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