We've now checked out the trio of new Japanese mini cars: the Honda Fit (April 2), Toyota Yaris (June 11) and now the Nissan Versa.
Toyota and Honda have more brand recognition, but Nissan gets the "atta boy."
It also gets a Best Buy nod from this scribe.
The 2007 Nissan Versa that arrives in showrooms next month has the most-spirited 4-cylinder, most-nimble handling, and by far the most spacious, roomy and comfortable cabin of the three.
OK, ride is a tad stiff, tar marks at times feel like railroad ties and the name looks like a combination of letters left in your hand at the end of the Scrabble game.
And its rivals do offer better mileage: Fit 33 m.p.g. city/38 m.p.g. highway, Yaris 34/39 and Versa 30/36.
But Versa is the one that we'd hop in if all three were parked in the drive and we needed a set of wheels for work or vacation.
Why? Versa has the best road manners thanks in part to having the longest wheelbase (102.4 inches versus 96.5 inches for Fit and 100.4 for Yaris); the second-longest length (169.1 inches/157.4 Fit/169.3 Yaris); and the largest tires (15-inch standard/14-inch Fit and Yaris, with 15 inchers optional for both).
Unlike Yaris, which was buffeted and slapped by wind gusts on the open road as well as by passing semis, Versa stands its ground.
It does, however, get the least mileage of the three but only because it has the largest and most responsive engine, a 1.8-liter, 122-horsepower 4-cylinder.
Though still not massive, the engine seems to deliver much more power at takeoff and passing in Versa. High mileage is one thing, having the energy to get out of the way if you need to is even more important.
Steep inclines don't resemble mountains in the path of Versa. It has more get up and go--and keep going--than its rivals.
Where Versa falls short is price, or so we think. Nissan's not saying much about that until a few days before the car goes on sale in July.
For now Nissan is saying only that it will offer a hatchback and sedan in base S and upgraded SL versions. The hatchback, which comes out next month, will start at about $12,000; the sedan, due out this fall, will be a little more--and be 5 inches longer.
Pricing also is an issue with Fit and Yaris. Billed as alternatives to hybrids, the base price is low, but you have to navigate the optional equipment lists--and prices--carefully.
The Fit, in hatchback only, starts at $13,850, but the Sport, which starts at $15,170, is the better choice not only for the dressier rocker panels, rear spoiler and fog lights, but also the upgrade to those 15-inch all-season radials. Those are standard with Versa.
Fit, in either version, comes loaded with anti-lock brakes; side-curtain air bags; power windows, mirrors and locks; air conditioning; and AM/FM/CD sound system as standard.
Yaris starts at $12,500 with air conditioning. Power windows, locks, mirrors and ABS are part of a $2,175 option package with Yaris. They also are part of the SL upgrade to the Versa. Stay tuned for price.
Versa, like the others, skips power seats. But, unlike them, offers a power sunroof as an option. And Versa makes Bluetooth hands-free phone system and satellite radio available as options.
The Japanese imports gained a foothold in the U.S. by selling high-mileage cars basically at a fixed price without having to spend a week checking off options. There, Fit, Yaris and Versa break from the past.
We tested the Versa SL with the optional continuously variable transmission, or CVT (a 6-speed manual is standard); the convenience package with power windows, mirrors and locks; and Intelligent Key.
With Intelligent Key, you carry a key fob and when you get in the car and the electronics embedded in it allow you to twist the plastic lever where the ignition key would be inserted and start the car. Such a key is usually reserved for luxury cars, and it saves the chore of fumbling with a key. But without the fob and its electronic magic, you don't go anywhere.
And kudos to Nissan for attention to details.
The glove box, for example, may be the largest in the industry. Reach hand in and by the time you strike the wall, your elbow will likely be inside as well. First time we reached in we expected to touch the front bumper. You won't get a laptop computer inside, but women should be able to hide a purse there.
There's also a covered storage bin in the center of the dash. Like the glove box, it is surprisingly deep. You can toss in keys, wallet or cell phone but better have long fingers to retrieve them.
Other nice touches include stowage compartments in the rear doors, stowage compartments plus beverage holders in the front doors and cupholders in the center console as well as rear-seat pull-down armrest.
The armrest between driver/passenger hides a little stowage compartment and a power plug for the cell phone.
Lift the light hatchback lid and the cargo compartment is a decent size. Sadly, a thin, cheap sheet of what appears to be carpeted cardboard serves as a parcel shelf for the back seat and a cargo cover. It lifts when you raise the hatchlid and is more of an obstacle to loading or unloading items than it is a service in hiding what you stash there.
If you need more cargo room, the rear seat backs fold flat, but they stand about 8 inches higher than the rear cargo floor rather than lying flat with it.
Lots of leg, head and arm room in front and rear seats, unlike the Fit, which was like motoring around in a phone booth.
And the cloth seats are well cushioned and offer above-average support for long-distance travel. But we wouldn't object if Nissan should opt to extend the seat cushion bottoms another inch for increased thigh support for the long haul.
Nissan doesn't divulge sales expectations--not surprising for a company that keeps price a secret.
Taking price out of the equation, Versa gets the nod if looking for high mileage without sacrificing room, comfort, looks and amenities.
2007 Nissan Versa
Price as tested: N/A
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Length: 169.1 inches
Engine: 1.8-liter, 122-h.p. 4 cylinder
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
CITY 30 m.p.g.
HWY 36 m.p.g.
$12,000 base (estimated)
Extra-cost options will include CVT and 4-speed automatic; anti-lock brakes; power windows, locks, mirrors; sunroof; and Intelligent Key, which allows you to start the car by twisting the ignition switch without using a key.
A mini with maxi cabin space and decent cargo room.
Rear seats fold flat to hold more cargo, if needed.
Excellent mileage without going hybrid.
Side-curtain air bags standard.
A glove box so big it echoes.
Suspect it won't be hard to run up the price with the options.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.