2007 Nissan Versa review

ANN ARBOR -- American consumers gave Nissan an earful when the Japanese company held consumer focus groups in the months before bringing its compact Versa hatchback to the U.S.

The finicky buyers wanted it all -- great gas mileage and a vehicle that didn't make them feel "vulnerable" when it came up alongside a Chevrolet Tahoe or other oversized SUV.

"Not all the customers interested in fuel economy wanted to go down to the tiny little cars," said Orth Hedrick, Versa senior product manager. "We think the Versa is more in line with the needs of U.S. customers than other offerings. It's not so small that it will scare off a lot of people."

After putting hundreds of miles on a pre-production 2007 Versa, I think Nissan may be on to something.

From the moment I slid behind the wheel of the Mexico-built, five-passenger hatchback, I had a different sensation than I had in the 2007 Honda Fit and the 2007 Toyota Yaris. The Versa looks and feels more substantial -- because it is. The new Nissan four-door is longer, taller and heavier than the Yaris and Fit.

That's why I think it may be one of the best transitional cars for drivers who are determined to get out of their gas hogs and shake what President Bush calls our "addiction to oil." You won't feel like you're shoehorned into a holdover from the 1970s oil embargo.

Another plus: Versa has a serious "face" with a long hood and is not burdened with the cutesy styling of some of its competitors, most notably the Yaris.

But, of course, there's a caveat.

My fully loaded Versa SL came with so many goodies, including a sunroof, a Bluetooth hands-free phone system and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, that the estimated price hovered just under $17,000. You can buy a midsize Ford Fusion for about the same money.

Low starting price.

The 2007 Versa goes on sale in July. Nissan will not announce prices on the car for several more weeks, but it says that the Versa will start about $12,000.

Hedrick reassured me that the base Versa S, which slots into the position of the current Sentra as that model moves upmarket, would not be a "stripped-down" model.

The base car includes standard air conditioning, a 60/40 split rear seat, 15-inch wheels with wheel covers, an AM/FM/CD radio with four speakers, a tilt steering column and front side air bags, as well as side air curtains to protect all outboard passengers.

A sedan joins the Versa lineup in November and that, too, is expected to start at about $12,000. In January, customizers can order a sport package that adds a rear roof spoiler, side sills, a different front-end fascia, fog lights and a new color.

Because of the Versa's size and powertrain, it isn't quite as fuel efficient as the Yaris, yet it still is fairly thrifty.

The Versa returns 30 miles per gallon in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway when it's equipped with the base five-speed manual transmission.

The base Fit gets 33 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. The base Yaris returns 34 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway.

Versa outpowers the Yaris and Fit with a peppy 122-horsepower 1.8-liter dual-overhead cam four-cylinder engine and a choice of three transmissions, including a smooth CVT, a four-speed automatic and a six-speed manual.

The 1.5-liter four cylinder in the Yaris only makes 106 horsepower, while the 1.5-liter in the Fit returns 109 horsepower.

In terms of driving characteristics, the Versa has much better road manners than either the Fit or the Yaris. Its long wheelbase -- nearly six inches longer than the Fit -- provides excellent ride comfort and did a good job of soaking up the potholes on M-14 and other torn-up local roads.

On the downside, the new Nissan is not as versatile as its name would suggest, especially when you compare it to the Fit.

The Fit has what Honda calls a "Magic Seat" in the rear that has such flexible features as seat bottoms that flip up and a rear seatback that can dive forward without removing the headrests to create a nearly flat cargo floor.

The rear seat in the Versa is utterly conventional, without any kind of trick mechanism.

Comfortable but bare.

There aren't many amenities in the rear, either, and you'll have to upgrade to the SL model to get such basic stuff as a rear armrest with cupholders. But you will have lots of legroom, thanks to the Versa's stretched dimensions.

While the seats in the Versa may not be as versatile as I'd like, they are comfortable. Hedrick says they are made out of "memory foam," the same type of material found in the popular Tempur-Pedic mattress designed to reduce pressure on your body.

In the cargo hold, the Versa is equipped with a reversible mat that is carpeted on one side and plastic on the other, a nice touch if you're hauling dirty equipment.

Compared to the Spartan rear quarters, the instrument panel in the Versa looks expensive and the materials seem to be of a higher quality than what I've seen in many recent Nissan cabins. I especially liked the top-of-the-line model's blue-and-black fabric on the seat inserts and door panels.

Nissan designers were wise to stick with gauges mounted behind the steering wheel on the Versa, unlike the distracting center-mounted ones in the Yaris.

Like those fussy customers in the Versa's focus groups, I have been spoiled, too, in the big vehicles with all the bells and whistles. And I admit that the Versa tends to raise your expectations because it tries so hard to not be small.

Nissan includes a tire-pressure monitoring system and active headrests that help to prevent whiplash in a crash as standard. There's a power package (likely to be priced around $700) that adds power windows and locks, as well as remote keyless entry. You can even order optional XM or Sirius satellite radio.

Because of that long list of upscale accessories, I was surprised to hear that you can't get a navigation system, stability control or a rear-seat DVD entertainment system on the Versa. In addition, antilock brakes will add another $300 to the Versa; they are standard on the Fit.

But I digress.

Probably the most stellar moment in the Versa came when I found myself wedged between two 18-wheelers on I-94. The word "vulnerable" didn't come to mind and I felt like I was holding my own.

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