If you want to know why the Asian car companies have outperformed their U.S. rivals, one good place to take a look is in the subcompact market. While the U.S. companies have scant offerings, the Asian brands have a number of great selections, including the 2009 Nissan Versa.
The Versa, available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, debuted in 2006 and immediately posted impressive sales numbers because it is inexpensive, incredibly thrifty on gas and practical.
Sure, it might not have the most sophisticated styling or offer exhilarating on-road performance, but a lot of people aren't too concerned with those things. They want a car that is reliable and won't cost an arm and a leg to operate.
Plus the Versa, along with its key rivals the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit, have surprisingly roomy interiors that actual-size adults can fit into comfortably. Both the Versa sedan, which we drove, and hatchback have two trim levels: S and SL.
Our sedan was an S, which came standard with cloth upholstery, air conditioning and a six-speed manual transmission. Options offered are a power package (windows, door locks and remote keyless entry) for $700, cruise control for $200 and a four-speed automatic transmission for $1,000. Our base model was so base that it lacked bass - there was no radio, so add a few extra dollars for that. Or you could just bring your iPod. Or sing.
With the SL, you get premium woven seat fabric, front and rear center armrests, the power package, cruise control, stereo with six-CD changer and MP3 capability and split folding rear seats. The six-speed manual remains the standard tranny in the SL, with automatic optional. There are other options, too, such as moonroof, Bluetooth connectivity and premium sound system.
But this car is all about convenience and value. It handles and parks easily and has adequate power for highway driving.
The ride might not be buttery smooth, but it is certainly tolerable. And you won't have to make many stops at the pump; our manual transmission model gets EPA ratings of 27 mpg city, 33 highway. The numbers are 25 and 31 with the automatic.
The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine gives you enough oomph to merge onto a busy freeway, and while it's not the quietest thing on the road, the engine noise isn't terribly intrusive.
When it comes to safety, the Versa scores highly, getting five stars in government crash tests and receiving a rating of "good" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
There are dual-stage frontal air bags, front-seat side-impact air bags, roof-mounted curtain air bags and a tire-pressure monitoring system. The interior design isn't anything particularly eye-catching, but it is practical and there are quality materials used throughout. So just because this is an economy car, you don't have to put up with chintzy stuff.
The Versa is a little bigger than the aforementioned Yaris and Fit, so it might offer more comfort and versatility than those two, plus it's less expensive than the Fit. The Versa S sedan we drove came with a sticker price just under $13,000. If you bump up to the SL sedan or hatchback, and throw on several options you can still be in the $16,000-$17,000 range. That kind of value is hard to beat.