The newborn Nissan Versa was a big kid. Now, at five years old, it’s almost grown up.
Marketed as an entry-level subcompact economy car, the 2012 Versa has achieved a level of sophistication and utility that puts it squarely in the sights of singles and small families who don’t want to do cheap but nevertheless must watch their pennies.
That’s actually becoming the norm. As fuel prices escalate and awareness of limited natural resources rises, buyers are turning to smaller, fuel-stingy vehicles. But they still want the amenities, and the manufacturers are softening the strippers of yore.
At the entry level, there are increasing numbers of cars with low prices, good fuel economy, and comfort and convenience features. Examples include the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Mazda 2, Fiat 500, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and Chevrolet Aveo and its successor, the Sonic.
All of these cars, including the 2012 Nissan Versa, can be bought well-equipped for less than $20,000, at a time when the average transaction price for a new car is more than $30,000.
And when you factor in the fact that some of these machines offer nearly the interior space, comfort and conveniences of their more expensive siblings, they look even better.
At the same time, these vehicles also can satisfy the folks for whom automobiles are mere appliances. They are not required to spend money on bells and whistles; in fact, some entry-level cars do not include basic climate comfort or entertainment.
That’s not the case with the new Versa. Its entry-level model, the S, starts at $11,750, which Nissan claims is the lowest price in the class, and it comes standard with air conditioning and an AM-FM radio. However, the transmission is a five-speed manual, and you don’t get power windows or locks, cruise control, motorized outside mirrors, or even a tachometer.
To get those items, along with an automatic transmission, chrome trim and a remote release for the trunk lid, you have to step up to the SV version, which is expected to the biggest seller. It starts at $15,320 and also offers a $350 package with Bluetooth and iPod capabilities, as well as map lights, vanity mirrors and steering-wheel audio controls.
The stick-shift S delivers an EPA city/highway fuel economy rating of 27/36 miles to the gallon, which slightly mitigates its low price. That’s because the automatic-transmission model gets a higher rating of 28/30 miles to the gallon.
The transmission is a continuously-variable automatic (CVT), which uses a system of belts and pulleys to multiply engine power seamlessly, without shift points.
In the Versa, however, the engineers added a small set of planetary gears to augment the CVT because, with its fuel economy orientation, one of the belts would have been too long to fit under the hood.
The combination actually improves the CVT experience. On some CVT-equipped vehicles, engines roar at high revolutions as if they were connected to a slipping clutch. That doesn’t happen with the Versa, which provides smooth and progressive acceleration with no apparent wasted effort.
Though the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at just 109 horsepower, it moves the Versa with verve and rarely feels challenged in urban or freeway driving.
There is engine noise under hard acceleration, especially in the base S and mid-range SV models. Noise levels in the top-level SL, however, were lower because of the inclusion of more sound-deadening insulation.
The SL test car, at $16,320, comes with the CVT, alloy wheels, fog lights, 60/40 fold-down rear seatback, Bluetooth connectivity and upgraded cloth upholstery and interior appointments. It also had a $700 tech package that included a navigation system XM satellite radio and a USB port, for a total price of $17,020.
Interestingly, when Nissan introduced the Versa as a 2007 model, it started with the four-door hatchback, with the notchback sedan added later. Though marketed as a subcompact, the hatchback surprisingly had mid-size interior volume, which is how the government classifies cars. So far, it has been outselling the sedan.
For 2012, for reasons known but to itself, Nissan introduced the all-new sedan first, with the more popular hatchback continuing alongside it. Asked why buyers would prefer last year’s hatchback to the all-new sedan, product planning director Mark Perry said hatchback fans hated sedans and vice versa, so customers rarely crossed over.
The 2012 sedan, as before, has less interior space than the hatchback, but it’s still roomy. Even six-footers will find plenty of knee room in back, though head room is tight, owing to the more streamlined new styling. Unlike in most cars, the center-rear seating position is usable, with comfortable padding and only somewhat restricted foot space.
The Versa is, after all, an economy car, so expect some cost cutting. There’s an abundance of hard plastic surfaces inside and no center console. Sun visors do not slide on their support rods to block sun from the side. The C-hinges in the trunk are unprotected and could squish packages or luggage. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope. And the antilock brakes have discs in front and drums in back.
- Model: 2012 Nissan Versa SL four-door sedan.
- Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder, 109 horsepower.
- Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic.
- Overall length: 14 feet 7 inches.
- EPA passenger/trunk volume: 90/15 cubic feet.
- Weight: 2,459 pounds.
- EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 30/38 miles to the gallon.
- Base price, including destination charge: $16,320.
- Price as tested: $17,020.