Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nissan's Base Model Versa will get you where you need to go

You know you are in a base model when the first thing that grabs your attention about a just-arrived test vehicle is the fact it has no radio. Manual crank windows and no-frills fabric seat covers are one thing but no radio?

Nissan isn't kidding when they call this edition of the Versa the base model. To get the sticker price as low as possible - $12,090 for my "Brilliant Silver" tester - everything is manual, from the five-speed transmission to the windows and door locks.

Instead of a radio, you get a black panel behind which is the pre-wiring setup for the four speakers that come with your bottom-0f-the-lineup Versa. Maybe Nissan figures the Twenty-something buyer will simply go to the audio store and lay down the bucks for an entertainment unit better than the factory job.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Base Model Versa as merely el-cheapo transportation, the four-wheel automotive penalty box of daily commuting. In a world in which $4-per-gallon gas is an ever-present possibility, this Versa makes a lot of sense for folks who have long commutes.

My daily commute is a killer of only 38 miles door-to-door, but it combines some two-lane highway driving with lots of suburban stop-and-go and downtown sit-and-wait. There are 86 traffic lights along the way (I know because I have counted them, many times over).

You might think such a daily grind would make short work of the Base Versa, especially with no music box, but not so, in part because there really are some unexpected amenities here. Scan the standard equipment list and there reside tilt steering, air conditioning, variable wipers and a power outlet.

That power outlet means you can run your iPOD and listen to your favorite tunes. No traffic reports there, of course, but if you have broadband, you can instead turn on the laptop and go to your favorite station's web site. See, Nissan knows that technology gives us options.

Inside the Versa, there is decent room for four adults in case you are in a car pool. The driver's seat has four-way (manual, of course) adjustability and I found it quite comfortable during a week of commuting.

The front passenger gets good leg room and the two rear-seaters have just enough arm, elbow and ankle room to be comfortable for a longer commute. I wouldn't want to have to sit back there between, say, Dallas and Phoenix, but then the same could be said of any of the Versa's main competitors in the marketplace.

The Base Model Versa gets a new 1.6 liter four-cylinder that is good for 107 horsepower, and, as noted above, my tester came with the standard five-speed stick shift transmission. The combination provides modestly peppy performance in a low-effort way, thanks to an easy clutch and shift linkage that works well, as long as it's not rushed.

Handling? Well, let's just say you can expect lots of understeer. Nothing wrong with that, unless you mistakenly expected your Versa to exhibit the personality of a Honda Fit. It won't do that, but here's what it will do: The EPA rating is 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. My tester turned in a 38 mpg average while zipping between those 86 traffic lights each way twice a day for a week. When gas returns to the $4 range, the Versa will look downright gorgeous.

So, what's the TBTW bottom line on the Nissan Versa Base Model? Well, instead of going through all of the mish-mash analysis that precedes this graph, I should have just conveyed my wife Claudia's evaluation:

"Driving the base model Versa made me feel like I was back in the 70’s. Manually cranking the windows wasn’t so much of a burden, but I’ve decided I can’t live without automatic door locks and mirror adjustments. It was easy to shift, comfortable, had enough cup holders and got me where I needed to go with excellent gas mileage."

That says it all, folks.

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