Skip the extras, save money

 More subcompact models priced in the low to middle teens, but Nissan’s Versa 1.6 is the least expensive of all new cars available in this country. Pete ‘n’ Pam asked for the most stripped-down version for a test drive.

Pam: My first thought when the Versa showed up on my driveway? Thank goodness air conditioning comes standard. I don’t mind manual transmission, hand-crank windows and a no-frills interior, but forgoing air conditioning in a summer when 99 degrees feels like a cool front is just going too far.

Pete: Amen, sister. During an extra-hot summer a few years ago, one of my Austin neighbours who’d recently moved from New York came over with a question: “Pete, I need your advice finding a new car. Nothing fancy. All I need is a steering wheel with an air conditioner connected to it.”

Pam: This Versa is truly basic: The four-door subcompact starts at $10,685. Besides air conditioning, it comes standard with a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, manual fivespeed transmission and not much else. Driving one serves as a great lesson in what you really need — and don’t need — in a vehicle.

Pete: It’s also a lesson on how the rest of the world lives. I see lots of Versas in Mexico, where it’s built and sold under the name Tiida. What we consider a stripped-down car is what the middle class drives in less affluent countries.

Pam: I think we’ve gotten a little crazy here, turning our cars into rolling entertainment systems that do far more than get us from Point A to Point B. Sure, it’s nice to listen to the radio and have an interior clock. And it can be annoying being able to unlock only the driver’s side door (no keyhole on the passenger’s side and no press-button unlock feature). But when you get down to it, this is a decent little car that carries four people in relative comfort and gets pretty good mileage.

Pete: Pam, I didn’t feel too deprived for the week I drove the low-priced Versa. Like all Versas, it has six air bags and anti-lock brakes as an option. However, I can see how the manual door locks could be a bother.Where I live, we don’t even lock our cars. Nor do we look at clocks very often. I used my iPod and earbuds for entertainment on long commutes.

Pam: One slam of the door and it’s obvious this is no luxury mobile. The Versa feels slightly flimsy and whines when you hit 70 mph. And the cloth interior looks a little like mouse fur. Still, think how many Versas you could have for just one Cadillac CTS: three!

Pete: You can only drive one car at a time, Pam, and I recall that you really liked that CTS we tested last year, especially its “rolling entertainment system.” Remember?

Pam: Yeah, yeah. I still dream about the CTS. But like most folks, I’m counting every penny these days. The CTS will have to wait.

Pete: The rubbery suspension on the budget Versa didn’t do too much for me, and the 107-horsepower engine was noisy when it worked hard, which was almost all the time. Regular Versas have 122 horsepower, so they’re quicker than ours. By the way, our Versa is available only in the sedan body style. The more desirable hatchback isn’t available on this model.

Pam: EPA mileage estimates are 26 in the city and 34 on the highway. That’s better than a Toyota Camry, the same as a Toyota Corolla and not quite as good as a Toyota Yaris. Funny — the more you spend, the worse the mileage.

Pete: I can see why people would find this car desirable, Pam. But I’d go instead for the least expensive “regular” Versa, which gives you the larger 1.8-litre engine, a six-speed manual transmission instead of a five-speed, 15- inch wheels, a stereo system, a nicer interior and a choice of the Versa hatchback. The more upscale model would probably be easier to sell used when you want to get rid of it.