Test Drive – 2011 Nissan Versa 1.8 SL HB

Test Drive - 2011 Nissan Versa 1.8 SL HBBase Price: $16,900

Price as Tested: $19,995

This week, we’re behind the wheel of a 2011 Versa SL Hatchback, Nissan’s small economy car that is high on features and low on price. It’s been over two years since we last drove a Versa, and although there have been numerous upgrades to standard equipment, the economic value of this vehicle stays the same, if not better.

Although small on outward dimensions, Versa’s attention to “space and room” design allows passengers roomy surroundings, even if you have to sit in the back seat. In addition to earning honors as a recommended small and inexpensive automobile, Nissan’s has also held off any inflationary pressures, making the 2011 model a serious contender in a crowded market.

Specifically, the 2009 model we last drove listed for $16,900 for the SL Hatchback, the exact same price the 2011 carries on its window sticker. Thus, in three model years, with several tweaks and improvements, Versa still offers the $16,900 entry. Nissan thus deserves a “back pat” for making things a bit easier in these still tough economic conditions.

Under the hood sits a 1.8-liter inline-4 that puts out 122 horses and 127 lb. ft. of torque. When mated to the Xtronic continuous variable transmission (CVT) the combo delivers a “shiftless” ride that utilizes a belt instead of gears to create a seamless flow of power with no “shift shock,” even during uphill acceleration. Additionally, and thanks to Versa’s overall light weight, the 122 horses is more than enough to move the car with some authority.

The SL trim model feature as standard fare the CVT, while the lower priced Versa S Hatchback, starting at $13,400, features a manual transmission. A 4-speed automatic overdrive is a $1,000 option and not to be confused with a CVT automatic that comes standard in the higher price SL.

The least expensive Versa, meanwhile, is the Sedan model, which starts at an unbelievable $9,900 base and is powered by a smaller 1.6 inline-4 that delivers 26 city and 34 highway with the manual 5-speed. Still, at $13,400 for Versa S or $9,900 for the Sedan, these cars may well be a great buy for the new college student or family that needs more than one car.

When it comes to standard features, Versa has plenty to brag about for 2011.

Versa’s standard braking package is front disc and rear drum, and our tester now features a standard ABS package that includes ABS anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, traction control and brake assist as standard. The ABS system used to be an SL option in 2009 for an additional $250.

As for exterior styling, we still feel Versa hatchback upstages its sister sedan. The fifth-door design adds a nice rear slant, while front window slopes substantially toward the front grill alleviate a boxy look. Versa also sits tall on 15-inch alloy wheels, and the standard sport package features fog lamps, sill extensions, unique body side moldings and rear spoiler.

Inside, Versa offers the most overall interior space in class, although, like any five-passenger compact, don’t expect the rear-seat middle passenger to be comfortable over the long haul. The majority of the notable interior features are standard, including air conditioning, intermittent rear wiper with washer, rear window defroster, sun visors with dual vanity mirrors, power windows, overhead sunglasses storage and front map lights, and soft-touch door and front center armrests. There is also a 60/40 fold down rear seats for those who need even more cargo space.

Cabin options consist of a $980 optional Premium Package featuring a leather steering wheel with mounted audio controls, keyless entry, keyless ignition, and upgraded 16-inch alloy wheels and tires. Overall, it’s a nice package for the price. A Navigation and satellite radio package for $610, power moonroof for $600, trunk and floor mats for $150, and destination for $750 pushed the final tally to $19,995.

The value of Versa is further enhanced through the Nissan safety and security package. Standard on our SL hatchback advanced air bags, driver and front passenger seat mounted side impact air bags, roof-mounted curtain side impact air bags, tire pressure monitoring system, energy absorbing steering column and front and rear crumple zones.

Important numbers include a wheelbase of 102.4-inches, 13.2-gallon fuel tank, 17.8 to 50.4 cu. ft. of cargo space, 2,758-pound curb weight and 28 city and 34 highway EPA numbers.

Front wheel drive Versa offers everything expected in a subcompact, and is a solid choice that handles well and is comfortable for its size.

Likes: Standard features, price, looks, Nissan reputation.

Dislikes: Rear drum brakes.

(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist).

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