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2011 Nissan Versa: Compact outside, enormous inside

Soft ride, great visibility and good mileage add up to value
by: JAIME VALDEZ The Nissan Versa is a very easy car to live with, especially in these days of increasing gas prices.

Nissan has generated a lot of buzz with the Leaf, the company's new all-electric compact car. But relatively few people will have a chance to buy one, at least in the foreseeable future. The first Leafs being sold in America are part of a limited test program that required buyers to sign up early. They won't be available in large numbers for at least a few more years.

But if you're willing to settle for a gasoline-powered version of the Leaf, you're in luck. The five-door version of the Nissan Versa is almost exactly the same size and shape. In fact, the test versions of the Leaf were actually five-door Versas with electric motors. The Leaf still looks a lot like the hatchback Versa, although the front and rear end are more gimmicky, apparently to set it apart from the gasoline-powered Versa, which we think looks better.

The Versa is not as sophisticated in its own way as the Leaf, however. It is in fact a very conventional economy car. Buyers can choose between the five-door version and a four-door sedan. Available engines include a 1.6-liter inline 4 and a 1.8-liter incline 4. They drive the front wheels through four different but widely-available types of transmissions - two manuals, an automatic and a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). Unlike some other compacts, turbocharging, all-wheel-drive and sport suspensions are not options. Nor is hybrid technology.

The Versa differs from most other compacts in a number of significant ways, however. For example, the sedan version is available in a stripped-down model that sells for around $10,000, making it the least expensive compact in the country. Both versions have a tremendous amount of interior space, especially the five-door, which is practically a minivan. And the suspension is tuned to provide a soft ride, which makes it feel like a much larger car.

Our test model was a top-of-the line SL hatchback with the larger engine, CVT transmission, navigation and satellite radio package, and interior upgrades that included nicer cloth seats and six-speaker stereo with an auxillary input jack and an interface iPod system. With all these features, the price tag topped $18,000, slightly less than such similarly-equipped competitors as the Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, and Mazda 3.

On the road, our Versa was a pleasant but unexciting drive. Although acceleration was more than adequate (especially with the electric overdrive turned off), the suspension was too soft to encourage spirited driving. The softness was appreciated on poorly maintained roads, however, where it allowed the Versa to float over ruts, potholes and broken pavement.

The large interior and big windows give the interior an airy feel. Visibility was great, especially through the oversized front windshield. The seating position is higher than other compacts we've tested, which helps the view. Despite that, headroom good for both front and backseat passengers. The backseat also has an impressive amount of legroom, helping to make the Versa a genuine five-passenger car. Cargo space was good with 60/40 split back seat up and cavern-like with them down.

At $610, the optional navigation and satellite radio package is perhaps the cheapest out there. Unfortunately, the map image is also cheap looking - more like an early Mario Brothers video game than a contemporary navigation system. Maybe the local road information was limited for some reason. Whatever the case, potential buyers should test drive one before opting for it.

Although the Versa was only introduced five years ago, it is already beginning to feel dated compared to such newer compacts as the Cruze, Hyundai Elantra and 2012 Focus, which is just now hitting the showrooms. Even the new Ford Fiesta and related Mazda 2 subcompacts are nipping at its heels by offering a surprising amount of interior space and slightly better mileage at a lower price.

But given its assets, the Versa remains a good value for those who want to save gas and didn't line up for a Leaf quick enough.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Versa.

• Manufacturer: Nissan.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door sedan; five-door liftback (as tested).

• Engines: 1.6-liter inline 4 (107 hp); 1.8-liter inline 4 (122 hp).

• Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 6-speed manual; 4-speed automatic; Continuously Variable Transmission (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 28/34 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $10,000 ($18,405 as tested).