Monday, July 14, 2008

The Nissan Versa at 1000 miles

Well, we're at (almost) one month since we took delivery of our 2008 Nissan Versa 1.8SL sedan. This is our third car, intended for adults leaving the house. I commute in it, and Lea takes it in the evenings to visit friends, to the store, or whatever. It clicked over 1000 miles this weekend. Here are my early impressions.

I haven't driven a small car daily since 1995, and I adjusted to the low seating position quickly, but the "less and closer" aspect of it has taken some reorientation. For example, I find the compressor loud. For all I know it's not any louder than the compressor in my F-150, but in the Versa, it's closer to me, and there is less material between me and it. I've tried to consider this reasonably, and not penalize the car unnecessarily just for being little.

That said, we are at the entry level, and if there is skimping to be found in a manufacturer's lineup, it will be here. Anyone can build a decent expensive car; what does a manufacturer do with its most price-sensitive offering?

Which jail has the best food? Heh.

I'm pleased to report that build quality seems high. Panel gaps are close and uniform. The hood, trunk, and doors all work fluidly, and feel long-haulish. I've found two little bits of trash in the paint, but no orange-peel, and it's uniformly applied (and even slight discrepancies are easy to spot in silver). The interior presents pleasing textures and colors, with nothing screaming "cheap" (and that's historically a weak spot for inexpensive cars).

I still don't think it's exactly pretty, but I do find it far more dignified-looking than many of its market peers. It does have a cute butt.

The Versa isn't generally known as a handler even in this entry-level market segment, but it's acceptable. There is some body roll, and the tires are about as aggressive as newborn hamsters, but it's fine day to day and doesn't feel handicapped. Anyone coming out of a much larger vehicle will find it positively nimble. It wanders a bit in crosswinds because of its high profile. I was concerned that the electric power steering would feel artificial, but it's uniform and responsive without descending into darty.

The ride has a slight bias toward comfort at the expense of feel, but given the Versa's non-sporting ambitions, that's not a penalty. It's a quiet cabin at speed. Sounds of the road are isolated well, and engine noise is only noticeable under acceleration. There is a little wind noise. Visibility is outstanding.

The accelerator travel seems designed to deliver economical operation. However, if you put your foot in it, adequate power is there to merge or pass on a two-lane. Braking is linear and without drama. Thankfully, I haven't experienced the anti-lock yet (incidentally, that's a standalone $250 option and shouldn't be). The automatic transaxle matches its operation to the current driving style effectively, never calling attention to itself. I don't think there is any exceptional performance to be found here, but as with the handling, it never feels handicapped.

The car lacks a temperature gauge; instead there is a blue lamp that indicates the engine coolant is cold, and a red one that indicates overheating. The blue one goes out at 130 ºF.

I've checked the fuel mileage on two tanks, and measured 26 and 27 mpg in mixed driving. This is in line with my expectations, though I'm hoping for a bit of improvement as the engine settles. The low fuel warning illuminates with two gallons remaining in the 13.2-gallon tank. The fuel gauge is mostly optimistic, and starts reading reasonably accurately at about three-eighths of a tank.

The car's killer feature is its people space. The Versa seats four adults luxuriously, and I mean a six-footer can get comfortable in the driver's seat, and another six-footer can sit behind him, and his knees don't touch the front seat back. In fact, it's rated by the EPA as a midsize car based on its interior volume. (There is a seat belt in the center rear, but the car is still rather narrow, and I doubt three adults in the back seat would be comfortable for long.)

Storage is also good. The Versa has a respectable trunk and an enormous glove compartment, and the covered storage above the stereo is convenient. There are deep and wide bins in each of the door bottoms, and the armrest has a shallow compartment. My only nit here is that the cubbies in the center console aren't particularly inspired. I'd have preferred another covered compartment here; instead they are simple open depressions that aren't particularly easy to reach.

Here are my impressions of the electrics, on an excellent through poor scale.

Cruise control. Easy to use and flawlessly unobtrusive in operation.
Headlights. Bright and broad, with excellent front and side visibility.
Power mirrors. No complaints; familiar three-position switch and directional pad.
Power windows. Rapid, smooth, and quiet--and the rear windows go all the way down.

Air conditioning. Controls are easy to use (large rotary dials for temperature, airflow, and fan speed; a slide for selecting fresh or recirculate; and a button for the A/C itself). Cooling is good, but a click or two short of top-notch. The fan is quiet.
Windshield wipers. Effective, but odd-looking, as the passenger-side wiper is half the size of the driver's-side wiper. Aesthetically I'd have preferred to see this problem solved with "bat-wing" wipers that start from the center, or even with a one-wiper setup fixed in the middle. Controls use a familiar right-side stalk scheme.

Keyless locking and unlocking. Works fine, but only from about 25 feet. My F-150 easily triples this; the three Hondas I've owned at least double it. Not a problem day to day, but more range would improve the utility of the panic feature.
Stereo. Sound quality is reasonable, but the top of the volume range could easily be increased 50%. There is an optional upgrade with a subwoofer, and I'd recommend that. I enjoy having the ability to read MP3 CDs, and the AUX jack is nice to have. Radio reception is good on both bands. Controls are reasonably intuitive. The speed-sensitive volume control is way too prominent, even at the lowest setting.

