The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

September 2, 2011

Bigger spaces, better mileage

Associated Press

Sept 2 — DAVID SCHMIDT,writer


JRC Auto News SEATTLE — The idea behind Versa is "good space at a good price." This latest generation pushes both of those categories, as it's even larger inside and becomes the lowest price car sold in America.

Nissan's sold 350,000 of them here since the car originally came to the U.S. in July 2006. It's now the segment leader with 30.8 percent of sales in the sub-compact market.

Nissan wanted to keep the price of the least expensive new Versa under $10,000, but too many people wanted air conditioning. So for $10,990, you get air conditioning, a manual transmission and even a radio. Nissan expects perhaps five percent of buyers to opt for this trim level.

The Nissan Versa is sold worldwide as the Versa, Tilda and Sunny, depending on the market. A primary product of Nissan's global "V" platform, it's an all new design with a new engine, new transmission and better numbers. All of that means bigger spaces and better mileage. Plus, the platform weighs 150 pounds less and has 20 percent fewer parts than before, mostly due to a smaller engine and transmission.

The engine is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder transverse engine that produces 109 hp. and 107 lbs.-ft. of peak torque. That's about par for the class. It comes with a five-speed manual transmission in the base model, or a continuously variable transmission in other models, and availability on the base model as an option. The CVT has a better final gear ratio of 7.3 to 1 using a planetary gear arrangement.

This new Versa has a lower roofline and less front overhang, which works to get the car's slipperiness down to a reasonably good coefficient of drag of 0.31. The car is 175.4 inches on the same 102.4-inch wheelbase as the previous generation.

Because the car is shorter in the front, the rear gets

an addition 2.7-inches of length, most of which goes into making rear seat space bigger. The passenger space consists of 90 cubic feet and 14.8 cubic feet of trunk space with the rear seat up, which adds up to a total of 104.8 cubic feet.

The Versa even sports a new Nissan badge, so when you see a Nissan with a "PUREDRIVE" badge on it, it means Nissan considers the vehicle to have demonstrated innovations when it comes to fuel economy or CO2, which the rest of the world worries more about than we do. In addition to the badge, the Versa has an estimated EPA rating of 30 mpg in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined with the CVT transmission.

The suspension is a standard MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear with standard 15-inch wheels. The power steering is electric and brakes are disk in front and drum in the rear. Traction control and vehicle dynamics are standard, as is ABS and all the normal safety features.

But the driving isn't what's really important in this car category. Buyers in this market want dependability, capability and affordability. They're either younger or older, with a few in between. Their average household income is around $55,000.

This group is important, especially the younger ones, because as a group, they'll buy many vehicles throughout their lives. They begin with the Versa, then typically move from compacts to family cars, trucks, utes, although some will end up in luxury cars. Making a good impression with these buyers is essential, especially since the number of competitors is expected to grow from nine to 16. This is no time to be resting on laurels, or anything else.

The new Versa design isn't revolutionary, but the shape is more pleasing. It has a bit more presence than the previous model.

Inside Nissan's Versa, you get plenty. First, it's big. I sat in the back seat for an hour or so while on our test drive and was as comfortable as I'd been in the front seat. I couldn't adjust the rake of the rear seat, but I didn't need to.

I could see well out the front and the sides, and the climate control worked as well for me as the guys in front. The stereo sounded equally as good. If I were a kid, I'd be happy back here — if we weren't driving to the store, that is.

Up front I was pleased that the least expensive car in America included plenty of features of great interest to buyers in this segment: Bluetooth hookup, iPod connections and an integrated navigation system that cost only $400. It had a color screen, and the audio system included the availability of satellite radio.

The engine had enough pickup with the CVT to enter highways safely without slowing anybody down. The steering is nicely centered, and at highway speeds, it didn't take a lot of sawing back and forth to keep the car straight.

Today getting good brakes on a car this size is easy. While some may pooh-pooh rear drum brakes, they're a price consideration and have no impact at all on normal braking in a car that's rarely driven aggressively. If you did drive it on a racetrack, you may find rear brake fade a bit sooner than with disks, but that's the only real-world impact.

The Versa's price starts with the Versa S at $10,990. Nissan expects the volume model to be the Versa SV, which starts at $14,560. The top-of-the-line Versa SL starts at $15,560. If you put everything you can on a Versa, you'll spend about $17,000. The 2012 models went on sale this month.

Later, there will be a hatchback. It's interesting that they've introduced the sedan first. In America, people choose the hatchback more often than the sedan. In Asian and European markets, the hatchback is overwhelmingly the best seller. The Chinese like sedans. In fact, the Chinese like pretty much the same things in a car that Americans like, despite the fact that they're members of a potential market almost as big as all other existing markets combined.

Interesting, isn't it? Get your Versa sedan while you can.

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