Last fall, sensing that the economy was going to get worse before it got better, Nissan announced that they were going to do something they hadn’t done in quite awhile: offer a new car for under $10,000. To be exact, $9990 for a de-contented Versa sedan with a smaller engine. It may have been a smart move, as they got some headlines out of it in the automotive press, and potentially the attention of those watching their budgets carefully.
I recently spent some time in the new bare bones Versa, specifically named the Sedan 1.6, with the number referring to the displacement of the four cylinder engine. Other Versa models come standard with a 1.8, but the slightly smaller and less thirsty engine was deemed a more frugal choice.
The regular Versa, which has been around for the past couple of years, is one of the best small cars available. Typically equipped, it sells for between sixteen and eighteen thousand dollars. With the Versa Sedan 1.6, you get the same basic car, but with most all the frills missing.
This new bargain basement ride can be equipped with options to make it more livable. If you require an automatic transmission (a 5-speed manual is standard), that’ll be another $1000. Would you like to have air conditioning? Add another grand. You can also get anti-lock brakes for another $250. With everything piled on, the car moves up well into the five-figure range, although it’s still less than half the price of the average new car.
I was a little disappointed that my test example turned out to be the air conditioned model, so its base sticker price was nearly $11,000. I inquired about why it wasn’t a true under-ten-grand Versa, and was told that for the local press fleet, Nissan decided that the non-a/c car would be a little uncomfortable for the various journalists that will be driving it. I scoffed at this, but then again, I got to drive the car during mild March weather. I’m sure that in August I’d be thrilled that the car had that “costly” air conditioner.
But aside from that, and a $155 floor mat package (automotive journalists can be a messy bunch, so apparently the carpet needed protecting), I was driving “a new car at a used car price” as Nissan’s press release boasts. And you know what? As everyday transportation, I’ve driven a lot worse. I’m guessing that most people reading this have as well.
The first thing that’s instantly noticeable about the Versa 1.6 is that there is no remote control to lock and unlock the doors. That little gizmo has become such a part of modern life that it seems strange to have to stick a key into a lock to gain access. Same goes for the trunk lid, as there’s no other way to get it open. Part of the stripping process of features left a trunk popper out of the interior.
The other strange thing about not having a remote to unlock the car is that while nobody was looking, car companies stopped putting key slots on the passenger side. After all, they’re not really needed these days. Unless you have this bargain basement Versa, that is. There are also no power locks, so to open the other doors you have to reach across and flick the mechanism on each one. No power windows either, so maybe that air conditioner is a bargain after all, just to avoid having to contort oneself around the interior to roll all four windows down.
Other things are absent as well. Front and center – literally — is the radio. Or the rectangle of black plastic where a radio would be. None is standard, or even optional. You do get four speakers and an antenna included, so it’s up to a negotiation with the dealer to put one in. If that doesn’t work out financially, an eventual trip to a place like Best Buy for one of their weekly specials could have you enjoying music or news pretty cheaply.
There’s also a lack of exterior chrome, and lots of black plastic in places where the non-cheapo Versa is painted, like the door handles and the mirrors. (Oh, and you’ll be reaching through the open windows to adjust those too; no power mirrors.) The wheels and tires also seem puny by today’s norm, with little fourteen inchers capped off by plastic wheel covers.
Once you get used to the absence of goodies, you quickly realize that this is really a dynamite little car. The small engine’s 107 horsepower seems like much more, probably due to the fact that all those missing luxuries make the Versa lighter. It’s even pretty comfortable, and is rated at 27 and 34 mpg on regular gas.
So yes, you can get a new car for under ten grand, with a warranty and that famous new car smell. It’s not fancy, but it will get you around just fine. And if you can stand the heat, you can even skip the air conditioner. You’ll just get a workout cranking those windows up and down.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net