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car review

2008 Nissan Versa

Although it's always been marketed against the likes of the Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo and Honda Fit, when it comes to power and interior spaciousness, the Nissan Versa has actually been at the top of the subcompact heap right from the beginning.

For example, a Versa five-door hatchback boasts some 1,427 litres of interior storage space with the back seats folded, compared to 1,186 litres for a Honda Fit.

In 2008, its second year of production, the Versa featured a robust, 122-horsepower, 1.8-litre engine that was also the most powerful in this category. It could be matched to either a six-speed manual, four-speed automatic or one-speed "X-tronic" CVT. This latter transmission gave the best fuel economy of the three powertrain combinations.

There was also a sedan version available in 2008, but one could make the argument that the hatch was the handier of the two. It was a useable, workaday people/cargo carrier that went about its business without any fuss or complaint and could seat five adults in reasonable comfort.

Two models were available: S and SL. Order the SL, for example, and you got air conditioning, tilt steering, power windows and door locks, remote central locking, and front, side, and side-curtain airbags. All the minimum daily requirements, in other words. The base S was a little more spartan, and one of the raps against it was that the interior could be a little on the plastick-y side. Options included hands-free phone setup, satellite radio, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and upgraded stereo.

The Versa hatch wasn't, and still isn't, particularly sexy. This was never the kind of car to get your blood pumping. On the other hand, it's always had more than enough power for in-town, point-and-squirt traffic and, on the highway, makes a surprisingly decent long-distance cruiser. For example, at 100 km/h, the engine ticks over at a leisurely 1,800 rpm. In comparison, this vintage of Honda Fit was loud, rough-riding and kind of harsh once you got up to freeway speed.

If you're in the market for a used Versa, don't expect leather upholstery, polished aluminum, maple-wood interior trim, climate control, ventilated seats, or any other upscale gew-gaws. Nissan designed it to be an econo-box, and that's exactly what it is. One note here: in 2008, the rear seats, although they folded flat, did not tumble forward.

Transport Canada has one recall on file for the 2008 Versa, and, although it affects all models from 2007 to 2010, it's fairly innocuous. Apparently, the daytime running lights can malfunction because of faulty relays. This is easily fixed by dealers.

To this, we can add the troublesome and widespread recall for batteries fitted to Garmin 750 navigation systems. These can overheat and cause all kinds of problems if not attended to. Nissan did not fit navi systems to a great number of Versas, but they are out there and this is one of those problems that just won't go away.

As far as the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is concerned, the 2008 Versa has its share of problems. This organization has some 30 technical service bulletins on file, and they cover a wide range of issues. For example, the tire-pressure monitoring light can flash on and off randomly, water vapour can collect in the headlights, some early-2008 models can be difficult to start, and, my favourite: "Aftermarket chroming of alloy wheels is not approved or authorized, and is strongly discouraged."

Despite some issues with the climate control system and various "squeaks and rattles," Consumer Reports gives the 2008 Versa a nod of approval with a better-than-average used-car prediction. Some comments from owners: "Horribly uncomfortable drivers seat," "Impossible to fit a bike rack and keep it on warranty," "A downright bargain used." Sluggish performance with the automatic transmission seems to be a fairly common gripe.

Market research firm J.D. Power is pretty much on the fence with this one, giving it average or below ratings in virtually every area. Overall design and performance don't fare very well, nor do things like powertrain quality and style. It gets an average vehicle dependability rating.

These days, expect to pay about $8,000 for an S, up to $10,000 for a well-equipped SL. The sedan version is fetching about $500 to $1,000 less than the hatchback and came in the same trim levels.

Tech specs

2008 Nissan Versa Hatchback

Original Base Price: $14,598; Black Book: $10,350-$11,800; Red Book: $8,175-$9,600

Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 122 hp/127 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual/four-speed automatic/CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 7.5 city/6.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf, Subaru Impreza, Honda Fit, Chevrolet Aveo, Toyota Yaris