As vehicles get larger with each iteration, the smallest tend to grow out of a segment that still has potential, paving the way for new models with new names. With Toyota, the Yaris/Scion xA/Scion xB (all sharing the same platform) slotted below the Corolla, and Honda’s Fit replaced the Civic as its smallest mainstream model. Responding in kind, Nissan introduces the 2007 Versa, its new entry-level model positioned below the perennial Sentra (which itself gets an all-new makeover for 2007). Weary of the performance-oriented media who traditionally had little regard to gas mileage numbers, Nissan is the last of Japan’s “Big 3” to arrive on the US scene after Toyota’s successful launch of its small-car Scion brand. Scion proved that small cars with small engines can thrive in the US if executed properly, which prompted Honda to ship its well-established Fit and now the Versa, otherwise known as Tiida overseas.
The Versa will be offered in two flavors: the base 1.8S and the better equipped 1.8SL, both standard with a 1.8-liter 122 hp engine and 6-speed manual transmission. The 1.8S has an optional 4-speed automatic compared to the 1.8SL’s continuous variable transmission (CVT). Although performance figures have not been released, expect the 4-speed automatic to accelerate faster than the CVT but the latter to get better mileage. Standard equipment on both models include AM/FM/CD audio system, 60/40 split fold-down rear seatbacks, an Advanced Air Bag System (AABS) and both front seat side-impact and side-curtain air bags. The 1.8SL comes standard with 15-inch wheels, in-dash 6 CD autochanger with MP3/WMA playback, auxiliary input jack, remote keyless entry, cruise control with steering wheel controls and soft-touch interior accents.
While options on the 1.8S are few, the 1.8SL in contrast is an explosion, offering high-class options such as a keyless push-start control to a Bluetooth hands-free phone system. Like the xA, the 1.8SL offers an optional subwoofer, but chooses Rockford Fosgate instead of Bazooka. Pricing for the 1.8S and 1.8SL start at $12,450 and $14,450, respectively, and a fully loaded 1.8SL can top $18,000. Initially offered as a 5-door hatchback, a sedan version will be available next year, giving Nissan another angle to attack the likes of the Toyota Yaris. The US Versa will be made in Mexico at Nissan’s Aguascalientes assembly plant.
Based on the upcoming Nissan Cube and Renault Megane (not available in the US) platform, the Versa’s largest asset is literally its size. Its 102-inch wheelbase and 94.4 cubic feet of passenger space clearly out-sizes the Fit’s 96.5 inch/90.1 cubic feet and the xA’s 93.3 inch/86 cubic feet, its closest competitors price-wise. The low-end Dodge Caliber also overlaps the Versa’s price spectrum, and is sized slightly larger with a 103.7-inch wheelbase and 95.2 cubic feet of passenger space. Nissan purposely chose the 1.8-liter 4 cylinder engine to again out-size its rivals, although overseas the standard engine is the 1.5-liter unit. The Versa generates 122 hp at 30 MPG city/34 MPG highway with the manual, 28/35 for the automatic, and 30/36 for the CVT transmission. The Fit and xA have smaller engines (both 1.5-liters) with lower output but better mileage: 109 hp and 33/38 MPG for the Fit and 103 hp and 31/38 for the xA. On a side note, encouraging to Sentra owners is the fact that the larger and more powerful 2.0-liter 135 hp Sentra engine gets virtually identical mileage numbers as the Versa.
It will be interesting to see how consumers respond to the Versa – it’s not as refined as the xA or Fit, nor as appealing on the design front, but offers more room and engine for the money. In the minivan segment, the Quest failed to deliver this balance successfully, resulting in the most expensive mid-cycle revision in the company’s history. In addition, Nissan is reeling from an embarrassing US production-cut announcement, the first among the Japanese “Big 3”, and will undoubtedly watch closely to see how the Versa fares in this small but increasingly important segment.