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2009 Nissan Versa 1.6

I fell in love with the Nissan Versa while I was on vacation.

The setting was perfect: a beautiful Caribbean island, spectacular weather, and miles of lazy roads winding their way through lush tropical hills, with no where to go and no rush to get there.

Unfortunately, it was all a lie.

In many other countries, including Barbados where this rendezvous took place, the Versa is called the Tiida. Under this guise, it is a gussied-up sedan with a relatively rich, somewhat cosseting interior filled with appointments that position it as a premium car that sells for well over $20,000, rather than a cut-rate econobox starting under $10,000 like it does here.

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When I ran into it again on the street back home in New York during a late winter snowstorm there was an awkward pause, the cold light of reality making it abundantly clear that the impression I drew that this was some sort of worldly sophisticate was merely a façade heightened by the exotic locale where we were introduced. In the real world the car turned out to be nothing more than basic, workday transportation.

Same face, different name, all the glamour left on the beach next to the margarita.

Then again, the way things are these days, I probably couldn't have afforded a relationship with the one that I thought I met, so maybe things will work out in the long run.

Last Halloween, when Nissan first announced that it would be introducing a bargain basement version of the Versa with a sticker price of $9990, US auto sales were down a 32 percent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was sitting at 9,325. Things looked scary.

If only we knew.

At the time the ploy seemed gimmicky, a trap to get shoppers into showrooms so Nissans’ shrewd salesmen could show you something in a heavily-discounted Altima for just a few thousand more. From where the economy stands now, the Versa 1.6 deserves a second look.

Suffice it to say, it's easier to start by telling you what you don't get in the Versa 1.6, than what you do. So, for your reading pleasure, here is a list that begins with the obvious things that are missing and works its way toward the truly austere. You might want to make a bathroom break before I begin.

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There is no automatic transmission, no air conditioning, no anti-lock brakes, no electric seats, no fold-down rear seats, no light in the trunk, no electric windows, no electric locks, no remote outside mirrors, no light in the glove compartment, no vanity mirrors, and no clock. And while there are four speakers with the wiring needed to get music or Wall Street news into them, there is no radio to do so.

Such is life in the great recession.

The 4-cylinder engine is also smaller and less powerful than the original, now upscale version of the Versa, 1.6 liters and 107 horsepower vs. 1.8 and 122.

To call this car a stripper would be like calling a Pamela Anderson demure.

Making matters worse, when you factor in the $695 destination charge, the price is actually $10,685, so forget that whole sub-$10G thing.

Still, there is only one car that is cheaper, the $9970 Hyundai Accent, which is 10 inches shorter and has two less doors. One less if you count its hatchback.

Of course the Hyundai is a compact, while the bigger-than-it-looks Versa is technically a midsize and has plenty of room for 5 passengers, as well as a 17.8 cubic foot trunk. That is 3.5 cubic feet more than you get in a Nissan Maxima, and more even than a $350,000 Rolls Royce Phantom provides.

The fantasy returns.

The cargo bay was one of the things that I found so attractive about the Tiida during our time together. To be able to fit two big suitcases, along with a carry-on, backpack, and various other items that accompany a married couple and their 1.5 year old child, while leaving the cabin free to hold an umbrella stroller, diaper bag, and various other items that accompany a married couple and their 1.5 year old child, is a true delight.

This blissful feeling was enhanced by a dreamy suspension soaking up the shredded Bajan roads that appear to have been paved shortly after the island was discovered by Europeans, who then never bothered to make another shipment of tarmac. As Manhattan's streets are no better, and practical speeds in either locale hover around 30 mph, this is another quality of the car that survived the transition stateside intact.

In the Versa I found that I could take on half-foot high speed bumps without slowing down at all. Not that I normally would such a thing, but in the Nissan there was no price to pay for such indiscretions. Or, I could avoid the bumps altogether by simply making a U-turn practically anywhere that I wanted to. The steering is 1970's Lincoln Continental light, and the turning circle about as big a 1960's hit single. Forget the dime, the Versa can turn on the date stamped on a dime.

Venture outside the city limits, however, and you quickly discover more of the things that you didn't get because you didn't pay for them. As speed rises, that soft suspension and 14-inch wheels combine with squishy seats that are wonderfully comfortable in a straight line, but helpless to hold you in place when you enter a curve. The experience is very retro, in that it is reminiscent of that hand me down you drove to spring break in college.

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The manual transmission is easy enough to use, but you will use it often given the small amount of power going through it, the cheap interior materials amplifying the noise being generated in the process. Wind and road roar are just that, and the plastic feels as if you could crack it like an egg, so don't touch.

Some of these shortcomings can be mollified by applying your right to add options like air conditioning which costs $1000, a 4-speed automatic transmission which costs $1000, and anti-lock brakes which cost $250, bringing your total to $12,935. That's only $800 cheaper than a 6-speed Versa 1.8, with the larger engine, 15-inch wheels, a noticeably nicer interior, air conditioning, and an honest to goodness stereo with CD player connected to those four lonely speakers all standard.

So why not just make the leap?

The wiliest of salesmen will surely push many of the still-employed up the ladder, but true bargain hunters will scoff at such advances. For those who resist, the payoff for choosing frugality over frill is an increase in highway fuel economy from 31 mpg to 34.

Now, I know what you're thinking, and, yes, you can get a lot of fine used cars for ten grand. A quick scan of the internet shows that it's easy to find a 3 to 5-year old example of practically any Nissan, not to mention some Infinitis. But for some people that just won't do. They're the ones looking for a pristine stretch of beach unsoiled by the touch of human hands, a private place to drive off into the sunset with that very special someone.

Even if they turn out to be not so special after all.

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2009 Versa 1.6

Base Price: $9,999

As Tested: $10,990

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, four-door sedan

Engine: 1.6L Inline-4

Power: 107 hp, 111 lb-ft torque

Transmission: five-speed manual

MPG: 27 city/34 highway

What do you think of the Versa?

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