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UP FRONT. When it comes to small, state-of-the-art, fuel-efficient cars, U.S. shoppers now have three brand-new models to choose from: The Toyota (TM) Yaris, Honda (HMC) Fit, and Nissan (NSANY) Versa. All are "world cars," designed to be sold around the globe rather than tailored to priorities in the U.S., where gas guzzlers have been the norm until recently. The Versa, for instance, is sold as the Tiida in Japan and elsewhere. The U.S. version of the car has a French parent (Nissan is owned by Renault), is made in Mexico, and comes chock-full of Japanese technology.
With gasoline prices high, the Versa (like the Yaris and Fit) is selling like hotcakes right now. In July and August, the model's first two months on the market, Nissan sold 6,788 Versas—which is a lot considering that Nissan's overall U.S. car sales are down 5.8% so far this year. The average Versa spends a mere eight days on a dealer's lot before selling, according to Power Information Network, exactly equaling the quick turnover of the Yaris (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/14/06, "The Judgement of Yaris") and Fit (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/21/06, "Nice Fit"
So how does the Versa stack up against its two rivals? First off, understand that it's bigger and heavier. The Yaris Hatchback is only 150 in. long and weighs a mere 2,326 lbs. with an automatic transmission, followed by the Fit at 157.4 in. and 2,551 lbs. By contrast, the Versa is a relative behemoth at 169 in. and 2,779 lbs.
Yet in terms of real-world price, it's in the middle: the Versa is selling for $15,721 on average right now, according to Power Information Network (MHP), vs. $14,350 for the Yaris and $16,547 for the Fit. (Like BusinessWeek and BusinessWeek.com, Power Information Network is owned by The McGraw-Hill Cos.)
That makes the Versa a relative bargain, because its extra space makes it the most practical people- hauler of the three cars. If you want to save on gas and, say, you regularly commute to work with two or three other adults, or haul two or three kids to school and soccer practice, this car is an excellent choice.
The Versa has a similar look and feel to the Yaris and Fit—with the same sort of stubby front end that slopes down so radically that you don't see the hood at all when you look out the windshield and a tall, boxy body designed to maximize interior space. The seats are comfortable and supportive.
There's plenty of leg, head, and shoulder space up front, and a surprising amount of space in back (much more than in the Fit, in particular). The Versa is one small compact that can seat four adults—even six-footers—in relative comfort.
The Versa has a bigger engine than the other two, but because of its greater weight doesn't perform better (more on that later). It's powered by an inline four-cylinder engine that generates 122 horsepower, compared with 109 in the Fit and 106 in the Yaris.
All three cars have front-wheel drive and are gas sippers, but the Yaris does a tad better than the others. The high-tech version of the Versa with a continuously variable automatic transmission is rated to get 30 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway (vs. 30 to 34 mpg with a six-speed manual transmission).
That's about the same as the Fit with an automatic but less than the Yaris, which is rated to get 34 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway. In a stretch of 240 miles of mainly highway driving, I got 29.6 mpg.
The difference in size makes a big difference in the hauling and luggage space available in the three cars. With the seats up, the Versa has just under 18 cubic feet of cargo space, versus 21.3 in the Fit. In the Versa, that opens up to 50.4 with the seats folded down, versus 42.9 in the Fit.
On the other hand, the Fit makes better use of the available space because it has innovative and wonderfully handy seats that can be folded down in several different ways, including one that creates a low, flat platform in back. The rear seat of the Versa doesn't fold down flat, so the rear cargo space with the seat down has two tiers.
The Yaris comes in a distant third by this measure. I drove the sedan version of the Yaris so I can't make a comparison from personal experience, but the Yaris hatchback is listed as having only 13.7 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seats up. As with the Fit and Versa, the Yaris' seats can be folded down, but that only creates 25.7 cubic feet of cargo space, about half the amount in the Versa.
BEHIND THE WHEEL. The driving experience in the Versa can be summed up in a word: Boring. If you're a driving enthusiast, this is not the car for you.
