2008 Nissan Versa 1.8S Sedan

2008 Nissan Versa 1.8S Sedan 2008 Nissan Versa 1.8S Sedan
Short Take Road Test

Nissan has a long and successful history of building great cheap cars. Case in point: the Sentra. Particularly in its first three generations (pre-1995 model year), it was a little compact that established Nissan as a company for people on a budget who didn't want to give up every semblance of fun.

This particular author, for instance, recalls terrorizing the streets of West L.A. in a gray '88 Sentra two-door throughout his college years. With its 70-hp, 1.6-liter four-banger, five-speed stick, and wobbly tires, it was no Corvette, but the indestructible stripper Sentra lived for high revs, yielded 35 mpg, and showed me, a muscle-car guy in high school, the indescribable joys of driving a slow car fast.

Versa's Task: Fill the Shoes Sentra No Longer Fits

Alas, the Sentra has grown in size and price. Now in its sixth iteration, it is more than a foot longer than the original '82 model, and its $15,000 base price is several times higher. What's more, the Sentra's frisky personality seems to be in the rearview mirror (the $21,000 SE-R notwithstanding), which partly contributed to a dead-last ranking in our recent comparison of six economy sedans.

Perhaps more important—for Nissan anyway—the Sentra's growth spurt left the company without a car in the very market segment—i.e., the cheap car—on which the company relied so heavily two decades ago. Enter the Versa sedan, the original Sentra's successor.

Not Made in—or for—the U.S.A.

The Versa was brought to the States in sedan and hatchback forms in mid-2006 as a 2007 model, although it has been sold as the Tiida in other markets since 2004. Indeed, it is in those other markets that the little econocar may be best suited, at least from a styling standpoint. Taking a page from the book of urban planners in congested metropolises around the world, the Versa builds up, not out. Its high hood, cathedral ceilings, stubby tail, and tiny wheels are, to say the least, hardly a recipe concocted to whet the collective American appetite. Elsewhere in the world, where roads are narrow and space is tight, the Versa has plenty of tall, narrow company; here, where cars are longer, lower, and wider, the Versa is a bit goofy-looking.

But the benefits of this packaging are immediately evident from the instant one sits in the commanding driver's seat. Headroom is outstanding, outward vision is excellent, and the rear seat offers as much space as an Acura TL's and enough legroom for an adult male to cross his legs. The 13-cubic-foot trunk is as voluminous as the Acura's, too, and deep enough for tall boxes.

Interior Oddities

That's about it for the luxury-car comparisons, though. If any part of the Versa says "budget," it's the interior. Hard plastics are omnipresent, the seat fabric looks as if it belonged in a $15,000 car, and we're not sure what the headliner is made of, but it ain't suede. And the nontelescoping steering wheel is positioned too far forward and requires a bit of a reach. Much of that is forgivable, though, considering that even with the Power Accessories package, ABS, and cruise control, the Versa is still well under $15,000.

Sentra's Successor, but Is It Spiritual?

From a character standpoint, however, the Versa is not a Sentra. The ride quality is firm enough for sporty distractions, with enough Buick Lucerne in the mix to keep average highway commuting comfortable, and the steering is modestly communicative. But for all-out on-ramp strafing, it needs a clearer connection between the front wheels and the steering wheel, and stiffer suspenders down below. Even so, we managed 0.78 g on the skidpad, 0.01 better than the Versa hatchback tested in our comparo and only 0.01 g below the Honda Fit from the same test.

The six-speed manual transmission offers one more cog than is offered by most of the Versa's classmates, it features an ideally located shifter, and it does a respectable job delivering what little power and torque the buzzy-at-the-limit 1.8-liter four-pot has to offer. The tightly packed ratios no doubt aided our nine-second-flat 0-to-60 run and 16.9-second quarter-mile at 83 mph, figures clustered closely around the class average. Braking, at 195 feet from 70 to 0 mph, is well behind the competition, as is pedal feel. The pedal does exactly nothing until your foot is all the way to the floor, at which point it grabs unexpectedly abruptly.

If you are among those who have owned some of the great cheap cars in Nissan's past, you might expect more willingness from the Versa. For pure driving fun in this segment, we like Honda's Fit—a comparo and 10Best winner—much better. But the Versa comes closer than anything else in the class to the Fit's moves, with more interior space for four or five and a comfortable commuter side to satisfy mainstream demands.