2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL. Click image to enlarge
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2007 Nissan Versa, by James Bergeron

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Nissan Canada

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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2008 Nissan Versa

North Vancouver, B.C. – Let me start this review by saying that I don’t recommend buying a 2008 Nissan Versa hatchback! At least for the 2008 manufacturer’s suggested retail price. For 2009, Nissan Canada has dropped the base price of the Versa S hatchback by $1,000 to $13,598, while the better-equipped 2009 Versa SL hatchback has been reduced by $900 to $16,498. And the 2009 hatchbacks are available now.

Why pay more?

True, the remaining 2008 Versas will probably be heavily discounted, but they’d have to be as they’re nearing the end of the 2008 model year and depreciation is starting to kick in.

Like many automakers in Canada, Nissan has found it necessary to lower prices to remain competitive in the marketplace and narrow the gap with the lower pricing available in the U.S. where a 2009 Nissan Versa S hatchback starts at U.S.$12,990 and an SL hatchback at U.S.$16,210.

2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL. Click image to enlarge

Last year, I concluded that the all-new Versa was a great value in the sub-$20,000 economy car class, but with the new, lower 2009 pricing, it is an even better value. Though the Versa is in the same general price range as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Chevrolet Aveo, the Versa hatchback is actually bigger, roomier and more powerful than those cars – more in line with base versions of compact cars like the Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe, Mazda3 GX Sport, Kia Spectra5, Dodge Caliber, and Chevrolet HHR.

Pricing and standard equipment

First introduced in the 2007 model year, the Nissan Versa is available in two bodystyles, a four-door sedan and a four-door hatchback: this review will focus exclusively on the hatch. Standard equipment on the base 2008 Versa S hatch includes a 122-hp 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission, 15-inch all-season radials and steel wheels, front disc/rear drum brakes, suede/tricot cloth seats, front, side and curtain airbags, active front head restraints, AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks, tilt steering column, variable intermittent wipers, intermittent rear wiper with washer, rear defroster, front and rear cupholders, heated mirrors, and a rear cargo cover.

Options available on the base S model include a four-speed automatic transmission ($1,000); Value Option Package ($1,400) which includes air conditioning, remote keyless entry, power door locks, power windows with driver’s automatic down/up, rear door pockets, door armrest pads, and a light in the glovebox; and the ABS Package ($500) that includes anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, Brake Assist, remote keyless entry, power windows, power door locks, and rear door map pockets.

2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL. Click image to enlarge

The Versa SL hatchback adds standard air conditioning, alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, power door locks with keyless entry, power windows with driver’s one-touch up and down, cruise control, woven cloth seats, height-adjustable driver’s seat, front and rear centre armrests, 180-watt AM/FM/six-CD/MP3 stereo with auxiliary audio jack and speed-sensitive volume control, anti-theft system, map lights, overhead sunglasses storage, and glove compartment light.

Options on the SL include the “Xtronic” continuously variable transmission (CVT) ($1,300); Technology Package ($950) with Bluetooth hands-free phone system, six premium speakers and Rockford Fosgate-powered subwoofer (280 watts), steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, leather-wrapped steering-wheel, XM Satellite Radio, and fog lights; and the Sport Package ($1,600) with front and rear “aero” bumpers, rear roof spoiler, body side sill extensions, power sliding glass moonroof, and two illuminated visor vanity mirrors.

My test car was an SL with the CVT, Technology Package and metallic sapphire blue paint ($125). With these options ($2,375) and Freight Charge ($1,175), the 2008 price as tested came to $20,948. A 2009 model with the same options and a slightly higher Freight Charge ($1,250) would add up to $20,123 (plus $100 A/C tax and provincial taxes), an $825 saving.

2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL. Click image to enlarge
Interior impressions

For a small car, the Versa hatchback has a very roomy cabin and cargo area. With its tall roof, upright sides and long (2600 mm/102.4 in.) wheelbase, the Versa maximizes interior space without being overly boxy on the outside. Both front and rear adult passengers have plenty of headroom and legroom, and the door openings are wide for easy entrance and exit. Note how the square design of the upper rear doors allows rear passengers to get in without bumping their heads. The only negative point about the cabin is that it is really only wide enough for two adults to sit comfortably in the rear, although there are three seatbelts (but only two head restraints).

In the SL, the driver faces a small leather-wrapped steering wheel and three chrome-ringed gauge pods with a centrally-positioned speedometer, tachometer on the left and a fuel gauge and digital information display with transmission gear indicator and odometer on the right. The gauges have large numbers and are well-lit but the transmission indicator can be obscured by the overlapping speedometer. My test car had the optional cruise and Bluetooth hands-free buttons on the steering wheel, the latter a feature rarely found on economy cars.

While the Versa’s instrument panel design is rather conservative, all major controls are large and within easy reach. My test car’s black dash was relieved by charcoal coloured trim on the steering wheel, shift lever and dash. The SL’s upgraded woven cloth seats have attractive nylon mesh inserts which look outdoorsy and sporty at the same time. I found the driver’s seat wide and comfortable – indeed Nissan boasts that they are nearly as wide as the Maxima’s. SL models have a manually height adjustable driver’s seat, but interestingly, the lever is on the right side of the driver’s seat. The steering wheel tilts up and down, but doesn’t telescope in and out. Still, I enjoyed the driving position, including the wide footwells with a large foot rest for driver’s left foot.