Despite having a bigger engine than the Yaris and Fit, the Versa's extra weight makes it pokey. The fastest I got it to jump from zero to 60 was a glacial 9.5 seconds, the same as DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) equally boring-to-drive Dodge Caliber (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/29/06, "Full Caliber").
The Versa cruises along well between, say, 25 mph and 60 mph, and feels reasonably quick at those speeds (which, again, is ideal for commuting and around-town people-hauling). But it's slow to get moving from a full stop and doesn't accelerate well at passing speeds.
The Versa, like the Fit and Yaris, is underpowered by recent American standards and also struggles up hills (though, of course, that's the trade-off you have to make to get good fuel economy). You can hear the engine strain at times, but the sound is far less annoying and whiny than the engine in the Fit.
Unfortunately, the Versa doesn't handle particularly well. The steering feels squishy; the car doesn't respond crisply when you flick the wheel. There's a considerable amount of body roll when you throw the car into corners and curves, probably because of the high, boxy profile. (Then again, I took a Honda Element out for a spin recently on a racecourse in the Poconos, and you don't know from body roll until you try that.)
On the plus side, the Versa's interior is surprisingly upscale for an inexpensive compact, with lots of nice-looking materials. I drove the higher-end Versa SL, which has attractive, patterned fabric inserts in the seats. And in contrast to the Yaris, where the main instruments are (annoyingly for me) in the middle of the dash, the speedometer and other main instruments in the Versa are right in front of the driver, where they should be.
There are no cupholders on the dashboard, as there are in the Yaris; in the Versa they're in the center console, where they should be (a pet peeve of mine is that I don't like having cup holders on the dash because it seems unsafe when you're drinking hot coffee). Most automakers skimp on the appointments in the rear seats of small cars, but in the Versa you have the feeling of sitting in an upscale sedan.
BUY IT OR BAG IT? Definitely shop around before buying this car, and don't just consider the Yaris and Fit. If all you need is a compact that's easy on the gas, there are numerous other alternatives that cost less and are easier to find in dealers' showrooms right now.
For instance, according to Power Information Network, General Motor's (GM) Chevrolet Aveo is selling for an average of $12,817 (three grand less than the Versa) and spends 63 days on a dealer's lot before selling. The Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio—both of which are relatively new and were well-received by reviewers—sell for an average of about $13,350 and turn over in 49 days and 65 days, respectively.
For now, the Versa only comes in a four-door hatchback format, but a sedan version is due out at the beginning of next year. Front, side, and head airbags are standard. There are two trim options, both available either with a manual or automatic transmission.
The basic Versa S starts at $13,165 with a stick shift and $13,965 with an automatic, and comes standard with basic accoutrements such as air conditioning and a CD player, but not much else. You have to pay up for even minor conveniences. For instance, the $700 power package includes power locks and doors but also such things as a light in the glove box and rear-door map pockets. Antilock brakes (plus electronic braking distribution and brake assist) costs an extra $250.
Chances are, though, you're going to be tempted to spend more for the fancier Versa SL, which starts at $15,165 with a stick shift and $16,165 with a continuously variable automatic. The SL comes standard with power windows, doors, and mirrors; cruise control; better lighting; a six-CD sound system; and the upgraded upholstery mentioned above.
Options include a $700 convenience package that adds leather wrapping on the steering wheel, steering wheel-mounted controls, Bluetooth capability, and a keyless system a bit like the ones on luxury cars (you can start the car by turning a switch as long as you have the key fob with you). Other options include a sun roof ($600), XM satellite radio ($300), and antilock brakes ($250).
Which brings us to another issue. A top-of-the-line Versa costs about as much as a mid-level Honda Civic, which gets great mileage and is a lot more fun to drive. I'd probably go with the Civic, but that's the trouble with buying a fuel-efficient small car these days: trade-offs, trade-offs, trade-offs, almost too many to keep track of.
To find out more about the Versa, click here