Most, if not all, of the new subcompact offerings we’ve seen in the last few years – the Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Mazda 2, and Nissan’s own Cube – have played to an upmarket strategy. The hope and expectation is that wealthier buyers downsizing from other segments will pay extra for small cars that cater to all the right-brain pleasures of a larger car – style, performance, trendiness, comfort, etc. The new Nissan Versa, however, remains a steadfast adherent to the notion that subcompact buyers consider price, practicality, reliability, and not much else. No surprise, therefore, it’s not as nice as the competitors I just mentioned. It takes about a second’s glance around the cabin to notice the lower-grade plastics and the completely unadorned dash. The Versa doesn’t hit the segment’s 40-mpg benchmark, doesn’t stand out as a performer, and, even with a well-executed new exterior design, won’t win any fashion contest. And don’t expect lots of standard tech goodies. And by “tech goodies” I mean intermittent windshield wipers.
So, bad car and shame on Nissan, right? Wrong. Bravo, Nissan. In case you haven’t noticed, the economy still stinks, especially for those at the bottom. Unemployment for teenagers is above twenty percent. Retirees are getting reamed by the stock market even as the federal government considers cuts to Medicare. For those groups and others, an $11,750 new car – about fifteen percent cheaper than the lowest-priced Fiesta — is a very good thing. And the Versa is a fine $11,750 car. Comfy seats, good air-conditioning, antilock brakes, and venerable Japanese quality, not to mention a full warranty. And the Versa doesn’t drive badly, either. I drove it on a racetrack, surely the last thing any real owner would do, and found it offers accurate steering, a compliant yet composed suspension, and resilient brakes (at least resilient enough for the 109-hp engine and 2360-pound curb weight).
There is one caveat here. The test model I drove does not cost $11,750, but rather, $16,320. That extra $4600 buys power locks and windows, an automatic transmission, and remote keyless entry as well as a few goodies like Bluetooth and fifteen-inch aluminum wheels. However, it does not buy you the vastly more upscale interior materials of a Ford Fiesta, the superior reflexes of a Mazda 2, or the style of a Fiat 500. In other words, it’s a nonstarter. The Versa is a very good “supercheap” car but not a very good “kind of cheap” car.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I first drove the Versa at Waterford Hills Raceway under the tutelage of West Coast Editor Jason Cammisa. While a 109-hp economy car might seem an odd choice for track work, the Versa was an excellent vehicle for a dilettante like me to learn the basics of apexes and braking zones. The low-rolling-resistance tires, though, clearly took a beating and look a little ragged.
Out in the real world of 30-mph speed limits and grocery carts, the Nissan Versa is a perfectly inoffensive economy sedan. It’s clear that it was built down to a price, with hard plastics throughout the cabin and doors that produce a hollow rattle when slammed. The driving experience is acceptable but wholly unremarkable. I’m surprised (and disappointed) that a car with such a small engine and low curb weight can’t meet the magical 40-mpg mark on the highway.
As David Zenlea explained, the real problem comes down to our test car’s price of $16,320. For that money, I’d instead consider buying the Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2, Honda Fit, or Fiat 500 — cars that are more attractive, have nicer interiors, and are better to drive than the Nissan Versa.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
Anyone worried about missing the magic 40-mpg mark in a Versa should do the math on how much money it costs to purchase a car with a 40-mpg highway rating. Then look at how long it would take to make up that sticker-price difference in terms of gas savings given that the cheaper Versa manages 38 mpg on the highway. Unless you’re driving hundreds of thousands of miles in your subcompact in the next couple years, the fuel economy issue is a nonstarter.
My coworkers have pointed out the difference in pricing strategy between Nissan and virtually everyone else selling a subcompact car in America. I think it was very wise to hold the line on pricing and not try to force all subcompact buyers to move upmarket. As David Zenlea says, a fifteen percent price difference is huge in this class, and shoppers looking for a less Spartan experience would be better served buying a lightly used compact than optioning out a new subcompact.
