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2010 Nissan Versa Hatchback SL (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and M)
2010 Nissan Versa Hatchback SL (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and M)

2010 Nissan Versa SL

Nissan's Versa a good soldier Add to ...

Nissan's Versa is a car that slips under the radar. While high-profile peacocks like the 370Z and GT-R regularly make headlines and capture the imaginations of many buyers (not to mention the inexplicably cool Cube), the Versa soldiers along, selling in good numbers and doing exactly what it's supposed to: provide reasonably priced economical transportation.

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This is not the kind of car that has you throwing your hands up in the air and shouting, "I finally got one!," but if you have around 20 large to spend and you want A-to-B transport, you could do worse.

Not much has changed in the past couple of years with this model. It still comes in two body configurations: hatchback and sedan, and I recently drove the former. With this model, power is provided by a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine and there are three transmission choices: six-speed manual, four-speed automatic, and CVT.

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My tester had the latter and it adds $1,300 to the price. Nissan has embraced CVT technology wholeheartedly and offers this transmission option on a wide range of its models: Cube, Altima, Maxima and Rogue, to name but a few. In my experience, it works better on some than others. The Cube, for example, is a nice fit, but the Maxima is better off without it. As far as the Versa hatchback is concerned, it's okay, but I wouldn't spend the extra money to have one. Curiously, the sedan version of the Versa does not come with a CVT, but does have a price tag almost $2,000 less than the hatch.

Nor does it have the 1.8-litre engine, which develops 122 horsepower and 127 ft-lbs of torque, making it one of the more powerful models in this market segment. Think of direct rivals, like, oh, the Honda Fit or Toyota Yaris, for example, and they have considerably less grunt than the Versa.

With its five-door layout, the Versa offers 1,427 litres of storage space with the back seat down. That's more than the Fit and about on par with the Toyota Matrix and Mazda3 hatchback. In fact, you could argue that these two - plus the VW Golf - are closer competitors to the Versa. Aside from pricing, these four are pretty similar in dimensions and purpose.

Two trim levels are available: S and SL. My tester SL is the more upscale package of the two and it comes with things like an engine block heater, antilocking brakes, tilt steering, air conditioning, iPod connectivity and remote keyless entry.

The Sport Package ($1,900) adds steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, fog lights, a power sunroof and various exterior extras. After the dust settles, it will set you back just a hair under $22,000. Save yourself the additional $3,200 and go for the SL as it is. It gives you all you need and isn't exactly bare-bones. Electronic stability control comes standard with the SL.

A word or two about the CVT. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don't like it. It can feel ambiguous at certain rpms, and when power is needed for overtaking, for example, it doesn't "kick down" promptly like a conventional automatic transmission, and feels like it's slipping. It's not a reassuring sensation, and for this reason alone, I'd give the CVT a pass. It's worth noting, however, that the CVT does give the Versa its best fuel economy; according to Natural Resources Canada's fuel consumption guide, the average driver will save $120 a year in fuel costs compared to the manual six-speed version.

Elsewhere, the Versa does have a nice sense of drivability about it. Because of its extra power, perhaps, it doesn't feel as buzzy as the Fit and, slippage feeling aside, the engine has more than enough oomph to handle the CVT.

The back seats fold flat effortlessly and there are various storage nooks and pockets throughout. I suppose one could whine about the plasticky interior flavour, but this is an econo-box, and an entry-level model. It's certainly no chintzier inside than a Yaris or Fit. It also has less road noise than the latter and handles better.

Not that good handling is at the top of people's lists of "must haves" in this market. If you're shopping for a car like this, economy of operation and value for money is ichiban. Get yourself behind the wheel of the S version and it's mission accomplished. Otherwise, the Versa SL, although bigger and more powerful than many of its rivals, is a decent value, but not a bargain.

Interestingly, Nissan offers a wide range of accessories with the Versa, including kayak roof racks, side window wind deflectors, a keyless entry keypad, and interior accent lighting.

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globedrive@globeandmail.com

2010 Nissan Versa SL

Type: Five-passenger subcompact hatchback

Base Price: $17,398; as tested: $21,923

Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel-drive

Horsepower/Torque: 122 hp/127 lb-ft

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 7.3 city/5.8 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Mazda3, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Toyota Matrix, Kia Rondo, Volkswagen Golf

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