2009 Nissan Versa Hatchback

Getting a lot, for a little

2009 Nissan Versa Hatchback

I spent last week, and a few hundred miles, driving a $50,000 luxury European sports coupe. This week I’m driving a $19,000 Nissan Versa hatchback econobox. You might think I’d be bitter and have some attitude going from the power and luxury of the Euro coupe to this lowly, pedestrian “appliance” car. But, once again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much car you can get for a small amount of money.

FAST FACTS

1. It may stat at $9,900 but our tester listed at $19,120 – more than double.

2. The base engine is a 107hp, 1.6L 4-Cyl, but an optional 122hp, 1.8L 4-Cyl can be had.

3. A Hatchback and a Sedan are offered, although only the sedan comes with the smaller 1.6-liter engine.

Don’t get me wrong; if I rubbed a magic lamp, and the Genie popped out and asked which car he should put in my garage, I’d take the Euro sports coupe in a heartbeat. But in the real world of hard times, house payments, college tuition, lay-offs and high gas prices, that $19,000 sticker price looks downright sexy. And, buying an affordable, economy car doesn’t mean you have to give up all the amenities that the $50,000 car had.

Of course with the $50,000 Euro coupe, I got used to having power windows, door locks, mirrors, micro-filtered air conditioning, cruise control, a 6 speaker premium sound system with XM Radio, a 6 disc in-dash CD changer, an input jack for my iPod, Bluetooth hands free telephone, keyless entry with alarm, a tilt steering wheel with redundant controls for radio, phone, and cruise control, intermittent windshield wipers, a moonroof and ABS brakes. Plus I felt good knowing that the car was equipped with front, side, and roof-mounted air bags. Fortunately for me, the Versa came equipped with all of those items, as well as a full compliment of convenience lighting in the trunk area, vanity mirrors and glove box, and a tire pressure monitoring system, a 4-star safety rating for front, rear and rollover crashes, and some other good stuff. So the economical Versa may not have every feature you want, but it sure has about everything you need.

122 HORSEPOWER FOUR-CYLINDER GETS 27/33 MPG

The Versa SL is powered by a 1.8-liter DOHC, 4-cylinder engine producing 122 hp and 127 ft-lbs of torque. It uses gasoline like a toddler uses a sippy cup, and is rated for 27 mpg city and 33 highway. The engine’s 97-pound weakling power numbers are greatly enhanced by being mated to Nissan’s absolutely outstanding CVT transmission, which gets the most out of each of those ponies and foot-pounds of torque.

Depress the gas pedal and hold it down, and the Versa will accelerate smoothly and seamlessly all the up the speedometer dial, along with the tachometer spooling up as well. Back off and the CVT transmission will lower the rpm, and settle into its proper rev range, without a hint of a gearshift jerkiness, a momentary power loss or surge. Nissan’s CVTs might just be the best in the industry.

CHEAP BUT WELL-DESIGNED INTERIOR

Some of the $31,000 difference from the Euro luxury coupe and the Versa’s price tag can be seen in the cabin. There is a lot of hard molded plastic to feast your eyes on, like the entire dash and center stack. Fortunately, Nissan was smart to know which surfaces the driver and passengers would interact with, so they made the door panel armrests, and the top of the center console out of soft materials, so that using them is quite comfortable. And at least that hard dash is well designed, and has easy to read dials and gauges, and the radio and HVAC controls don’t require a degree from MIT, or even a lengthy read of the Owners Manual.

The cloth seats are covered in a handsome woven fabric, and are very comfortable. They are wide and supportive, and in fact much more comfortable than the cramped, overly bolstered leather seats in the Euro coupe. And the seat control levers were cleverly placed on the right side of the seat, so the driver doesn’t have to crimp his or her hand in between the storage pocket in the door, and the seat. In the front part of the center console, there are two molded plastic cupholders, which I was critical of for not being able to hold a water bottle properly, until I noticed a spot in the front door panels that were made to hold the water bottles. The glove box is huge, and the flip up center console/arm rest can handle small items.

ROOMY INTERIOR – EVEN IN THE REAR

The back seat area is extremely roomy, with excellent legroom, even with the front seats all the way back. The seats are comfortable, and thanks to a high roofline, there is plenty of headroom for 6-footers. There is a fold down center armrest to keep your passengers comfortable with two cup holders integrated into it. The rear seatback is a 60/40 split, and they fold down easily to open the rear up to a large 50.4 cubic foot storage area. Even with the seatback upright, you’ll get 17.8 cubic feet, which is more than enough for a weeks worth of family groceries, or several pieces of luggage. The cargo area is finished nicely with carpet, and has a removable firm luggage tray that folds up and down when opening the rear hatch, so it will also hide the contents of the cargo bay.

The electric moonroof has a flip-up wind deflector that is quite effective at keeping turbulence out of the cabin, and it also has a small plastic piece in the center that diffuses the airflow so even at highway speeds, there is very little noise from the roof. With the roof closed, and the windows up, the Versa’s interior is quiet as a library. Nissan did a great job in the wind tunnel, as there is virtually no wind noise while cruising at 85mph on the highway. That made the sound from the optional Rockford Fosgate sound system, with a powered subwoofer, really rock.

COMFORTABLE RIDE BUT SLOPPY HANDLING

The economy suspension shows itself on the road. This suspension was tuned for a comfortable ride over all road surfaces, making you think you were in a larger luxury car. But the penalty for the comfortable ride was in the handling department. This is no sports car, and was not made for autocross events. There is too much body lean in turns and the 15-inch wheels fitted with 185/65/15 all-season radials will protest when pushed hard. The ABS brakes are adequate, and have some numbness to them, but they’ll stop the car effectively.

The exterior styling is not inspiring. It isn’t styled for a love it hate it reaction. The front end is clean, with fog lights integrated into the front fascia, and the headlights wrapped into the side of the fenders. The taillights also wrap into the sides of the rear fenders, which make the Versa look larger than it is. It’s better looking than a Toyota Prius, but not as edgy as the new Kia Soul, Ford Feista or Focus hatchbacks.

HATCHBACK AND SEDAN OFFERED

The Versa is offered in five versions. There is a 1.6-liter base sedan with manual transmission that begins at $9,900, and for $1,000 more the standard version adds automatic and air-conditioning. Next is the 1.8 S model, which adds the larger engine, 15-inch wheels and an AM/FM/CD radio for $13,111. The 1.8SL model, offers an upgraded stereo, keyless entry, Bluetooth, CVT transmission, power locks windows, and a few more goodies that sells for $16,100. Both the 1.8 models are available as a sedan or hatchback, whereas the 1.6 versions are sedans only. My 1.8SL test car came with the moonroof, Convenience Package, ABS Package, Audio Package, and stickered out at $19,120, including destination charge of $695.

THE VERDICT

So did I miss the power, performance, and crisp handling of the Euro Sports Coupe? Absolutely. But did I feel like I was slumming it in some cheap, cramped, crappy economy car? Absolutely not.

PLUS

Good room for 4 adults Plenty of amenities to pamper the occupants Excellent, smooth transmission and comfortable, quiet ride

MINUS

Leisurely performance Uninspiring handling Lots of hard plastic parts in interior

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