2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan
2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Laurance Yap

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Toronto, Ontario – For the last several weeks, my little brother – who just landed a job out in Mississauga and is discovering that city’s transit system isn’t quite as convenient as the TTC’s – has been picking my brain about buying his first new car. Like many of his generation – he’s 22 and working in the financial-services industry – he doesn’t really want to compromise. On his list of requirements are an automatic transmission (the 2003 Honda Civic he drives now has a great manual but he insists it’s too much work), lots of room, a quiet cabin and decent performance for a bargain-basement price. That, plus he absolutely does not want a hatchback.

Well, I think I may just have found him a car: the new Nissan Versa sedan.

“Little brother” is a bit of a misnomer, actually. While he’s six years younger than I am, Lloyd’s also several inches taller, so many of the cars that I find comfortable, he doesn’t: which is where the Versa comes in. While it’s priced to compete with entry-level models such as the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Chevy Aveo and Toyota Yaris with the base model starting at under $15,000, it’s actually larger than all of those cars. With a 2,600-mm wheelbase and a very upright cabin, the Versa is the roomiest car in its price class and indeed feels more spacious inside than the company’s more-expensive Sentra.

2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan
2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan. Click image to enlarge

The front seats in the Versa are huge, almost as big as the Maxima with wide bottom cushions and inboard seat adjusters for rake and seat height. They’re very comfortable on long drives, whether you’re making a run out of town on the weekend or merely sitting in an hour-and-a-half of rush hour traffic every day like my brother’s going to be. The front seats’ intelligent design even benefits rear-seat riders: their tracks are tucked out of the way on the sides of the transmission tunnel, freeing up space for feet underneath and adding to the already-generous amounts of legroom in the rear. A high roof and near-vertical seating makes for a comfortable, stress-free ride (you don’t have to hunch over for a stylishly angled rear window); headroom front and rear is excellent, even for tall guys. The trunk is big, too – just five litres smaller than a Honda Accord’s – and its boxy packaging and low liftover makes it easy to load.

2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan
2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan. Click image to enlarge

More importantly, the Versa would meet my brother’s needs for a comfortable ride as well as a spacious one (“I’d buy a big Buick if I could afford one,” he says). The interior, for instance, is finished to a level that shames even some of Nissan’s more expensive offerings. The dashboard, while boxy, is cleanly laid-out and makes extensive use of soft-touch and metallic materials; it’s nicer, in fact, than the interior of the Altima I was driving last week. The base seat fabric feels almost like suede, while upgrading to the SL, a jump of $3,500, nets you richer, more durable-looking cloth.

The small Nissan’s refinement is also impressive: its 1.8-litre engine only produces a gentle thrum on the highway and is near-silent in stop-and-go traffic and isolation from wind and road noise is good. Thanks to the long wheelbase, relatively high-profile 15-inch wheels and tires as well as a suspension equipped with “ripple control” shock absorbers first used in the Infiniti M45, the ride is among the best in class, with only the largest of pavement heaves upsetting the car’s composure.

2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan
2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan. Click image to enlarge

The flip side of the refinement coin, of course, is handling that is less eager than, say, that of a Fit or a Yaris. While the Versa will zip through corners quickly without protest and while it will hang on well around an on-ramp, there’s little joy to wringing it out like some other small cars. The electrically-assisted steering offers very little feedback and the brake pedal – unfortunately, ABS with brake assist is a $500 option on base S models and standard on the uplevel SL – feels mushy and unresponsive. Oh well – given that his commute is basically a long slog across the top of Toronto, he probably won’t even miss the fun that some other small cars in the class offer.

You have a choice of two transmissions in the Versa sedan, a four-speed automatic shared with the base Versa hatchback and a six-speed manual. A CVT (continuously variable transmission), which is available in more expensive Versa hatches, will be phased in over the next several months. I spent my time in an automatic model and while it may not have had the slick, seamless feel of the CVT – Nissan does them better than anyone else with a more “natural” feel than other companies – it offered fine kickdown responsiveness and shifted smoothly. The livelier choice by far is the six-speed manual; its throws are short and clunky but the six gears are a rarity at this end of the price spectrum and liven up the Versa significantly; unfortunately, my brother’s not interested, no matter what the fuel savings or extra fun quotient. Official fuel consumption figures are (L/100 km city/highway): 7.9/6.3 (manual) 8.5/6.2 (automatic).

2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan
2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan. Click image to enlarge

Drivetrain aside, you’re getting a pretty fully-equipped car even as a base model. Nissan expects about 40% of Versa sedans sold to be base models with a $1,400 value option package that adds air conditioning. power windows, power door locks, keyless entry and other goodies to the six airbags, body-coloured mirrors and 120-watt CD stereo in the base “S.”

Move up to the SL and you get an upgraded interior, folding rear armrest, better headliner and standard ABS. A convenience package adds Bluetooth hands-free control for your phone, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, 180-watt stereo with six-disc CD changer and leather-wrapped steering wheel. A sunroof is $1,000, pushing the price of a fully-loaded Versa sedan just past the $20,000 mark, at which point I’d start looking at alternatives like the Mazda3 and Honda Civic.

2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan
2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S sedan. Click image to enlarge

The real question for me is why you would pick a Versa sedan over a Versa hatchback. Its trunk is indeed huge, but offers less flexibility, even with folding rear seats, than the hatch does. Plus, there’s the small issue of styling: while the hatch is cute in a squared-off, Japanimation sort of way, the sedan just looks awkward with its trunk sticking out of the back. The proportions, in fact, remind me of the old Toyota Echo sedan. Readers have e-mailed me in the past to note that sedans tend to be a bit quieter inside thanks to the cargo area being entirely enclosed, but the hatch is already pretty refined for a small car – as my brother would probably note, a little Buick if there ever was one.

Still, as Nissan’s product planning manager, Brian Murphy, is quick to note, small-car buyers have very distinct preferences in terms of which body style they prefer – hatch people like hatches a lot and sedan people only want something with a trunk. And since the Versa sedan went on sale in January, it’s accounted for a significant 25 per cent chunk of overall sales – more than enough to justify its existence and enough to at least put it into the short list of cars my little brother is actively considering.

Pricing: 2007 Nissan Versa 1.8S Sedan


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