Horn. I'm sure it's loud enough to be within regulation, but it's single-note and thoroughly unassertive-sounding. I may change it, actually.
Accessory power outlet. Location is acceptable (between the seats, adjacent to the parking brake handle), but it's only powered when the ignition is on, which makes it nearly useless for the way I most often use one (charging telephone and iPod when the car is unoccupied). This should have been always on, with battery rundown protection.
Rear window defroster. It cleared the inside of the backlight during a pop-up thunderstorm, but it took more than eight minutes to do it. Perhaps it will be better with ice, which (obviously) I haven't yet tested, but it's unimpressive so far.

I haven't encountered a button, switch, knob, or lever that I would describe as poor.

In summary, so far I think we made a good decision in selecting the Versa over its competitors. We sought a capable and comfortable commuting/in-town car with reasonable fuel economy, and we're pleased. (Making half the car payment in fuel savings alone is a persuasive detail as well.) It's a serious product, and worthy of your consideration.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Whither 50 mpg?

You just might have noticed that gasoline has gotten a lot more expensive.

I can remember paying $.789 per gallon as recently as March 1998. On a trip to Atlanta, I ran my Oldsmobile Intrigue, a V6-powered medium-large sedan, to below the E and filled it up for $13. That was just ten years ago. Hard to believe, isn't it?

Remember when "five bucks' worth" would haul a car full of teenagers around all evening?

Now that fill-ups are about as pleasant as prostate exams, I've heard "why can't these manufacturers build me a truly fuel-efficient car? Why, I had a Honda CRX 20 years ago that was rated at 50 mpg!" or a similar sentiment, more than once. Why can't they? Two big reasons.

The first is that EPA fuel economy estimates are now calculated differently. The old methods were a joke, figuring highway numbers at 45 mph with no air conditioning, and other similarly ridiculous criteria. The new numbers are intended to reflect actual conditions much more accurately. Consequently, they're actually attainable by mere mortals, but they're also not nearly as stratospheric as they once were.

The second is that cars have seriously porked out, and that's your fault. Mine? Yes, yours. What the hell do you mean, Bo? Two sides of that story:
  • Today cars must comply with a whole host of federal standards, primarily safety- and emissions-related, that didn't exist when that CRX was prowling the streets. Side-impact protection? Frontal offset crash protection? Airbags? Low Emission Vehicle certification? More metal, more metal, more metal, and more metal. Why is it your fault? You elected Congress, did you not? I'm not saying these federal standards are bad things on balance, but they aren't free, folks.
  • Additionally, our sybaritic standards have increased dramatically over the past 20 to 30 years. Today's typical "stripper" automobile contains a level of equipment more in line with what a family sedan contained in 1985. Today's "mainstream" family sedan is often a nicer place to be than the living room in the home to which it's driven. And today's luxury automobile was barely conceivable two decades ago. You want your real wood and leather, your mega-CD changers, your automatic climate control, your power everything, your navigation systems, your DVD players, your Bluetooth connectivity, your seat heaters, and the rest of it. I understand, because I like the toys too. But again, they aren't free.
The first-generation (1984-87) CRX HF weighed 1713 lbs. The current Toyota Yaris 3-door, which does have a back seat but is probably the closest current market analog to that car, weighs 2293. A Hyundai Accent comes in at 2496. Even a bare-bones Smart fortwo weighs 1808 lbs. More weight burns more gasoline. Period.

I mentioned in the previous post that we had added a Nissan Versa to the fleet at my house (review coming soon). It's unambiguously a small car. We intend for it to be the car for a single adult at our house, which means I'll drive it to work, and Lea will drive it in the evening to visit friends, make a Target run, or whatever. I'll consider it a highly successful addition if I can get 30 mpg out of it, though I'll settle for 28 without making any further effort.

It weighs 2745 lbs, which is almost exactly what a 1991 Honda Accord weighs.

What to do?

First, adjust your expectations. The EPA numbers of days gone by were largely fantasies, and cars do a lot more now than they did then. Second, make sure you're doing the things that have always made sense and still do—avoid jackrabbit starts, brake intelligently, maintain correct tire pressure, and the like. Third, know that you can move deep into the 40s on mpg and perhaps touch 50 from time to time with a current offering, but as of today it takes a hybrid, and it must be driven carefully. Unfortunately, there isn't yet one under $20,000 that will give you the numbers.

Finally, and most importantly, realize that the upward shift in gasoline prices is almost certainly permanent. The price may come down some, but $1.50/gallon is gone forever. Also realize that oil is going to matter for quite some time to come. Manufacturers are working feverishly to bring better battery technologies to market, both for hybrids and for pure electric vehicles, and hydrogen vehicles are coming, but not tomorrow.

For several more years, it's petroleum, boys and girls. Drive smartly.