- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

Fuel economy, safety, quality and affordability are on the minds of small car buyers. Carmakers know this and are cranking out the wee ones.

The latest model to debut in the fuel-efficient, price-sensitive, entry-level car market is the all-new 2007 Nissan Versa. Initially, the Versa is offered as a five-door hatchback. Toward the end of the year, Nissan will make available a four-door sedan.

The engine that powers the Versa is a 1.8-liter dual overhead cam four-cylinder. It produces 122 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 127 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm. Nissan is offering three transmission choices to be mated to this engine, including, surprisingly, a six-speed manual.

The good news for gas-pump price-conscious drivers is that all three transmissions achieve very high fuel economy.

Nissan executives, however, say they expect the $13,250 four-speed automatic-equipped Versa to be the volume seller. Its EPA fuel rating is 28 miles per gallon city and 35 highway. Nissan’s Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission joins the manual and automatic as the third transmission offered in the Versa. The CVT achieves slightly higher fuel ratings than the conventional automatic.

The CVT-equipped Versa is priced at $15,450 with fuel economy figures of 30/36 mpg. To the driver’s eye, the CVT looks like a regular four-speed automatic gearbox. However, unlike the traditional stepped gears of one, two, three and four in an automatic, Nissan’s CVT operates as one gear through the use of a belt and two pulleys.

Nissan engineers say the CVT pulleys result in a smoother, more efficient operation and keep the engine in optimal power range in a variety of driving and load conditions.

The Versa test-drive vehicle featured the manual transmission, with a starting price of $12,450. The six-speed manual had EPA fuel economy ratings of 30/34 mpg.

I’ve been in a number of small cars lately and what I like most about the Versa is the interior comfort. Thoughtful amenities, such as retained accessory power, stood out in my mind during the week with the Versa. For example, when I parked the car, turned off the engine, removed the key from the ignition, and then realized that I forgot to roll up the windows, the retained accessory power allowed me to hit the power switches to get the windows up.

There is a lot of emphasis on passenger roominess and functionality — and that’s where the Versa gets its name. The Versa is a nicely versatile little car. The rear lift gate opens wide to easily accommodate packages or cargo. Nissan points out that the front seats are nearly as large as the seats in the Maxima. But where the Versa really shines is in the second row. Not only do the three rear passengers have lots of legroom, they have superior comfort for their backs. The seatback design of the Versa has a smooth curve that nicely cups the back of each occupant.

The Versa can be very well equipped with premium comfort features and exterior styling cues. Some of these factory-installed options include a sport package, rear roof spoiler, splash guards, Sirius or XM satellite radio, Power, Audio and Convenience Packages and a sunroof.

Standard safety equipment in the Versa includes front seat-mounted side impact air bags and dual front air bags. Optional safety items are head curtain air bags for front and rear passengers and an anti-lock brake package.

Small car shoppers shouldn’t be shy about being in this market segment. Carmakers have a lot to offer you.

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