2011 Nissan Versa 1.8 SL Hatchback Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2011 Nissan Versa

SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyers Guide
SEE ALSO: E-Carmony: Is a 2011 Nissan Versa Your Perfect Match?

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2011 Nissan Versa 1.8 SL Hatchback

What do you really need in a car? Not "want", "need". Solid construction, enough performance to not be a target in traffic, good safety ratings, comfort, and a useful amount of space likely top the "need" list, albeit in different order for different people.

The Nissan Versa fills those needs quite well. Available in both sedan and five-door hatchback body styles, the Versa offers a surprising amount of interior space inside of its small, unassuming exterior. The 2010 version was named a "Best Buy" by Consumer's Digest, and a "Top Safety Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In basic sedan form, it's pretty Spartan, but the up-level sedan and hatchback models not only offer all you really need in the way of comfort, performance, and safety, they can be had with nearly all of the convenience options that were restricted to the luxury class not too long ago. So it could be "all you want" as well as "all you need".

After typical mid-product cycle changes for model year 2010 -- a minor exterior styling refresh, interior material revisions, and upgraded standard equipment levels -- the Versa enters 2011 with few changes. Which is no cause for concern as no changes are needed. If the base-model sedan is no longer the least-expensive new car sold in the country, it's still close. And if that one, the 1.6, is a mite too basic for your wants, the sedan is also offered in 1.8S and 1.8SL trim levels. The hatchback is positioned a bit higher on the scale, in 1.8S and SL trim only.

That 1.6 or 1.8 refers to the engine size, either 1.6 or 1.8 liters of four-cylinder, with, respectively, 107 or 122 horsepower. Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive of course, with transmissions including five- or six-speed manual, four-speed automatic, or Nissan's Xtronic™ electronically-controlled continuously-variable transmission (CVT) depending on model.

I drove a Versa 1.6 sedan a couple of years ago. It was only slightly above the then cheapest-in-the-country 1.6 Base sedan, adding air conditioning to that car's roll-up windows, manual-everything, no audio (dealer-installed option) specification. Basic transportation in sheet metal, but functional, honest, inexpensive and a good value.

This week I have the other end of the versatile Versa spectrum, a 1.8 SL hatchback with a couple of option packages that give it goodies that were the exclusive province of the luxury level only a few years ago. To its standard 122-hp 1.8-liter engine and CVT are added the Premium Package, with Nissan's Intelligent Key™ keyless fob, Bluetooth® phone connectivity, alloy wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise and auxiliary audio controls, a semi-touch screen navigation system and XM® satellite radio, and a (power, of course) moonroof. The SL already has power windows and door locks; both it and the S have power outside mirrors. That does add a bit to the modest $16,900 base, but at $19,840 (MSRP) it becomes an under $20,000 semi-luxury car. With an exceptional amount of comfy and hatchback-versatile interior for its small and easily-parkable exterior and enough power from its torquey engine and smooth CVT to deal with even high-speed traffic on mountain highways, the 2011 Nissan Versa SL satisfies all your needs, and even your wants.

APPEARANCE: Being as it is the baby of the Nissan family, the Versa's neotenous looks are no surprise. It has the slightly ungainly proportions of a baby, kitten, or puppy, mostly due to its extra-large and extra-high passenger cabin and small hood. The base of the highly-sloped windshield is almost at the front axle line, and the main styling cues, especially on the hatchback, are a mix of Nissan sedan and crossover. The rounded hood, chamfered at its edges, and grille shape remind me of an early Murano, with some historic Maxima added. The Versa is wider than some small Japanese cars, and last year's addition to the hatchback of sporty lower touches all around, and a visor spoiler at the trailing edge of the roof -- kind of a hint of "aero kit" -- help to visually lower it. It's standard hatchback at the rear, with a large, heated backlight with wiper and huge taillights. The SL gets alloy wheels.

