Marc Stengel, Fri, 23 Jun 2006 08:00:00 PDT
In an SUV-dominated culture, any price over $3.00-per-gallon for gas is the one that ignites Armageddon. And so an SUV-dominated domestic auto industry is gnashing its teeth and tearing its hair. But under cover of corporate histrionics and incoherent wailing in Detroit, vehicles arriving from nations where even $5.00 gas is a bargain have another prophecy to preach: There is, fellow motorists, Another Way. Downsize and be happy. It profits one much to sacrifice but little.
Even among the ballyhooed newest crop of SUVs, 20-mpg average fuel economy is optimistic at best. After crunching the numbers, these vehicles produce results of about 6 miles per dollar or 16 cents per mile. They're an astounding 60 percent more costly to operate, in other words. The moral to the parable, then, is this: Unless job or some other inalterable lifestyle circumstance requires a huge, heavy, thirsty SUV, it's 60-percent less wise to drive a 20-mpg behemoth than a 33-mpg alternative. And the new Versa, in many ways, is indeed a legitimate alternative. It's a 2,700-pound five-seater that can also haul 95 cubic-feet of cargo-more than some mid-size SUVs, in fact. It's a zippy zero-to-60-in-seven-seconds sprinter. It's only 10 inches longer than a Mazda Miata, and an inch narrower to boot, so it parks almost anywhere. What's there not to love?
Nissan, to be sure, has exerted itself to make Versa lovable. Clearly, it is not a MINI substitute; but it's important to understand that MINI's appeal owes more to hip kickiness than to practical versatility. Nissan Versa, on the other hand, has real legroom for rear-seat passengers. It has comfy memory-foam seat bolsters. It is solid on highways, responsive on winding backroads. Above (perhaps one should say "below") all, Versa's anticipated base price when it appears in showrooms in June will be a mere $12,000. Wow.
Don't count on a lot of $12,000 Versa models on the road, of course. Still, the typically equipped Versa with various options like a sunroof, fancy audio, sporty cosmetics can still be reined-in to about $14,500. Standard equipment is commendable and includes air-conditioning as well as front and front-side airbags. Optional front-to-rear head-curtain airbags and anti-lock brakes ought to be standard, but will at least appeal to short-sighted cost-cutters.
Moreover, Versa will appear in four-door sedan and 5-door hatchback configurations, the latter reaching dealers this summer, the former by next January. Despite minor dimensional differences, the two models and their people and cargo capacities are virtually the same. Both feature an all-new 1.8-liter, twin-cam inline-four cylinder engine making 122 horsepower and 127 foot-pounds of torque. And both will be available with Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) or with more traditional six-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions.
But the CVT is the one that shines. Its proprietary design, benefiting from Nissan's global cooperation with French carmaker Renault, is uncanny in the way it maintains optimal engine rpm within the most fuel-efficient torque range. It senses, for example, when the Versa is proceeding downhill and glides effortlessly into a lower gear range to slow the car with engine braking. Conversely, under pedal-to-the-floor acceleration, the CVT instantly launches the engine to its max-torque rpm, then keeps it there unchanged until a desired highway speed is reached.
This goes against every traditional sensation of driving, wherein gear changes trigger a momentary drop in rpm as the higher gear ratio is engaged. There's a lot of mechanical inefficiency in that traditional gear-change syncopation; and Versa's CVT eliminates it. When first experiencing the CVT's behavior, it feels wrong, sounds noisy. In truth, however, it's mostly the lack of noticeable gear changes that's merely thwarting a driver's subconscious expectation of rising-falling rpms as gears change.
Because of its low price, there is a temptation to consign Versa to the first-car, entry-level category. That would be a mistake. This is not, exclusively, a kid's car, even if it is a car kids can afford. Young families, empty nesters, city dwellers of any age all have reasons to take the Versa seriously; and Nissan is luring them to do so with many subtle features. Upholstery and instrument controls, for example, are ergonomically clever and practical. Upper surfaces of the doors and dash, for example, are rendered soft and comfy to the touch in an attempt to suggest plush luxury. It is an adult ambience, in fact, that may even handicap active "kid" owners, since that same soft skin will be the first thing to tear when a Versa is packed to the gills with band equipment or camping gear.
And hot-rodders will sneer, perhaps. Versa's power-to-weight ratio is tolerably athletic; but front-disc, rear-drum brakes are unsporting, and the rear torsion beam suspension is not as articulate as a fully independent set-up.
Adapting to a climate of $3.00-plus gas, however, has much less to do with play and everything to do with acknowledging new fiscal and even physical realities. Versa is a smaller car, for sure; but it is a smarter one, too. Smarter buyers will gravitate to this car because of the very few sacrifices it demands in return for excellent comfort and utility. VERSAtile may be its name, but helping spark a reVERSAl of our sad dependence on oversized vehicles might instead be its legacy.
2007 Nissan Versa, 4-door sedan or 5-door hatchback, 5-pass.; 1.8-liter DOHC inline-4; FWD, Xtronic CVT or 6-sp. manual or 4-sp. auto; 122 hp/127 ft.-lbs.; (est.) 33 mpg combined avg. w/ regular; cargo: sedan/13.8-93.9 cu. ft., hatchback/17.8-94.4 cu. ft.; est. base price: $12,000; typically equipped, w/ front disk/rear drum brakes, 15-in. wheels, front/front-side airbags: $14,500; on-sale: hatchback/June 2006, sedan/January 2007