A car for hard times: 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 sedan

February 2, 2009, 10:03 PM UTC
Fortune

2009_nissan_versa_16lAM-FM radio: no. Clock: nada. Automatic door locks: nein. Electric window lifts: nyet.

You don’t get recognized as one of the least expensive cars sold in the U.S. by including a lot of frills. To be sure, what are classified as frills on the Versa 1.6 sedan have long been accepted as basic necessities by most of us. And don’t even think about amenities like cruise control, seat heaters, and DVD players.

Yet, with an as-tested price of $12,090 (including $695 in delivery charges) the Versa certainly delivered on its promise of providing economical, if basic, transportation.

The sedan is the frumpy cousin of the more stylish Versa hatchback. Turnip-shaped and utterly anonymous, it combines an undistinguished exterior with a bland, featureless interior, characterized by vast expanses of black plastic in places where I am accustomed to seeing buttons, knobs, and CRT screens.

A surprising number of features, though, once considered optional equipment, are included as standard, such as air conditioning, power steering and power brakes, and a tire pressure monitoring system. The car is wired for audio, and four speakers are in place, should the owner decide to get fitted for aftermarket equipment.

Yet, the 1.6-liter double overhead cam engine connected to a five-speed manual transmission was willing, and at times invigorating to drive. What I enjoy most about small-displacement engines like this one is the ability to jam the accelerator pedal and still feel as if I am completely in control of the car. Shifting through the gears to climb hills or navigate corners also provides entertainment I don’t ordinarily get from more glamorous vehicles.

The Versa lived up to all the challenges I could throw at it and performed them with a modicum of style. The gear shifts were quick and direct, while the engine was responsive and never buzzy. Decent insulation and an acceptable ride reduced the fatigue on long trips. Fuel economy was exemplary. The Versa is rated at 26 miles per gallon city, 34 mpg highway, and the 13.2-gallon fuel tank reduces the occasion of fill-ups.

While it may be cheap, the Versa was never second-rate. Even if you never look forward to getting behind the wheel, you won’t feel shortchanged once you get there.

I did miss the radio, though.