Cool Small Cars: 2006 Kia Rio 5, 2006 Nissan Versa, 2006 Dodge Caliber, and 2006 Honda Fit

Erik B. Johnson
Brian Konoske

2006 Nissan Versa

The new Versa is unusual for Nissan not so much because the sub-Sentra entry takes the brand into new territory in the U.S. market, but because its character is so opposite that of its showroom mates that it's almost the anti-Nissan.

We're not speaking of the styling: The full-width grille-and-headlights treatment follows current Nissan practice, while the tall body, chopped tail, and reverse-angle C-pillar are in line with the brand's recent penchant for, um, the unusual. West Coast bureau chief Michael Jordan says that "it looks French, and not in a good way." Indeed, the Versa could pass for a Renault; the car shares its architecture with the Renault Clio and Modus, as well as Nissan's March, Cube, and Micra.

The real disconnect starts when you pull open the door and slam it with a surprisingly solid thunk. Kmart interiors have been a hallmark of Carlos Ghosn-era Nissans, but here the brand's cheapest offering, in its humble base trim level, wears cloth seat upholstery of a plush suede tricot, which, unlike most of the cloth seats you see today, won't leave you pining for leather. Take a look around, and it's evident that Nissan's dance with the devil's own bad plastics has finally ended. The door panels are nicely upholstered, trimmed in a bit of faux carbon fiber and blessed with armrests more deeply cushioned than those on most cars twice the price. The dash is plainish, though, and a center armrest and leather-wrapped steering wheel are missing on this base trim level car. What is abundant, however, is interior space, with six-footers easily able to sit behind one another on chairlike seats.

The emphasis on comfort is mirrored in the chassis tuning. With generous suspension travel-unlike, say, a Scion xB-the Versa delivers a plush ride for a small car. But the first turn of the wheel tells you this is electric power steering at its worst, utterly disconnected and free of resistance. It's not a setup that encourages one to explore the car's handling limits.

At 1.8 liters, the engine is large for this class, and the standard manual gearbox is a six-speed, both of which sound like a characteristic Nissan approach. Unfortunately, the tall shifter travels through some awfully vague territory. Having six gears doesn't up the fun factor, but you'll be glad for that extra ratio on the highway, as it helps keep the engine revs down. With 125 lb-ft on tap, the engine feels torquey and agreeably responsive up to about 3000 rpm; push it beyond 4000 rpm and the cabin is filled with a loud, hollow, resonance. Granted, we drove a preproduction example, but it sounded like an early Dodge Neon-not a good thing.

Of course, in this price range, sporting character is something that's owner applied rather than baked in. With a base Versa S starting in the low-$12,000 range (including side air bags, air-conditioning, and ABS), there still ought to be something left in the checking account when you place the call to Nismo.

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