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2011 Nissan Versa (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Nissan Versa (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)

2011 Nissan Versa SL

Versa will steer you smartly through the gas price crunch Add to ...

Canadians are feeling the aftermath of rising tensions in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Crude oil is on the rise and prices at the pumps keep soaring. Just how far will it go? It's anyone's guess. But there's one small solution to spiking gas prices - a quick fix is a small car.

Starting at $14,548, the 2011 Nissan Versa hatchback isn't just affordable, it's great on gas. It averages 7.2 litres/100 km in the city and a frugal 5.7 litres/100 km on the highway. The annual fuel bill for an average driver is estimated at $1,386. That's big savings compared to even a small compact crossover like a Volkswagen Tiguan - it gets 12 city/7.7 highway for an estimated annual fuel bill of $2,323. Clearly, the savings will add up fast with a small car.

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But you'll have to sacrifice some fun behind the wheel. After all, the Versa isn't an agile, little go-cart, like a Mini for example. The engine isn't that powerful. It's a 1.8-litre, DOHC, inline-four-cylinder that delivers 122 horsepower and 127 lb-ft of torque.

My tester has a continuously variable transmission with an infinite number of gear ratios. Although it whines when pushed under hard acceleration, it is more fuel-efficient than the six-speed manual transmission (7.9 city/6.3 highway) and the four-speed automatic (8.5 city/6.2 highway). But the CVT is a $1,300 option. And while it does take time and patience to get up to speed, the ride is comfortable for a small car - it's not as harsh as you'd expect.

The Versa hatchback has room for five people and plenty of cargo. There's also a sedan version available, but I prefer the practicality of the hatchback. It's more spacious and its tall roof translates into great headroom, especially in the rear seats, which are surprisingly spacious.

The 60/40-split rear bench seat also folds down for extra cargo-carrying capacity. But you probably won't need to use it because there's 504 litres of cargo volume with the seats up - which is larger than some mid-size sedans. You can carry golf clubs, suitcases, grocery bags and strollers without any problem. When the rear seats are down, there's an impressive 1,427 litres of space behind the front seats.

The driver's bucket seat is comfortable and manually adjusts six ways; the cloth seats are durable and well-padded. The rear seats, however, lack support and sufficient cushioning so it gets uncomfortable riding in the rear for long stretches. It's ideal, though, for quick trips to the grocery store or transporting small kids in a car seat or booster seat. There is a LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system in the rear seats as well as child safety rear door locks and child seat upper tether anchors.

The exterior design is drab; there's nothing exceptional about the style, but it's not distasteful either. It's conservative with a long roofline and short front and rear overhangs. At least, you can spice things up with a cool paint colour - there's matador red or Daytona blue, which is much nicer than a boring shade of grey.

The interior is simple, but straightforward with silver trim accents. The dashboard is clean and uncluttered. Everything is where you expect to find it. The HVAC dials are large and easy to find even in the dark.

There are also numerous storage compartments including a centre armrest, two cup holders in the front and rear, a big glove box, and deep door panels to hold water bottles and books.

My tester is a top SL trim, which costs $17,548. It has a navigation package which includes a Bluetooth hands-free phone system, a leather-wrapped steering-wheel with audio controls, and a navigation system with a five-inch screen for $1,100.

Power mirrors, windows, door locks and six airbags are standard on the base S model, which costs $14,548. If you want ABS, electronic brake force distribution with brake assist and vehicle dynamic control on the base model, you'll have to buy a bundled optional package. Personally, I'd just go for the SL trim because it adds more features such as air conditioning, remote keyless entry, ABS, vehicle dynamic control, traction control, cruise control, speed-sensitive volume control and a better audio system with six speakers.

As tested, the SL hatchback costs $21,468 - which isn't over the top. But you'll still want to cross-shop against competitors like the Fiat 500 that might offer more bang for your buck. Either way, small cars make sense nowadays; they'll help you survive the gas crunch crisis now and in the months ahead.

pgentile@globeandmail.com

2011 Nissan Versa SL

Type: Entry-level, five-door hatchback

Base Price: $17,548; as tested, $21,468

Engine: 1.8-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 122 hp/127 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.2 city/5.7; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Fiat 500, Mini Cooper, Ford Fiesta, Mazda2

Follow on Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

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