For years, the sport compact hatchback segment has been popular in Europe and Japan. And now it seems to be gathering steam on your side of the Pacific, with the likes of the 2008 Subaru WRX and Mazda3 enjoying good sales. Here in Japan, the 'hot hatch' is the way to go for young car enthusiasts. No longer meant for quick trips to the grocery store, these five-door sports cars are now more at home on the nearest touge road, like the Hakone Turnpike.
While the class is still dominated by Subaru, Suzuki and Mazda (with the WRX STI, Swift and the Axela/JDM Mazda3), Nissan has also decided to play in this growing category and has given its B-segment offering, the Tiida (known in the US as the Versa), some much-needed ammunition.
When thinking of Nissan hatchbacks, the first thing that comes to Japanese minds is the tiny bug-eyed March (of which an incredible too-fun-for-110bhp, 1.6-liter, European version exists -JL), but not any more.
The company (soon to be based in Yokohama) is now offering the Tiida with a six-speed manual transmission, as found in the US-spec Versa. This alone transforms the mild-mannered compact hatch into a peppy runabout.
When Nissan first introduced the Tiida, it emphasized its CVT automatic transmission as the car's highlight-hardly good news for anyone looking for fun. But this six-speed gearbox changes the car's soul, bringing the 1.8-liter inline four to life. It has short throws and well-defined gates, making gear changes a pleasure. It also allows every bit of the engine's 126bhp to be squeezed out, letting the driver take the tachometer needle all the way to redline. But that's not the only thing that makes this car special. Nismo, Nissan's motorsport division, got its hands on the thing and gave it even more spice.
Nismo's S-Tune package for the Tiida includes tweaks to its exterior, interior and suspension. Unfortunately, the engine was largely left alone, aside from a custom stainless steel axle-back exhaust system. The looks have been improved, thanks to Nismo's aero package-a subtle rear wing complements a mild body lip kit. Nismo's silver paint job, complete with red and black logos and racing stripes, makes the car immediately distinguishable from stock, as does the company's seven-spoke forged aluminum wheels (16x6.5, with a plus-45mm offset).
The suspension (MacPherson struts up front and a crude torsion beam design in the rear) is fitted with Nismo's S-Tune suspension package, which includes firmer dampers, stiffer springs and a front strut tower bar. Nismo has done an admirable job of matching the suspension tuning to the rest of the car. The ride is firm, but not harsh, making it a comfortable highway cruiser. It's no racecar, but turns in much sharper than stock and has less understeer through tight turns.
In Japan, the Tiida has always been considered a premium compact hatch, but with this new Nismo version, it has become one of the sportier entries in the segment; not in the same class as the WRX or Mazda3 (these are slightly larger), but possessing the same sporty spirit. There's no word yet from Nismo if this parts package will be made available for the US Versa, but let's hope it does, because you guys with the open highways and great mountain roads deserve it.
2008 Nismo Tiida S-Tune
Engine Displacement/Type/Valvetrain: 1.8-liter inline four, aluminum block and head
Claimed Crank HP: 126bhp @ 5200rpm
Claimed Crank Torque: 129lb-ft @ 4800rpm
Drivetrain/Layout/Transmission: Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Curb Weight: 2557 lb
Engine: Nismo stainless steel axle-back exhaust
Suspension: Nismo S-Tune suspension, front strut tower bar
Brakes (Front/Rear): 11-in. rotors, single-piston calipers, Nismo pads/rear drum
Wheels (Front/Rear): 16x6.5 Nismo forged aluminum alloy
Tires (Front/Rear): 195/55/16 Bridgestone Playz PZ-1