Tom Petty, in his song "Free Fallin'," had the right idea about this Los Angeles bedroom community: "It's a long day living in Reseda," he wrote.

After living here a week, I'd like to rewrite those lyrics: "It's a long day driving 'round Reseda, with freeways runnin' north and south of here. You get on the 101 and set out for L.A. You go for a day, but feel like you been gone all year."

The commuter traffic is murderous from the outset on Tampa Avenue to the crazy left turn onto Ventura Boulevard to the insane merge onto U.S. 101 heading south to Interstate 405, where the traffic is unmitigated madness.

It's tough enough running that route in a left-hand-drive car, with the steering wheel on the left side, which is where it's supposed to be in America. But I did it for a week in the 2007 Nissan Tiida, a right-hand-drive car coming to these shores in early 2006 as the Nissan Versa hatchback and sedan.

The Versa will steer from the left. The Tiida is outfitted for Japan, where it's currently on sale and where people drive on the left side of the road and steer from the right side of the car.

I took the opportunity to play a prank.

On separate days, I prevailed upon one of two friends, Tania Anderson and Elaine Jesmer, to sit in the Tiida's front passenger's seat on the left. Both women are lefties in the glorious tradition of left-wing politics. They agreed.

Tania is tall and easily visible. She sat in the Tiida's front seat with her hands folded behind her head, looking as if she were driving without touching the steering wheel. A miraculous thing happened! Other motorists who witnessed what they thought was her rudderless motoring slowed down all around us. They gave the Tiida lots of space. I took advantage of the road gaps they created and zipped ahead.

Two days later, I enlisted Los Angeles friend Elaine to join me in this goofiness. Elaine is short, but she is big on imagination. She complied by sitting in the Tiida's front passenger seat with both arms raised to the roof. Another miracle! Fellow motorists on Sunset Boulevard backed off, gave us space. It was a hoot! We were having a rollicking good time, the best time ever driving at legal speeds. But a man in a black-and-white Los Angeles Police Department car initially didn't find our antics amusing.

The lawman followed us several blocks on Sunset. I saw him through the Tiida's rearview mirror, trying to figure out if Elaine had lost her marbles or if she were a kidnap victim who had been forced to drive her own car and who was now signaling for help.

Elaine must have been thinking the same thing. "I'd better stop," she said. She lowered her arms and clapped her hands. This really puzzled the lawman. He pulled around to the right side of the Tiida and saw me driving. The lawman laughed, which warmed my heart.

The LAPD has a reputation for being mean and nasty. But the lawman following us had a sense of humor. The dude gets a thumbs-up.

The front-wheel-drive Tiida gets kudos as well.

It's an exceptionally nimble car that looks like a subcompact on the outside but feels like a commodious mid-size sedan on the inside. Nissan and its French parent, Renault, pulled off that trick by putting the Tiida's front and rear wheels at the farthest ends of the car. That created a long wheelbase -- the centerline distance between the front and rear wheels -- without increasing the overall length.

Because the Tiida/Versa's drive wheels are up front, its passenger cabin has no space-consuming driveline tunnel -- that infamous center-floor "hump" in traditional rear-wheel-drive cars. The positioning of the front and rear wheels and the absence of that hump create more room for people.

The Versa version of the Tiida will do battle with the Chevrolet Aveo, the completely restyled Honda Civic, the new Honda Fit, the updated Ford Focus, the new Toyota Yaris and all of those subcompacts from South Korea rolling into the United States to grab a share of what automobile manufacturers hope will be a booming market for small cars in an America shocked by soaring gasoline prices.

That means the Versa will be sold stateside beneath the Nissan Sentra, which has long anchored Nissan's U.S. small-car line. The Sentra will move up in size, appointments and price. The Versa will start at $12,000.

That doesn't mean cheap. Nissan has taken a page from China's car companies, which also will start shipping small cars to America soon. The Chinese have a thing about "face." It's okay for a car to be inexpensive. But it has to look and feel rich, be equipped with premium materials, to help its owner "save face" and look good.

Looking good, as any Californian can tell you, is winning half the battle, even in the high-speed, no-speed, stop-and-go, crazy-flow mayhem of a Los Angeles area freeway.