First Drive: 2012 Nissan Versa Sedan

July 14, 2011
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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.
2012 Nissan Versa Sedan Top View
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).
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.)
2012 Nissan Versa Sedan Front View
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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2012 Nissan Versa

1.6 S FWD 4-Dr Sedan I4
starting at (MSRP)
$10,990
Engine
1.6L I4
Fuel Economy
27 City 36 Hwy
2012 Nissan Versa