I was pleasantly surprised after my weekend in the Versa. With the trend to move all cars upmarket and physically larger, the Versa is a breath of fresh air. Basic transportation, sure, but it’s reliable, safe, and affordable. There are hundreds of thousands of car shoppers who care only about those three points. I didn’t miss soft-touch plastics, infotainment, or anything else while I was driving the Versa. My only complaint is that the FM radio has pretty weak reception in comparison to pretty much every other car I’ve driven this year. If you desire a basic new car, the Versa is certainly worth a test drive. Just ask yourself how much upgrades and luxuries really matter when you’re looking at the ballooning monthly payment at the Fiat or Ford dealer.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
Look closely at some other cars and you’ll notice something: if your fuel-filler cap release is on the floor, there’s a piece of plastic molding between the latch and the carpet, so it looks finished. Not on the Versa: it looks like someone X-Acto knifed a hole in the carpet and poked the latch through.
Is this possibly a pre-production bug? Yes. If it isn’t a bug, should you care? Not really. It’s a sign of something bigger: Nissan means business about making cheap cars. So it would be wrong to complain that the plastics are cheap or that the stereo shakes the interior door panels when you turn it up or that the engine is buzzy: this car is inexpensive, and that’s why you buy it. The Nissan Versa doesn’t necessarily want to compete with new cars as much as it wants to compete with old ones: for $12,000 you can get a used compact, or a new one. It’s your choice.
I liked the Versa’s “cheap and cheerful” attitude until I found out the price: while you can have a Versa sedan with an automatic transmission for under thirteen grand, ours was $16,000. In other words, Hyundai Accent territory. And while the Versa is a simple, unassuming car at that price, the Accent has lofty aspirations, most of which it reaches.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
The first generation Nissan Versa ranked high on my list of most-hated cars. It was tinny, loud, unrefined, handled poorly, and exemplified its bargain-basement price tag. This second-generation Versa, while not topping my list of most desirables, is a surprisingly competent package and inexpensive to boot. Unlike the previous car that felt like an oversize Power Wheels car, the 2012 Versa has a very planted and substantial feel. Cruising at highway speeds is no longer accompanied by the CVT-induced droning of the engine but is now a relatively hushed affair, and the powertrain no longer strains under 80-mph cruising.
The CVT and the 1.6-liter four-cylinder still create quite the racket around town, the steering is numb, and the handling is sloppy. The interior is low-rent — as befitting of a $11,750 price tag — but our tester rang in at $16,320. For that kind of money, higher-grade materials and more refinement places the Versa subpar in its class. It’s been built to a price and accomplishes its goal; for those looking for nothing more than basic transportation, the Versa is a very good choice.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
Not long ago, I attended the press launch for the new Versa sedan in Seattle. Now that I’ve driven it home, my feelings about the car’s overall lackluster character have been reaffirmed.
I’ll start with the good: The styling looks much nicer than the previous Versa sedan (although I think the older four-door’s look nicely befits the more popular hatchback). Rear-seat legroom is very spacious, and trunk space is quite generous, too. The CVT is well-mannered and generally transparent in its operation, unless you’re engaging in foot-to-the-floor sprints from a stop. The Versa offers a new-car experience and warranty for a low, low base price.
The bad: The inability to get a stick shift on anything but the bottommost trim level. The uncompetitiveness with rivals at this test car’s $16K price. Uncomfortable, extra-firm seats. Weak interior design with lots of hard plastics.
As some of my colleagues have mentioned, we drove the Versa at the road course at Waterford Hills. There, the Versa was easily the least thrilling car, but it was actually very helpful as a teaching tool. The steering is direct and feels nice, too, but the body roll is extreme even though grip is actually OK.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
2012 Nissan Versa Sedan SL
Base price (with destination): $11,750
Price as tested: $16,320
1.6-liter direct-injected I-4
5-speed manual transmission
AM/FM/CD radio w/Aux-in
Trip computer w/clock
15-inch steel wheels w/full wheel covers
Electronic braking distribution
Vehicle dynamics control
Options on this vehicle:
SL CVT trim – $4570
Continuously variable transmission
15-inch alloy wheels
Power windows & locks
Remote keyless entry
Steering wheel w/audio controls
60/40 split-fold rear seat
Chromed door handles
Key options not on vehicle:
Tech package – $700
XM satellite radio
1.6-liter direct-injected I-4
Horsepower: 109 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 107 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Continuously variable automatic
Curb weight: ~2360 pounds
15-inch alloy wheels
185/65R15 all-season tires