First Drive: 2012 Nissan Versa Sedan

Small, budget-friendly cars and the 40-mpg fuel-efficiency barrier are on the minds of many people, what with gas prices trampolining around the $4-per-gallon mark and the economy very slowly recovering from grim times.

The brand-new 2012 Nissan Versa definitely has the small, budget-friendly thing down. The car fails, however, to achieve the magic 40-mpg mark; the EPA rates the CVT-equipped Versa sedan at 30/38 mpg city/highway and the stick-shifted car at 27/36 mpg.

Does 40 mpg really matter?
Nissan officials downplay the shortness of spec, stressing that all competitive vehicles cost more and that some require costly option packages to reach the sacred four-oh. "Cost of ownership" and "buzz versus reality" are more important than fuel mileage, according to vice president of product planning Larry Dominique, who says that the EPA estimates the Versa's annual fuel cost at $36 more than that of the also-new-for-2012 Hyundai Accent, which is rated at 30/40 mpg. Fortunately for Nissan, a similarly equipped base Accent also happens to cost $3205 more than the Versa. Unfortunately for Nissan, the Accent is a markedly nicer car that also happens to weigh about the same and offers 29 extra horsepower.

The Versa's low price is definitely its biggest asset. "This is a product for people who are looking for good value," Dominique said when asked why the vehicle won't offer fancy features such as a sunroof, heated leather seats, and direct fuel injection. "We're trying to apply the right technology to the right price point." For instance, the Versa sedan does offer Bluetooth connectivity and the company's "low-cost" navigation system.

What's it cost?
The most basic trim level is the 1.6S MT (for manual transmission), which carries a base price of $11,750; this is the only model available with a stick shift, and no options besides paint color are offered. Air-conditioning is standard across the board, though, unlike in the Accent. Stepping up to the CVT-equipped version of the S trim level adds a dear $1770 to that, for a total of $13,520; a bit more money ($350) brings cruise control, two rear speakers, and a trunk light (whoopee!) to the S CVT. The Versa SV, which Nissan expects to be the most popular trim level, is the next rung up the ladder; its starting tariff is $15,320, and it adds helpful (and usually standard these days) features like cruise control, power windows, remote keyless entry, and a tachometer as well as splashes of chrome trim inside and out. (Bluetooth, an iPod input, and steering-wheel audio controls headline the SV's $350 Convenience Package.) Navigation is available only as part of the $700 Tech Package on the top-of-the-line Versa SL sedan, which starts at $16,320 and includes standard niceties such as aluminum wheels, foglights, and cloth door trim accents.

The 2012 Versa sedan will go on sale in early August. Excluding the $760 destination charge, the '11 sedan came in just under the $10,000 mark, at $9990. The 2012 base model costs exactly $1000 more.

One step at a time
Why have you read the word "sedan" so many times so far in this review? Because the hatchback Versa stands pat for 2012 and will likely have to wait until the 2013 model year (and the next auto-show season) to receive its own comprehensive update.

During the 2010 calendar year, Nissan says, Versa sedan and hatchback models led their segment in sales, comprising 30.8 percent of the market. The hatchback accounted for about 65 percent of Versa sales, so Nissan sees lots of room for improvement for the sedan version and less pressing demands to improve the hatchback, which costs significantly more (the 2011 edition starts at $15,140).

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