COMFORT: If the Versa's external proportions aren't exactly svelte, they do benefit interior space. The long 102.4-inch wheelbase, 66.7-inch width, and 60.4-inch height mean considerable interior space for its 169.1-inch length, seven inches less than the sedan's. And the four-door-plus-hatch body means easy access to that interior, whether for passengers or cargo. During my week with the SL hatch, I saw a lot of Versas, and more hatchbacks than sedans. Are Americans finally understanding the versatility and usefulness of a hatchback? Think micro-crossover here… I suspect that most of the Versas I did see were not outfitted to my test car's premium level, but regardless of options, the SL offers a good high-eyepoint seating position and good visibility (small front quarter windows help there), an easily reconfigured interior with a 60/40 split folding rear seat, and standard power windows, doors, and mirrors. Upholstery is a grippy cloth, and the driver's seat cushion is height-adjustable. Manually, of course. Headroom is not going to be a problem. There's more than ample rear seat room and comfort for two, with the usual contouring making the center position best for short people and short times. Cargo space is good with the rear seat in place and even better with it folded. A space-saver spare is found under the cargo floor.

SAFETY: All Nissan Versa models have six standard airbags -- dual stage front, front-seat side, and full-length head curtain -- zone-body construction with front and rear crumple zones, side-guard door beams, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Antilock brakes (front disc, rear drum) are available for all models, and standard in the SL along with Brake Assist, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, and Vehicle Dynamic Control systems.

RIDE AND HANDLING: As is typical in the compact/subcompact class, the Versa has MacPherson struts in the front and a torsion-beam axle in the rear. It's tuned softly, for comfort on poor road surfaces, but allows responsive handling with little body roll in normal driving. The electrically-assisted power steering is not over-assisted, and feels right, not vague as can be a problem with front-wheel drive cars. The Versa SL is not sporty in the manner of a Sentra SE-R or 370Z, but it is pleasant to drive, and more comfortable and quiet than many small cars.

PERFORMANCE: During my time with the Versa SL I had a trip over a mountain highway with steep grades and sharp curves. That road places a premium on passing power, as trucks doing maybe 30 mph tend to constrict at least one of two lanes in either direction. It can be life in the slow lane in a small car, too, but not in the Versa. The "big block" 1.8-liter engine, an aluminum alloy 16-valve twincam four, makes 122 horsepower (at 5200 rpm) and 127 lb-ft of torque (at 4800 rpm), and in the SL hatch is matched to the Xtronic CVT. Good low-rpm torque ensures quick acceleration at lower speeds, and the CVT keeps engine speed optimum for efficiency and power. Since there are no discrete gears, there is no shifting, and you can't get any smoother than that. If quick acceleration is desired, or needed, just put pedal to floor. A 9-second 0-60 time makes it competitive with anything in the small, affordable car class, and any smaller crossover. A real-world 31mpg was my average for the week.

CONCLUSIONS:< With Nissan, Versa SL 5-Door means a versatile, comfortable, and roomy small car.

SPECIFICATIONS
2011 Nissan Versa 1.8 SL Hatchback


Base Price			$ 16,900
Price As Tested			$ 19,840
Engine Type			DOHC aluminum alloy 4-cylinder
Engine Size			1.8 liters / 109 cu. in.
Horsepower			122 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			127 @ 4800 rpm
Transmission			CVT
Wheelbase / Length		102.4 in. / 169.1 in.
Curb Weight			2758 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		22.6
Fuel Capacity			13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P195/77R16 86H Conti Pro Contact
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / drum,
				 ABS, EBD, Brake Assist, VDC standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  torsion beam axle
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		28 / 34 / 31
0 to 60 mph				est 9  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Premium Package - includes:
  Nissan Intelligent Key™, Bluetooth® hands-free phone
    system, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, 
    leather-wrapped steering wheel, 16" alloy wheels		$ 980
Navigation and Satellite Radio Package - includes:
  Navigation system with 5-inch screen and USB, 
   XM® satellite radio (subscription sold separately)		$ 610
Power Moonroof							$ 600
Destination charge						$ 750

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