Some cars come along in the test cycle that seem to do everything right, without glamour, fanfare or pretension. The Nissan Versa is one of them. For its fifth year, the 2011 model returns with a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback, in three levels.
If you're looking for about the cheapest car you can buy, the decontented base model comes in at $10 below $10,000-before the $750 delivery charge. But it's not the one you really want. It has a perfectly OK 1.6-liter, 107-horsepower engine, but lacks the antilock brakes and extra features that enhance safety, along with many other items that today's drivers demand, such as power windows. C'mon-you can at least go for one of the S or SL models, where you get many more features, a choice of an automatic transmission, and can still keep the price reasonable.
My test car, a five-door SL hatchback in a pretty Arctic Blue, was the top of the line. In an interesting model structuring, probably to simplify the assembly process, the SL hatchback comes only with the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). You can get a six-speed manual or automatic with the S-level sedan or hatchback; the SL level sedan gets only a four-speed automatic. Go figure.
Driving the CVT is no problem-it just sounds a little odd, especially when it seems to be working especially hard on uphill grades. But on the level, it often gets the tach down around 1,200 rpm, which means it's saving gas while keep engine noise very low. With bands and cones instead of gears, a CVT has an infinite number of ratios available, and its electronic brain figures out the best one to use for whatever driving condition you're in.
The Versa, in SL hatchback trim, earns a very nice 28 City and 34 Highway from the EPA, and SmartWay level environmental sensitivity with a 6 for Air Pollution and a 7 for Greenhouse Gas. No guilt there. My tester did not include a trip computer, so I don't know my exact numbers, but I spent little time at the gas station during the test week.
The Versa hatchback is deceptive. It looks like a little econobox, but it has a tall roof and a long passenger compartment, with short front and rear overhangs. My 6-foot-2 bandmate Colin sat comfortably in the rear seat and when I went to orchestra rehearsal, the bass slid in easily with the rear seats folded (60/40).
You'd think that a car that occupies the bottom position in Nissan's U.S. lineup would feel cheap inside but it doesn't. The plastic surfaces feature a pleasant matte finish and are as nicely grained as in any Altima or Maxima. The metallic accents on the steering wheel, dash, doors, shifter and gauge panel gleam attractively and appear to be carefully installed by Nissan's craftsmen in Aguascalientes, Mexico. The soft door panels and surprisingly comfortable seats lend an unexpectedly luxurious feeling. Other than a sunvisor that doesn't slide when used along the side, I had no complaints.
You can buy a $10K base car, but my top-level SL vehicle had much more to offer. Besides the SL-level goodies, such as alloy wheels, upgraded seats, Vehicle Dynamic Control, and more, it had various option packages that virtually doubled that price ($19,995). It contained a full-featured navigation system, USB iPod interface (conveniently hidden), moonroof, leather steering wheel with audio control buttons, keyless entry system, and handsome upgraded 16-inch alloy wheels.
With a large, clear screen, the nav system was easy to use, although I did confused it when I was searching for a Target store I knew was somewhere nearby and the system couldn't find it. As with all nav systems, it takes a little patience to figure out its method but it was a fine, quick touch-screen based system that wouldn't be out of place in an Infiniti.
Most buyers will find themselves with the S or SL sedan or hatchback. The S sedan with automatic transmission, in the middle of the range, is just $15,320, including shipping.
Driving around in the Versa brings up the question of how much car a person really needs. If you can get wherever you need to go, carry your friends of all sizes, lug big, long objects with ease, average around 30 miles per gallon and get out of the dealership a little or a lot under $20,000, what more do you need?
Of course, that memory faded somewhat when a Shelby GT 500 arrived for its test immediately following the Versa, but the Nissan's goodness and driving enjoyment are about more than power or impressing the neighbors. I could buy a trio of Versas for the price of one Shelby, anyway.