By Danny Chang
- Plenty of head room
- Decent acceleration if you keep your foot down
- Decent trunk space for a hatch
- Easy access
- Could use more power
- Quirky Gallic styling
- Better MPG would be nice
My first car that I drove in high school was a dark blue 1986 Nissan Sentra coupe. It had a 1.6 L engine that probably put out just over 84 HP. It was a pretty base model with an aftermarket radio that had a push button auto reverse cassette deck. It had no side view mirror on the right hand side, but hey, who needs that. It had no AC, which was a bit problematic in the SoCal summers where temperatures routinely shoot up to the high 90s and low 100s in the valleys. To kick a man when he’s down, the Sentra used to overheat regularly and I had to pump the hot air into the cabin in order to cool the engine down. What the Sentra did have, though, was a five-speed manual transmission and a smooth clutch. So I was pretty interested to see what the new econobox from Nissan is like, almost a quarter of a century later.
The Versa 1.8 SL is the top of the line Versa, and as the moniker denotes, comes with a 1.8 liter DOHC four-cylinder engine that pumps out 122 horsepower and 127 lb-ft. of torque. The base Versa comes with a 1.6 liter version of the engine that puts out 107 horsepower and 111 lb-ft. of torque. I think they get the same 34 highway 28 city MPG. The 1.6 L comes with a 5-speed, and the 1.8 L comes with a CVT.
Full disclosure — I’m not a big fan of CVTs. They feel so smooth that I miss the momentary pauses between gears. The Versa’s CVT, however, surprised me. As long as I kept my right foot to the floor, the CVT stayed at a steady ratio. I was literally flying onto the freeway once I reached 35 MPH (albeit it took a while to get to that point). The CVT held it down and I almost redlined the Versa on my way to uh…a little over the 65 MPH speed limit.
The steering on the Versa is not as light as you’d expect in a subcompact, with electric power-assisted steering standard on the SL. Ride quality was decent for this price ($16,900 MSRP base for the SL HB), with independent struts upfront and ripple-control shock absorbers. Handling was also impressive for this class, with front and rear stabilizer bars.
The tester also rides on optional 16” alloy wheels on 195s instead of 15” 185s. In short, the Versa drove like a Maxima compared to the ’86 Sentra.
The Versa’s styling is a direct result of Nissan’s take-over by the French carmaker Renault, and the Versa is based on the Clio/Modus/Megane platform and shares their Euro-styling cues. It looks taller and bigger than it actually is, with a huge and tall green house all around in addition to a tall beltline. The semi vertical headlights and a wide grille also make the Versa look tall from the front. The Versa definitely stands out from the rest of the subcompact car crowd in its appearance. All the other Asian entries seem to blend together, like the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris, and the Hyundai “Fill in Southwest city name”. The Versa will definitely get you noticed, just not always in a good way.
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