If you don't mind turning back the clock to where many of us were a generation ago, the 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 could be the car for you. • We can remember when a lot of cars had stick shifts, hand-crank windows, manual door locks, heaters but no air conditioning, plain cloth upholstery, sometimes not even a radio, and outside mirrors that you had to reach out to adjust.
A car like that often was referred to derisively as a stripper. But even a stripper had an engine, transaxle, wheels, tires, windshield wipers, lights, weather protection, steering wheel and brakes — in short, everything anyone needs to move from place to place. The stripper did it as well as any expensive luxury car.
That's the idea behind the Versa 1.6. Nissan took its compact economy car, installed a smaller engine and removed some content to deliver a car with a sticker price of $10,685. It's advertised at $9,990 but that's deceptive because it doesn't include the mandatory $695 destination charge.
For an additional $1,000, or a suggested price of $11,685, you can get one with air conditioning like the test car here. It also had $405 of options, including antilock brakes, brake assist, electronic brake force distribution and floor mats, which brought the sticker up to $12,090.
It's a stopgap but a clever one. Worldwide, Nissan produces a host of small cars with exceptional fuel economy that likely could find favor in the United States, especially in times of high fuel prices.
But it would take some development and engineering to bring them up to American safety and emissions standards. So transforming the Versa was a relatively simple and rational route.
The beneficiary is the customer, who gets a roomy four-door compact sedan with side air bags, side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, variable intermittent windshield wipers, a big trunk, rear-window defroster, power steering and brakes, a tachometer, trip odometer, tilt steering wheel and manual front seat and seatback adjustments.
But you do have to put up with what today could be considered the hair shirt of automobiles. There's no radio unless you want to pay extra, no cruise control, remote or power locks, vanity mirrors, inside trunk release, telescoping steering wheel, power mirrors and alloy wheels — though the plastic wheel covers are fairly handsome. The sun visors do not slide on their support rods.
You have to insert the key to unlock the doors or trunk. And you have to operate the clutch and manipulate the shift lever to work the five-speed gearbox. The clutch action is light and the shift linkage only slightly clunky.
If you are shift-challenged, you can order the 1.6 Versa with a four-speed automatic transmission. It costs an extra $1,000, bringing the price up to $12,685 with air conditioning but no radio, so you're starting to tread on more expensive territory.
Some would argue that you could find a host of desirable used cars in that price range, including such relatively economical cars as Honda Civic, Toyota Matrix and Yaris, Pontiac Vibe, Suzuki SX4 and Mazda 3. But there's nothing like that new car smell, not to mention the warranty.
The Versa has sprightly performance. It gets away from stop signs with verve and has no trouble accelerating to freeway speeds.
Handling is on a par with other compact cars. The 1.6 takes corners competently and tracks in a straight line on the freeway with little need for steering corrections. The ride is reasonably supple. But the stripping down showed up in engine noise at highway speeds and, in the test car, rattles in the dash.