I just dropped $3,400 on the quintessential Cash For Clunkers econobox: The 2009 Nissan Versa. It was the cheapest car in the U.S. back when the Obama Administration’s “Car Allowance Rebate System” took place in the summer of 2009. Thousands of people turned in their old gas guzzlers for this $9,990, awkward-looking sedan. Here’s what I think about those peoples’ decision.
The CARS legislation was meant to do two things: Jumpstart an ailing American auto industry that had been ravaged by poor financial management and an economic downturn, and reduce emissions from gas-guzzling vehicles. People traded in their Ford Explorers and Jeep Grand Cherokees and got enormous rebates on small, more efficient vehicles.
The maximum dollar value of any government-issued voucher was $4,500. To get this amount, SUV owners had to replace their sub-19 MPG vehicle with one that scored 5 MPG higher. Sub-19 MPG car owners (i.e. not truck or SUV owners) had to replace their machines with ones that managed 10 MPG or more to get the full $4,500 rebate.
The 2009 Nissan Versa hit the market at exactly the right time. The car had started at about $13,000 when it debuted for the 2007 model year, but in 2009, Nissan decided that its 122 horsepower 1.8-liter four cylinder mated to a six-speed manual sedan was apparently too fancy. So the company released a 107-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine bolted to a manual transmission with only five gears. Without standard equipment like a radio, ABS, air conditioning, or electric windows, the Versa’s MSRP was just $9,990 ($10,685 with destination). Coupled with a $4,500 federal discount and dealer incentives, this meant people were buying brand new 2009 Versas for dirt cheap.
Just look at how little folks were paying for this car back then, per reviews on Edmunds.com:
$5,340 plus some rusted-out $500 Jeep, and you had a new car? That’s a hell of a deal! Here’s another person who paid a song for a new Versa:
The 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6 with the five-speed manual was so cheap, the person who wrote the review below apparently just bought one “as a spare,” just for the hell of it:
I love how that review above gives the car four stars despite some hilarious faults. If you dig into those contemporary reviews, you’ll find quite a few complaints despite the car’s low price. Some folks, like whoever wrote the post below, thought the faults (“sounds like it is ready to blow up at highway speed”) outweighed the savings:
Others, like this person whose review is called “It is what it is,” think the low asking price pretty much gives the vehicle a pass:
In any case, it’s been over a dozen years since the car launched, and I was curious see what I’d think of the Quintessential Cash For Clunkers Car (it wasn’t the most-purchased car from the program, but it was still in the top 10, and as the cheapest car, I’m going to consider it CARS’ poster child). So I bought one. And I don’t know if I love it or hate it.
I’ve been reviewing cars for over six years at Jalopnik and never have I felt as torn as I do about the 96,000-mile Versa that I just bought for my brother’s girlfriend for $3,400. The tiny sedan ticks so many great boxes: It’s small but roomy, it has a little efficient engine with enough power, it’s got a nice five-speed stick, and it’s outfitted with very few options (AC, radio). Check out these crank windows:
The locks are manual, meaning you have to use the key to get in from the outside (there is also no interior trunk release, so you have to use the key for that, too). What’s hilarious is that there are only two lock cylinders in the doors — one in the driver’s door and one in the rear trunk lid. This means that, to unlock the rear passenger’s door, you have to unlock the driver’s door, get in, unlock the passenger’s door, get out, walk around, open the passenger’s door, and then unlock the rear passenger’s door. The whole thing is absolutely ridiculous:
Many of the cheapest cars ever built have at least a lock in the passenger’s front door. Look at my coworker’s Yugo — yes, YUGO!:
My 2009 Nissan Versa doesn’t even have a center armrest:
Do you want vanity mirrors? Too bad. All you get is blank sun shades:
Want a dome light? Well, you get one. Just one. And thanks to the dark interior, it’s not very effective:
What about the side mirrors? Well, those are not only manual, they don’t even have a little joy stick in the cabin for adjustment; you have to open the window and push the mirrors with your fingers.
And not only are the wheels steelies covered in plastic hubcaps, but they’re tiny 14s!:
If you dropped a strip of litmus paper into this cabin, you’d read off a pH well above 7. If you looked into this vehicle’s cup holder on any given day, there’d be a Pumpkin Spice Latte billowing steam. All this is to say: This interior is extremely basic:
I typically love base-model cars and actually seek them out when I can. When there are no power windows, doors, or mirrors, there’s a reduction in overall failure potential. Manual transmissions generally hold up longer than older automatics, and even if they fail, rebuilding a stick shift isn’t rocket science. Simplicity is the key to longevity, which is why I own multiple crank-window, stick-shift automobiles.
So I thought I’d love this Nissan. Obviously, it’s a cheap car, so I figured it’d be a bit louder and that interior plastics would be cheaper than higher-end vehicles, but otherwise, it seemed like a simple, stout little sedan worth buying. I thought I’d adore it like I adored that base-model, 60 horsepower (!) VW Polo rental car that I drove over the Alps a few years ago.
And yet, I don’t know if I actually love this Versa. There’s just something weird about the way Nissan executed the car’s build quality, powertrain behavior, and driving dynamics.
As soon as I grab the door handle and pull, it’s already unsatisfying. There’s no distinct “click” accompanied by a brief vibration in the door when the latch releases. There’s just a weird squeak, and no feedback whatsoever; the door is just unlatched, and you just have to pull.
The seats are comfortable, offering a weirdly tall H-point. Driving this thing feels like I’m in a crossover or minivan, not a small sedan. Visibility out of the front is excellent; rear visibility is just okay. Overall, the vantage point from the driver’s seat is quite nice.
