First Drive: 2012 Nissan Versa Sedan

Big in back
Besides the low, low price, the Versa sedan's next biggest selling point is that it's surprisingly spacious. To wit, the trunk is rated at a very sizable 14.8 cubic feet, and the rear seats offer a whopping 37.0 inches of rear-seat legroom, a figure that Nissan claims outranks luxoboats such as the Lexus LS, the BMW 5-series, and the Mercedes-Benz E-class. A six-foot-tall person will have plenty of legroom. The big problem, however, is that he or she will have to slouch like crazy to avoid jamming hair into headliner. (The hatchback version should be much better in this regard.)

How does it drive?
The driver of the Versa should have no problem with headroom. That person will also enjoy nice steering that has a firm feel but easy effort. Body roll is plainly evident, but ride comfort is quite good for such a small car. Handling is merely OK, but it was tough to really tell for sure on the heavily urban Seattle-area drive route that Nissan prescribed. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission performed very smoothly, although the engine's 109 horses breathe pretty hard when asked to accelerate up an on-ramp with three people aboard, for instance. It certainly doesn't feel as peppy as the 2011 Versa with the larger, 1.8-liter, 122-hp four-cylinder and six-speed manual transmission. It does help, though, that the new car weighs about 150 pounds less than its predecessor, thanks mostly to the new "V" platform underneath it, which also underpins the non-U.S.-market March and Micra. The engine has the same measurements as the previous Versa's 1.6-liter, but Nissan says it's new, and the mill utilizes variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust cycles and squirts fuel via two injectors per cylinder (not to be confused with direct injection, mind you). The CVT, too, has seen upgrades for this, its second generation, which is smaller, lighter, and more efficient than before.

We weren't given a chance to drive the price-leading, stick-shifted base model, but we couldn't help but notice that it has vague shift action and lacks basic features such as a tachometer, rear speakers, and power windows.

Harder than your Hyundai
From the base S model to the top-notch SL, the Versa is crippled by a sea of hard plastics, most notably on the dashboard, the door panels, the armrests, and the center console. The graining isn't unattractive, but it can't disguise the cost savings that's happening right before your eyes and under your fingers. Frugal fittings are apparent in many other places, too, from the undamped glove box to the cheap-feeling sun visors, from the slippery seats of the base model to the fender sound deadening foam that's visible when you open a front door. Many of these shortcomings would be acceptable in an $11,000 car, but most Versas are going to cost upwards of $15,000, where consumers are much more demanding and the competition is significantly sharper.

On the plus side, the seats are fairly comfortable, and this five-seater boasts six cupholders. Switchgear is clear and simple.

Snazzier than before
The new Versa looks much more stylish than the outgoing car. Nissan designers applied design cues from the Ellure concept that debuted at the 2010 Los Angeles show, and future Nissan products will continue in this thematic direction. The interior styling seems much less striking than that of the Versa's newest rival, that pesky Accent.

The lowdown
For people who want a new car at all costs but can't afford much, the $11,750 Versa is a perfectly acceptable and surprisingly spacious conveyance. Once you start adding options or considering the type of used car that you can buy for the same money, however, the new Versa sedan quickly starts losing its luster.

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