Small cars are in, for sure.

Today's high gasoline prices have made sure of that.

But small and fuel-efficient doesn't have to mean cramped or boring.

Consider the case of the Nissan Versa, the new subcompact that plays in the same market segment with the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Chevrolet Aveo.

This car stands out from that pack in that it's actually a compact at the price of one of those subcompacts, thanks to Nissan's desire to bring a vehicle to the United States last year to compete with those other cars.

Nissan initially introduced the Versa only in hatchback form, and that car is quite a value in itself.

But since then, the automaker has rolled out a sedan version, which we tested for this report.

Sedan or hatchback, this is a great car for the money, and one that won't make frugal buyers feel that they are giving up comfort and style for the sake of economy.

Nissan calls the Versa the cure for "autoclaustrophobia."

When the hatchback was introduced last year, Nissan promoted the car with TV ads that followed the format of prescription-drug commercials, showing "autoclaustrophobia" sufferers stuffed inside sardine-can cars, then cured of the disease by getting into the Versa.

The ads were designed to help the Versa stand out in an all-of-a-sudden crowded field of affordable, fuel-efficient new subcompacts. It arrived at the same time that Honda and Toyota were bringing the Fit and Versa to market.

Those two and the Versa joined several other economy subcompacts already on sale, including the South Korea-built Aveo, as well as the Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and Suzuki Reno.

The ads did a good job of making this important point: The Versa is not one of those cramped econoboxes that automakers intend for people whose transportation budgets are challenged.

The Versa, in fact, is not a new car for Nissan, it's just new to the U.S. market.

But get this: In Japan, it's sold as a luxury car, way above the entry-level position it holds in Nissan's North American lineup.

In its first year on the market, Versa accounted for more than 60,000 sales, making it a rousing success in such a crowded market.

For 2008, Versa is available sedan and hatchback forms, in two trim levels: S and SL.

Sedans begin at $12,630 (plus $625 freight) and hatchbacks at $12,730.

Our tester, though, was the SL sedan with continuously variable automatic transmission (base price $15,630), with the new optional Sport package ($700), as well as a sunroof ($600) and convenience package ($650). That gave it a total price of $17,855, including freight and options.

The nice thing, though, is that you don't have to spend that much money to have a nicely equipped Versa. Even the base model comes with lots of standard amenities.

Besides the great price and roomy interior, the car has EPA ratings of 27 miles per gallon city/33 highway with the continuously variable transmission, 26/31 with the base six-speed manual gearbox, and 24/32 with the traditional four-speed automatic transmission offered with the base S model.

With those ratings, this vehicle is not far behind the fuel economy of some of the popular gasoline-electric hybrids, such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius. Yet it's about half the price. The savings are realized not only at the gas pumps but also in the monthly car-payment check.

All Versas are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that turns out 122 horsepower and 127 foot-pounds of torque - giving the car a lot of pep thanks to its light weight.

And even its power sets it out from the rest of the pack. The Yaris, for instance, has 106 horsepower, and the Fit 108 horsepower. Both of those vehicles have similar starting prices and EPA ratings. The Versa has more power than its other competitors as well.

The Versa seems to be a lot more expensive than it is, and consumers will forget that they're driving a car whose primary goal is to save them money.

Among Nissan's U.S. offerings, the Versa comes in just under the Sentra sedan in size and price. The Sentra, which long has been Nissan's entry-level vehicle in the U.S. market, was redesigned for 2007, making it larger and more upscale.

That left a void in the under-$14,000 segment, which the Versa fills nicely.

Subcompacts are one of the fastest-growing vehicle segments, thanks in part to the rising gasoline prices. More than 1.9 million vehicles in this class were sold in the U.S. market during the last full calendar year (2006), and are pace to beat that for 2007. That was 11 percent of total U.S. new-vehicle sales.

The Versa leads the class in interior space and comfort, with upscale quality and amenities not found in the competitors. Even the back seat is comfortable -- full-size adults can sit three-across, and there is ample legroom.

The sedan is nearly seven inches longer than the hatchback, but the height and width are the same, and both have a 102.4-inch wheelbase.

In the hatchback, there is room for lots of cargo even with the back seat in place; fold it down, and the space increases dramatically. The sedan has a roomy trunk that can be expanded by folding down the rear seat as well.

Also in keeping with a new Nissan strategy, the car has a well-thought-out interior design, with high-quality components that include soft-touch materials that usually are found only in premium cars, the company said.

That includes well-padded seats and double stitching for the upholstery. Nissan designers used the flagship Maxima sedan as their benchmark for the Versa's interior.

Standard features on even base models include air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, 15-inch steel wheels, power outside mirrors, rear-window defrost and a 120-watt single-disc AM/FM/compact-disc audio system.

Among available options are Sirius or XM satellite radio (buyer's option), antilock brakes (available on all trim levels), and upgraded audio systems, including a 180-watt system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer.

The 180-watt system is standard on the SL models, along with cruise control, 15-inch alloy wheels, and power windows and door locks with remote. A further upgrade adds a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer and premium Clarion speakers.

Included on all models are front seat-mounted side air bags, along with overhead side-curtain air bags for front and rear passengers.

The Versa was developed jointly by Nissan and its French partner Renault, and also is used on a Renault model sold in Europe and other markets. The Versa is built in Nissan's factory in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and is sold in Mexico and other countries as the Tiida.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at chambers@star-telegram.com. ------------------------

2008 Nissan Versa

The package: Subcompact, four- or five-door, four-cylinder, front-drive, five-passenger sedan or hatchback.

Highlights: All new last year, this is now Nissan's entry-level car, just under the compact Sentra in the company's lineup. It's surprisingly roomy and quite well-equipped for an economy car, thanks to its heritage as a luxury car in Japan.

Negatives: Electronic stability control not offered even as an upgrade.

Engine: 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder.

Transmission: Six-speed manual, four-speed automatic (optional), continuously variable automatic (optional).

Power/torque: 122 horsepower/127 foot-pounds.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/drum (antilock optional).

Electronic stability control: Not offered.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted, front and rear side-curtain.

Length: 176.0 inches (sedan); 169.1 inches (hatchback).

Cargo capacity: 13.8 cubic feet (sedan); 17.8 (hatchback, behind rear seat); 50.4 (hatchback, rear seat folded).

Curb weight: 2,671-2,758 pounds.

Fuel capacity/type: 13.2 gallons/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy: 26 miles per gallon city/31 highway (manual), 24 city/32 highway (4-speed automatic); 27 city/33 highway (CVT).

Major competitors: Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Suzuki Reno.

Base price range: $12,630-$15,730 plus $625 freight.

Price as tested: $17,855 including freight and options (1.8 SL Sedan, CVT automatic).

On the Road rating: 9.3 (of a possible 10).