Editor’s note: This review was written in April 2009 about the 2009 Nissan Versa. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Nissan Versa hatchback was among the wave of affordable new small cars that hit the U.S. a few years ago. I tested a 2009 hatchback (a sedan is also available), and it’s clearly aged pretty well. It offers some of the best interior space in its class, features decent performance and gas mileage, and has a low starting price. The Versa does have a few quirks when it comes to hitting the utility threshold that hatchbacks are expected to cross, but on the whole the Versa’s positives outweigh its negatives, making it an appealing choice for practical-minded small-car shoppers.
The Versa isn’t exceptional in any way, but it’s acceptable in most regards. My test model featured the optional continuously variable automatic transmission (a manual and a conventional automatic are also available), and it gives the hatchback the best estimated gas mileage of the three transmissions, with a rating of 27/33 mpg city/highway.
It might take some time to get used to the characteristics of the CVT, which doesn’t have the defined shift points of a conventional automatic. However, the transmission is responsive and can increase engine rpm quickly when more power is needed, or keep engine speed down when cruising at a constant speed for better efficiency and less engine noise.
The Versa’s small size is really an asset if you regularly drive on congested roads. You can make quick lane changes when a spot opens up in traffic, and the car offers good over-the-shoulder visibility in addition to wide-open forward views.
Like a lot of small cars, the Versa’s suspension has a firm ride, but it’s more forgiving on rougher roads than a Honda Fit Sport. When the pavement smoothes out, it cruises quite comfortably; its body motions mimic those of a larger car, and body roll is kept in check. While the steering is responsive, it’s not as dialed-in as the Fit’s. That’s fine if you’re considering the Versa as your commuter car, but what’s not so good is that the steering wheel doesn’t telescope.
To be sure, many other small hatchbacks don’t offer a telescoping wheel either, but if you’re a taller driver you may find yourself wanting one in this car; when positioned at a comfortable arm’s length from the steering wheel, I was too close to the pedals. When I was far enough away from the pedals, I had to reach forward for the steering wheel. With a telescoping wheel, my odds of finding a happy medium would’ve been much better.
There’s also something not quite right with the Versa’s braking response. When coming to a slow stop, the brakes provide linear performance, but under hard braking they’re a little grabby and you end up making stops that aren’t as smooth as you’d like.
The Versa is a good example of efficient packaging. Looking at its small exterior, you might think it wouldn’t be suitable for adults to ride in the front, let alone the back, but that’s not the case. It’s notably longer than the Toyota Yaris four-door hatchback and Fit, and Nissan puts the extra size to use by offering a lot more backseat legroom than either of those models. Kia’s new boxy Soul, however, offers even more backseat space even though it’s significantly shorter than the Versa.
| Compact Hatchbacks Compared*
| Base price
| Front legroom
| Front headroom
| Rear legroom
| Rear headroom
| Cargo volume, seats up (cu. ft.)
| Cargo volume, seats down (cu. ft.)
| Max. mpg (city/highway)
The Versa’s manually adjustable driver’s seat includes a height adjustment in more expensive SL trim levels, a worthwhile feature that can’t be found in all cars in this class, and the fabric-covered bucket seats offer soft cushioning.
As the numbers above show, backseat legroom is generous — it’s similar to what the 2009 Toyota Camry offers — and your back will like the reclined seatback. The Versa’s bench seat isn’t adjustable like those in the Fit and Yaris, but the Versa’s backseat comfort ranks higher overall thanks to its extra legroom.
The Versa has generous cargo room; it measures 17.8 cubic feet behind the backseat, and that figure grows to 50.4 cubic feet when you fold it down. People looking for maximum utility, however, might be disappointed by a few things.
The first is the size of the hatch opening. The lower part between the taillights isn’t very wide, and that might make it difficult to load wide items. The Fit, in comparison, has a large, low opening that’s ideal for loading.
The other issue with the Versa’s cargo space becomes evident when you fold down the backseat. Both the Fit and Yaris are available with flat-folding backseats, which allows you to slide long boxes, for instance, into the cargo area. In the Versa, meanwhile, there’s a large ledge (it’s about 6 inches high) when the backseat is folded. Though that’s likely not a deal-breaker for everyone, it’s significant when you take into account what competing models offer.
With its low starting price, good gas mileage and room for a small family, the Versa hatchback, without a doubt, is a good value. If you’re willing to sacrifice some utility for even greater affordability, the base version of the Versa sedan comes in just under $10,000. For a new car these days, that’s unreal.