2010 Nissan Versa reviews

For every Bentley SuperSport Coupe I get to drive, there are three much less expensive models that also need a few laps around town.

But that doesn't mean I'm slumming it. Every car needs a context. And although one SportsCoupe equals more than 16 Nissan Versa Hatchbacks SL's price wise, the cars do share a few similar attributes.

Sure, the SportsCoupe has the power of five Versas and boasts an interior package that likely costs more than a couple of the Japanese subcompact. But in the Versa I never had to worry about standing along the highway or even the possibility of a piece of gravel nicking the windshield, which, in a Bentley, would no doubt leave a repair bill with too many zeroes.

After a trip to Chelsea and a week of running about town, the Versa never seemed to cause a worry, and for many drivers, that's as good as it gets.

It's comfortable, tough and one of the better vehicles to harness the savings of a CVT -- that belt and pulley transmission I find little pleasure in -- without hampering performance.

Noise, bounce expected

Now, the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine may not create gut-wrenching power, but it does provide plenty of pep. The 122-horsepower engine provides a little more giddy-up than the standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, which comes with the base model sedan.

Even jumping on the highway, the Versa seemed to have more than enough power to merge into traffic with big rigs and SUVs. The CVT, while slightly annoying with its lack of shift points, never wound out to high revs like some others. The pickup was clean and only during heavy-footed driving did I even remember it was a CVT.

The ride is a little bouncy and noticeably noisy, but for a subcompact it's pretty good. That's where a little context is needed. A $16,000 car is never going to provide the near-silent transportation a $50,000 one will, much less something with the word Bentley as a moniker. That's engineering and economics. You can only do some much with so little. During these tough times, lots of bosses may say we have to do more with less, but you can only do so much with so little.

On the highway, the Versa Hatchback SL seemed to cruise well enough that I had to use the steering wheel mounted cruise control buttons to make sure the Ann Arbor police didn't end up with a copy of my license for some alleged violation.

The hatchback model has a wide profile -- it kind of looks like a little chunk of cheese -- so when the big winds from a storm blew in, the car wanted to shudder some. It would also shake when big semi trucks blew by. It is a small, light vehicle (2,758 pounds); that's physics.

Plenty of space

But that's also why the Versa hatchback feels so spacious inside.

With 41.4 inches of front leg room, the Versa had plenty of legroom and the seat, while manually adjusted (peshaw!), was able to move into a comfortable driving position. I even packed three people into the Versa, and no one complained in the 90-minute drive to and fro. (The second row has 38 inches of legroom.) Four people seem the realistic limit, unless the back seat passengers are children. Cramming in five adults would require a wedding license in some states.

Furthermore, the entire interior was very driver friendly. From the easy-to-read instrument cluster to the iPod connectivity that lets you plug in your music player and tuck it away behind a door. (Note: the stiff wire makes it difficult to stuff it in there and the operation controls were confusing to use.)

There were some cheap plastic trim pieces in the cabin but none of it was offensive or poorly made.

My test model included the optional premium package, which certainly added some charms. Included in the options was Nissan's intelligent key, which doesn't require you to insert the key, but does require you to turn a plastic knob on the steering column. (A push button on the dash would look so much better.)

The Bluetooth connection for hands-free phone operation works well and includes a button on the steering wheel to answer the phone. (With the USB connector, you can also keep your phone charged while playing music.)

There's also the hatchback versatility of the folding second row that can create more than 50 cubic feet of useable space. A subcompact is never going to be known as big hauler, but a small car doesn't have to be small on space. (This is also why the car allows more road noise, because there's no trunk to absorb it.)

Versa holds own among rivals

While nicely updated, the 2010 Versa is entering its fourth model year for this generation; in the coming years it should undergo an extensive makeover. How that will changes its looks will depend a lot upon how stiff the competition becomes in this group.

Ford Motor Co. will launch its all-new subcompact Fiesta this year. A Chevy Aveo with a new look also will roll out soon. Then there are the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit, perennial front runners in the subcompact segment. There's no word on Bentley entering the inexpensive and industrial working man and woman's subcompact market anytime soon. Good thing, because I would have to rethink a lot of things.

For now, the Versa holds its own against any of the competition on the road today, all the while getting 34 miles per gallon on the highway, which is one of the reasons people hop into these little cars. The Versa, however, lets people enjoy more than just the mileage. They can enjoy the ride, too.

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