For storage, there is a covered bin for CDs near the top of the dashboard, a glovebox on the passenger side, a small storage box with armrest between the front seats behind a 12-volt powerpoint, a small bin at the rear of the centre console, two cupholders ahead of the shift lever, and two cupholders in the folding rear centre armrest. The cupholders do not have grippers to hold loose cups though.

The radio display is kind of narrow but easy to read while wearing sunglasses, and the large central volume knob, and large buttons are simple to operate. My car had the optional Technology package with 280-watt stereo, six premium speakers and subwoofer in the trunk. This is a lot of power for a small car and together with the hands-free phone and XM satellite radio, the Technology Package seems well worth the extra $950.

2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL. Click image to enlarge

The Versa’s trunk is big for a small car (504 litres/17.8 cu. ft.) and almost triples in size with both rear seatbacks folded down. The split seatbacks are easy to fold down, but they don’t lie flush with the trunk floor, making the generous cavity less useful for storing long heavy items like furniture. As well, the right front passenger seatback does not fold flat.

The trunk area has a carpeted floor, carpeted seatbacks and a hard privacy cover which lifts up when the hatch door is opened. A gap between the rear seats and the cargo cover is covered with a flexible panel that attaches with Velcro strips. The optional subwoofer occupies the space behind the left rear wheel well. I do have some gripes: the hatch opening at the bottom is a bit narrow, and the side walls are made of a scratchable plastic.

All Versas, including the base model, include six airbags: dual-stage front airbags, side airbags in the front seats, and curtain airbags in the roof for head protection. As well, Versas have active front head restraints to help prevent whiplash, LATCH attachments and upper tether anchors for child seats in the rear, rear door child locks, and a tire pressure monitoring system.

In crash tests, the Versa received a four-star rating for frontal and side impact tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a “Good” rating for offset frontal and side impact crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Driving impressions

The Versa hatchback is definitely not a sporty car, say like the Honda Fit, particularly when equipped with the optional continuously variable transmission. But it is a very easy car to drive, with excellent visibility, a comfortable ride, quiet motor, and easy if vague electric power steering.

2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL
2008 Nissan Versa hatchback 1.8SL. Click image to enlarge

Its standard 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine, with four valves per cylinder, dual overhead cams and variable valve timing, develops 122 hp at 5,200 r.p.m. and 127 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 r.p.m. This is more than most subcompacts but less than most compact cars. Performance is more than adequate for typical city and highway driving, but the CVT makes the car feel sluggish. This is more a matter of perception than reality as the difference in acceleration times between standard automatic transmissions and CVTs is minimal. But there’s no doubt that the “gearless” CVT feels different: under hard acceleration, the engine revs up between five and six thousand r.p.m. and lingers there until you back off the accelerator pedal. Instead of an up and down engine sound, the engine drones continuously until cruising velocity is reached. Under gentle acceleration, engine speed may reach 3,000 r.p.m. It then settles down to a low cruising speed, in this case about 2,100 r.p.m. at 100 km/h.

That partly explains why the CVT-equipped Versa gets better fuel economy than the four-speed automatic model and even the six-speed manual model. Energuide figures for the CVT model are 7.5/6.0 city/hwy, while the four-speed auto is 8.5/6.2 and the six-speed manual is 7.9/6.3.

An on/off overdrive button on the shift lever allows the driver to manually select a lower “gear” when more power is needed for passing, accelerating up steep hills or decelerating when going downhill.

I found steering effort easy when parking and tracking steady on the freeway. Handling is stable but the Versa SL is not a “fun car to drive” due to its rather vague steering response, comfort-oriented suspension (independent MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear suspension), and gearless CVT. Brakes are standard front disc/rear drum with standard ABS and Brake Assist on the SL model: I found them responsive with good pedal feel. In a braking test by AJAC (www.ajac.ca) of the 2007 Versa hatchback without ABS, stopping distance from 100 km/h was 45.2 metres (148 ft.), a little more than average in the compact class.

The driver’s visibility is excellent, but there is a small blind spot to the right-rear where the large C-pillar is. I liked the small triangular side windows near the windscreen when making 90 degree turns and I appreciated the large rear window and rear intermittent wiper and washer during bad weather.

Overall, the Versa hatchback is a pleasant car to drive, but if you want the better-equipped SL trim with an automatic transmission, you have to take the CVT.

Verdict

A roomy, practical small car, the Versa hatchback is a good value in the marketplace, particularly as 2009 prices have been reduced by up to $1,000. Some drivers may not like the continuously variable transmission.

Pricing: 2008 Nissan Versa SL hatchback

Base price: $17,398
Options: $2,375 (Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), $1,300; Technology Package, $950 (Bluetooth hands-free phone system, six premium speakers and Rockford Fosgate-powered subwoofer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, leather-wrapped steering-wheel, XM Satellite Radio, fog lights); Metallic sapphire blue paint, $125
A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,175
Price as tested: $21,048

Pricing: 2009 Nissan Versa SL hatchback

Base price: $16,498
Options: $2,375 (Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), $1,300; Technology Package, $950 (Bluetooth hands-free phone system, six premium speakers and Rockford Fosgate-powered subwoofer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, leather-wrapped steering-wheel, XM Satellite Radio, fog lights); Metallic sapphire blue paint, $125

A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,250
Price as tested: $20,223
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2008 Nissan Versa

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    Day-by-Day Reviews
  • 2008 Nissan Versa, by James Bergeron
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    Manufacturer’s web site
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