Even before gas prices started hitting record highs, Japanese automakers decided that the time had come for another go at the truly small car in the American market. Why? Because their compacts kept growing and growing, in both size and price. Toyota introduced the Yaris, and Honda the Fit.
Now Nissan has introduced the Versa. How does it stack up against the others?
To my eye, none of these new small cars are much to look at. The Yaris is perhaps the best of the homely lot. And the Versa is the worst. From pretty much any angle. The basic shape is very boxy, to maximize interior space at the expense of exterior aesthetics. The smallish 15-inch wheels emphasize the car's 60-inch height. (Your typical sedan is three to six inches lower in addition to being much longer.) A thin grille stretches from headlamp to lamphead across a minivan-like front end. Tail lamps that extend far into each fender, reaching most of the way to the rear door opening, are the major attempt at "style." They don't work for me.
Small cars don't have to be hard to look at. One of the reasons I bought my Protege5 was I liked--and still like--how it looks.
Interior styling is acceptable. While lacking the "cool" techno atmosphere of the Fit's interior, the Versa's does have the highest quality look and feel of the three. In comparison, that in the Yaris is downright cheap.
I especially liked the pseudo-suede seat fabric in the S base trim car I drove. The uplevel SL has more conventional cloth that also looks better than most. Both the SL and the S with the optional Power Package have nicely padded armrests. In general, interior quality is a Versa strong point.
The primary benefit of the tall, ultra-boxy body is lots of interior space. The Fit and Yaris are also roomy as small cars go, but the Versa has them beat. Especially in the back seat, with plenty of headroom and legroom even for tall adults. This isn't entirely new in small cars: the Scion xB has an even roomier interior despite being over a foot short in length than the Versa. The secret: it's even taller.
The driving position, like that in the Fit, is higher than in the typical car. Visibility is very good despite a heavily raked windshield that necessitates tiny extra windows ahead of the doors. If memory serves, the Versa's instrument panel is higher than that in the Fit, so you don't feel as if you're sitting as high.
The best aspect of the Versa might be its front seats. In the S they're covered in a grippy pseudo-suede, and in either trim they're padded and shaped very nicely. As a result, they're both very comfortable and very supportive when the road turns twisty. I've driven many far more expensive cars with awful seats. I'd like the Versa's seats in my next long distance rental.
Despite cabin height to spare, Nissan positioned the cushion a bit low to the floor for good thigh support. I suspect this was to get the load floor as low as possible. Otherwise, the seat is reasonably comfortable, if not up to the stellar level of the front seats.
Cargo versatility is a Versa weakness. The Fit has a nifty rear seat that either folds into a well to form a low, flat floor or stows upright and out of the way to enable tall items to be carried where it normally rests. In my wife's PT Cruiser, the seat tips forward or can be removed, minivan style. In many other small cars the cushion tips forward so that the seatback can fold to provide a fairly low, nearly flat floor. My car is like this.
Well, in the Versa the cushion is fixed in place and the seatback merely folds on top of it. As a result, the forward part of the cargo floor is nearly a foot higher than the rear part. Why did they do this? Perhaps to make it as easy as possible to fold the seat. Perhaps to save money. Perhaps to package the fuel tank. Probably a mix of all three. At any rate, it's a bad solution to an old problem.
Nissan clearly knows it has a weakness here. The obligatory seat-folded photo in the brochure has a guitar case n the cargo area, handle end forward, and deeply shades the cargo floor so it's not possible to see the huge ledge beneath said handle end. Nice try.
On the Road
The Versa's 122-horsepower 1.8-liter four is significantly larger and more powerful than the 1.5s in the Honda and Toyota. But the Nissan is also a couple hundred pounds heavier, canceling out this potential advantage. As a result, even when hitched to a manual transmission the Versa isn't quick, and feels even slower than it is because noise levels are low. My Protege5, with 130 horsepower and even more weight, is hardly a fast car, but it feels much more energetic than the Nissan.
Nissan likes to brag about the manual transmission's six ratios. What it doesn't talk about is that to change gears you must use an extra-tall shift lever with perhaps the clunkiest shift feel I've ever experienced. This is old, old tech. Why is it still so hard to get it right?
A CVT is optional on the SL, and a conventional four-speed automatic will soon be available with the S. Of the three, the CVT gets the best fuel economy (30 city, 36 highway), and is likely the best bet until the manual shift linkage is thoroughly overhauled.
I cannot precisely evaluate ride and handling because the dealer had fitted a set of 215/35ZR18 Toyo Proxes performance tires to the car I drove. Looks like they think the Versa is a winner, and this seemed the best way to bump the asking price by $2,500. I cannot say they did much for the car's looks. They no doubt vastly increased its grip in corners, though. Unfortunately, sticky tires alone do not yield sporty handling. Lean in turns is moderate, but in general the Versa feels like a basic transportation device. Despite the car's small size, it doesn't feel especially agile or react very quickly to steering inputs. The Yaris is much the same in this regard, while the Fit is a bit more fun to drive than the others.
On the other hand, even with the low-pro Proxes ride quality is good. Noise levels from all sources are very low for this class of car. Together with the comfy seats and padded armrests, these suggests where priorities lay when the Versa was being developed.
Nissan Versa Pricing and Price Comparisons
The two most popular comparisons (base to base, without rebates, adjusted for feature differences):
Fit (base): $620 more; Sport only $90 more
Yaris sedan: $1,365 more; Yaris hatch about equal in price
TrueDelta's adjustments for features account for the difference between the S and SL to the dollar--which doesn't happen often. Nissan must value featurs very similarly when setting prices.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.) TrueDelta's page for the Versa:
The Versa isn't my kind of small car. I don't like looking at it, and didn't find it fun to drive. But those who mostly care about room and comfort, and who either like or don't mind how the car looks, could be very happy with it.
Oddly, none of these new small cars get significantly better gas mileage than those in the next class up. So the EPA numbers alone aren't going to move the metal. With the Versa, it could well come down to those awesome front seats.
A note on Nissan Versa Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a Versa rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Nissan Versa reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the Versa--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. For non-participants, this access will cost $24.95.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
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Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Honda Fit review
Toyota Yaris review