Once seated, closing the door offers the weirdest sensation. Normally, what you want to hear is a single, high-amplitude, low frequency sound that’s brief and has no tail. Closing the Versa’s door gives you this brief, high-amplitude sound, except there’s a tail to it — a tapering off sound that you can hear for a few moments after the door is shut, as the entire roof vibrates like a damn tin can slapped by a metal spoon. It almost sounds a bit like a gong every time I close that door.
The only other time I’ve felt a car door close in such a “cheap” fashion was in Romania, when I was piling into a hotel-owner’s Dacia Duster as she prepared to kindly take my friends and me to a grocery store in the middle of the night. (That’s hardly rarified air there with the Dacia Duster).
The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine sounds smooth, and the five-speed manual is decent, offering enough feedback when going into gear to make driving at lower speeds fun. There is a bit of gear lash that one can feel through the shifter, but overall, I’m happy with the powertrain and drivetrain.
The electric power steering is lifeless, but who cares, really? This is a commuter. It’s comfortable, you can see out of it, it gets 34 MPG highway, and it’s known to be quite reliable — what more could you want?
The answer to that question is: Reasonable cabin noise and stability at highway speeds, and an okay ride. The Versa has none of these.
The ride over bumps is far too harsh. I haven’t put this car on jacks yet to wiggle the wheels or check for bad bushings and damper leaks, so who knows, my Versa may not be in tip-top mechanical shape. But as the car sits now, its ride just beats you up too much over small bumps.
But the highway is where the car falls flat on its ass. With a 4.07:1 final drive ratio and tiny 185/65/R14 tires, the 0.89 overdrive fifth gear is only able to keep the engine at a ridiculously-high 3,900 RPM while driving 75 mph. Needless to say, the engine at those revs is screaming bloody murder. I don’t know how much it might help with reducing noise, but the 1.8-liter at least comes with an engine cover; the base 1.6? Nope:
God it’s loud.
What’s just as bad as the sound, though, is the car’s instability at high speeds, particularly in high-wind scenarios. I just wrote a story that poked fun at American automakers in the 1970s advertising their vehicles’ high weights as a feature, and I still think that’s foolish given just how much of a disadvantage weight is when it comes to handling, fuel economy, and acceleration. But I will say that a tall, narrow, lightweight vehicle like this Versa does tend to get thrown around at higher speeds, especially if that car sits on skinny tires like the 185mm-wide ones on my Versa. The amount of steering input required to stay in a straight line is bizarre, and though — again— I have yet to jack the vehicle up and check out its tie rod ends and ball joints, I think based on the reviews I’ve read that this may just be how the Versa drives.
My plan is to find some 15-inch alloys from a junkyard Versa and slap some larger 205/65/R15's in place of the tiny 185/65/R14s. This will bring the overall tire diameter up two inches, so ride height will be up an inch; this could improve the ride a bit. It will also provide a wider contact patch that could help high-speed stability, and it will bring the revs down by 300 RPM at 75 mph. Thirty-six hundred isn’t low, but it’s better than 3,900. That’s three birds with one stone, with the only potential disadvantages being compromised cornering, slower acceleration, slightly worse braking performance, speedometer inaccuracy, and a loss in fuel economy. Those are obviously significant, but I think worthwhile sacrifices to get this thing confidently taking on the task of freeway driving.
In the summer, I daily drive a 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, a prime candidate for Cash-For-Clunking, and one of the most traded-in vehicles back in ’09. It’s rated at 16 MPG combined; this Versa is rated at 29 MPG combined. Thirteen years ago, there would have been quite some temptation to turn in my 16 year-old Jeep for a brand-new car. I’d get a great IIHS safety score thanks to standard side airbags (but optional ABS, which my car doesn’t have), a CD player, and great long-term reliability. I could drive a car without worrying about maintenance for a while.
Numerous users laud the Nissan Versa as a vehicle that simply won’t die; it’s not unusual to see these vehicles’ odometers reach over 200,000 miles. The bone-simple transmission, the incredibly basic chassis layout, and the lack of options leads me to believe that this machine has potential to keep driving until the end of time. And yet, despite the improved safety and reliability (though that reliability benefit would be marginal given that my old Jeep is also a simple base model), I still don’t think I’d be happy with the trade.
Yes, I’d have a “new” car instead of a 16 year-old one, I’d be getting way better fuel economy, and I’d be better protected from danger. But at what cost? The Jeep’s ride quality is somehow better despite its solid axles, highway stability is excellent, and the cabin is quiet at highway speeds. The doors (when they’re not broken) close with a solid “thunk,” and interior material quality is not bad. Visibility is better thanks to skinny pillars that probably don’t provide much safety, and more than anything, the car has soul.
People in 2009 gave up soulful, nice-riding cars for this safer, more efficient crapbox. I have to wonder how many people ultimately regretted it. Maybe none of them, because here we are all these years later, and my brother’s girlfriend just wants a car that offers safety, efficiency, and reliability.
After driving this Versa, I’m amazed at what people were willing to give up to get those three things. Stepping from my Jeep into this Nissan is a downgrade in so many ways. I don’t care that the Nissan uses less fuel, has side airbags, and probably won’t need a water pump for another five years. The Jeep is so much more comfortable, and much more soulful. And really not that much less reliable.
I get it, though; especially if my Jeep were in much worse shape and I had a family and no wrenching skills, this would have been tempting. Gas back in ’09 was expensive, keeping offspring well-protected from things like side impacts seems important, and there’s value in deferring repairs by buying new. But damn would I have to put up with a real penalty box.