Review and photos by
Greg Wilson, Autos.ca
In previous reviews of the Nissan Versa hatchback, I’ve mentioned how roomy and practical it is and how it’s a great value for the money in the subcompact class – but I’ve also warned readers that this is not a particularly sporty car to drive, particularly when equipped with the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Yet, something happened on the way to the mall, the other day: I was unexpectedly lulled into submission by the Versa’s quiet cabin, comfortable ride, shiftless CV transmission, and easy driving manners. I suddenly realized that, for the majority of drivers, the Versa’s non-sporty attributes are what makes it such a great commuter car.
While other small cars often have a stiff, choppy ride, the Versa’s long (for a subcompact) wheelbase and forgiving shocks provide a comfortable city and highway ride which absorbs pavement breaks and potholes quite well. True, the Versa leans and dives in protest if you go around a corner too fast, but it handles just fine if you’re not in a big hurry.
As well, because there are no gear changes with a CVT, the normal up and down chorus of engine revs is eliminated, along with the physical jerks that occur with regular gear changes. It’s true that, with a CVT, accelerating up a hill does produce a continuous drone from the engine – but it has to be a steep, long hill for this noise to become tiresome in the Versa.And whereas many small cars have minimal sound insulation and small, busy engines that are often noisy, the Versa’s large-for-its-segment 1.8-litre, 122-hp four-cylinder engine combined with the optional continuously variable transmission keeps engine revs under 3,000 r.p.m. most of the time, and generally under 1500 r.p.m. when driving in town. Cruising at 100 km/h on the freeway, the engine turns over just 2,200 r.p.m.: that keeps engine noise down, and with surprisingly little tire and wind noise, the Versa’s cabin is quiet for an economy car.
Though the CVT tends to make the Versa feel slower when accelerating, there isn’t much difference in zero to 100 km/h times between Versa’s equipped with the regular four-speed automatic transmission and the CVT. Both are in the 10 second range. That’s comparable with the Honda Fit but a bit slower than the Yaris hatchback, according to AJAC’s tests. Versa sedans equipped with the smaller 107-hp 1.6-litre engine are a bit slower.
Interestingly, the Versa’s floor shifter has an on/off “overdrive” button which effectively raises the engine revs to provide increased power for accelerating. For example, at 80 km/h the engine normally runs at 1,800 rpm, but when the o/d button is pressed, the engine speeds up to 3,800 rpm providing an extra boost of power for passing.
Other Versa attributes that make it easy to drive are its low-effort electric power steering and good outward visibility. The steering is speed sensitive, so it’s very light when parking, yet firmer and more responsive at freeway speeds. The Versa’s turning circle of 11.3 metres (37 ft.) is tight enough to manoeuvre in parking lots and garages. The driver’s visibility is assisted by the Versa hatchback’s tall roof, big side windows and upright rear window. As well, the Versa has a rear wiper with a variable intermittent setting and a washer, both useful when it’s raining or snowing.
Fuel economy with the CVT is better than with the standard six-speed manual transmission or the available four-speed automatic transmission (optional in the Versa S). With the CVT, the official (L/100 km) numbers are 7.2 city (39 mpg Imp.) and 5.7 hwy (50 mpg Imp.), With the six manual, it’s 7.9 and 6.3, and with the four-auto, it’s 8.5 and 6.2.
The Versa’s fuel economy is not quite as good as the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris, both smaller, lighter cars with smaller engines, but remember the Versa has a larger, roomier cabin than most of its competitors.
Braking is a bit disappointing, with a distance of 45.2 metres from 100 km/h to zero, as tested by AJAC. That compares to 42.0 metres for the Honda Fit and 43.4 metres for the Yaris. All Versas have standard front discs and rear drums with four-wheel ABS, while electronic stability control and traction control are optional on the S and standard on the SL.
Inside, there’s a surprising amount of headroom and legroom for both front and rear passengers. The Versa’s tall roof and upright sides maximize interior space. The premium grade woven seat cloth material used in the SL is quite attractive, and the front seats’ double foam cushions proved quite comfortable for this writer’s derriere. Though the driver’s seat is height adjustable, even its lowest setting is high enough for an average adult. The steering wheel tilts, but doesn’t telescope.
The Versa’s instrument panel is a straightforward, horizontal affair with three illuminated gauges behind the steering wheel, centrally positioned radio and heater, textured plastic dash materials and some rather shiny-looking plastic walnut trim on the dash and doors. My car had a poorly fitting plastic trim piece on the passenger side dash, which refused to go back into place with a little pounding.
The Versa (SL) is one of the few subcompacts available with a navigation system and centre touch-screen, and it’s a good deal for an extra $1,100, especially as it also includes Bluetooth hands-free phone system, XM satellite radio, steering wheel audio controls, and leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The five-inch (diagonal) screen is a bit small, but once you input your destination, the system highlights the route, and prepares you for every change in direction with voice commands and larger screen graphics with directional arrows. It also includes an optional “3D” view. The navigation system can also provide real-time traffic information, and the screen can also be used to change audio and setup preferences.
Just above the screen is a flock-lined storage area with a USB connector and auxiliary jack for music players, and in the Versa SL, the premium AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA audio system includes six speakers.
A frequent complaint with the Versa hatchback is that the folding rear seats don’t fold flat level with the cargo floor. That makes it more difficult, but not impossible, to load longer items into the cargo area. For me, this is not a deal breaker, as the cargo area is big enough and the opening is large, but it seems to me that flip-and-fold rear seats would be a fairly easy solution for Nissan. The distance from the rear cargo lip to the rear seats is about two feet, and to the front seats, it’s about four feet. A removable cargo cover keeps valuables hidden in the trunk when the rear seats are up.
Standard safety features are quite extensive, including dual-stage front airbags, front seat side-impact airbags, curtain airbags, rear infant and child seat attachments (anchors and tethers), child safety rear door locks, and front seat active head restraints. A centre rear head restraint is not included, however.
As small economy cars go, the Versa is big on space, refinement, and driveability, even if it’s not particularly sporty or exciting.
Pricing: 2011 Nissan Versa 1.8 SL hatchback
Base price: $17,548
Base price (S): $14,348
Options: $2,535 (CVT, $1,300; Navigation package, $1,100; Metallic/pearl paint $135)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $21,568
Crash test results