NASHVILLE – When Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. announced last fall it would bring its Tiida small car from Japan to the U.S. as the Versa, it disappointed admirers of its boy-racer Sport concept shown at the 2005 New York auto show.

The auto maker teased fans with the cutting-edge 3-door Sport, but decided it needed a small car immediately, and thus the less rakish Versa.

Unfortunately, the ’07 Versa is at odds with Nissan’s uber-cool U.S. lineup. There is nothing stylistically exciting about this 5-door hatchback, which looks like most every other 5-door hatchback with tall wagon proportions.

The grille is a carryover, as Versa has the same emblem-on-black-center-plastic as the outgoing ‘06 Quest minivan. And the wheels are a standard 15 ins. compared with the Sport’s 20-in. rollers.

The rear is the only place where the Versa shows a hint of character, with trapezoidal taillights that present a vaguely extraterrestrial appearance.

Nissan explains Versa blandness with the insistence it needs a car that appeals to a wide variety of buyers. Yet, Toyota Motor Corp.’s Scion brand has been able to sell respectable amounts of small-but-stylish cars to buyers of all ages.

The Versa rides on Nissan’s new global B platform. The wheelbase is 102.4 ins. (260 cm), 3 ins. (7.6 cm) shorter than Nissan’s ’07 Sentra. The car is 60.4 ins. (153 cm) tall, 66.7 ins. (169 cm) wide and 169.1 ins. (430 cm) long.

The standard powertrain is an aluminum 1.8L 4-cyl. that makes a class-leading 122 hp and 127 lb.-ft. (172 Nm) of torque. It can be mated to three transmissions: a Renault SA-designed 6-speed manual; a 4-speed automatic; and Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Nissan believes the CVT will become the volume gearbox. It plans to suspend 4-speed production (initially the volume transmission) as CVT supplier JATCO Ltd. ramps up capacity at its new plant in Aguascalientes, Mexico, over the next two years.

During a test drive of the CVT-equipped Versa in city traffic here, engagement and disengagement is obvious, the latter occurring with an annoying electronic hum.

However, acceleration from a standstill is notable, as the transmission and engine work in tandem to smartly propel the vehicle up some small-to-moderate hills.

The Versa’s 4-cyl. produces more unwanted noise than that of the Honda Fit subcompact, likely due to lack of insulation. Nissan, like Honda Motor Co. Ltd., prides itself on its engine prowess.

Mated to the 6-speed manual, the Versa’ engine is peppy, with plenty of low-end torque, but the gearbox is noticeably inferior to the Fit’s buttery smooth 5-speed.

Shifting is difficult to coordinate with engine revs and gear selection is like wading through a box of rocks. This transmission appears in need of more work to achieve North American standards.

The Versa’s ride is fairly forgiving. Independent front strut and rear torsion beam suspensions work well to quell road bumps. This is one area where Nissan engineers changed the Tiida’s driving dynamics for North America, the auto maker says, specifically by adding ‘ripple-control’ shock absorbers.

Nissan takes great pains to point out the Versa’s soft-touch materials on the dash and door panels. Kudos are earned for raising the bar in the segment, as its closest competitor, the Toyota Yaris, is awash in hard plastic.

But there remain some niggling issues. The Versa’s overall design and layout is stodgy, compared with the Fit’s more youthful, jaunty instrument panel.

Also, while soft-touch materials span the IP to the right of the steering wheel in the upscale 1.8 SL trim, hard plastic is used on the left-hand side. There also is hard plastic surrounding the shifter, with noticeable gaps where debris can accumulate.

Interior volume is noteworthy, and all seats are well-padded and quite comfortable. But the Versa slips when it comes to cargo space. Cargo volume is 17.8 cu.-ft. (0.5 cu.-m) with the rear seats up vs. the Fit’s 21.3 cu.-ft. (0.6 cu.-m) of space. The Versa’s thicker seats likely sacrifice capacity in this area.

The Versa’s estimated fuel economy for the CVT model is 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) city and 36 mpg (6.5L/100 km) highway. Again the Versa trails the competition.

The Honda Fit Sport with 5-speed automatic achieves 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km city and 37 mpg (6.4 L/100 km) highway. The Toyota Yaris 4-speed automatic gets 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) city and 39 mpg (6.0 L/100 km) highway.

While the Versa is an above-average effort for the subcompact segment, it still falls short of Honda’s refined Fit, in both appointments and driving dynamics. However, it surpasses the Yaris when it comes to interior materials.

The Versa hatchback goes on sale in July; a sedan variant is due in January. Pricing is expected to be in the $12,000-$17,000 range, Nissan says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com