a look. The unique looking and handsome sheet metal will draw its fair share of admirers.