The 2012 Nissan Versa sedan is about as compelling as an old dishwasher, but its fuel efficiency, roominess and unrivaled value will get a lot of shoppers to overlook that.
Economy cars boast sharper looks and more features than ever, but they're inching up in price — frustrating anyone who wants cheap wheels above all else. There's still hope: Redesigned for 2012, the Versa sedan starts at $10,990, making it the least-expensive 2012 model in the U.S. For around $14,500, it's the least expensive car with an automatic transmission, air conditioning and power windows. If a low car payment matters most, mark your calendar. The Versa goes on sale in August.
The sedan comes in S, SV and SL trims. All but the S have an automatic transmission. At a media preview, I tested the SV and SL. The Versa hatchback carries over from the previous generation for 2012, with a redesign on the way. This review covers the sedan, but if you want to learn more about the hatchback, our 2011 Versa overview gives a closer look.
Outside & In
Against a freshman class of stylish sedans — such as the Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio — the Versa sinks into the background: anonymous headlights, sagging shoulders, wimpy wheels. Nissan says the 2012 Versa is the first car to take cues from the Ellure concept shown at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show, and future Nissan sedans will follow suit. I hope those suits look sharper.
Like many base models, the Versa S has black side mirrors and door handles. The higher trim levels have body-colored mirrors and chrome handles; the Versa SL adds fog lights and 15-inch alloy wheels. The car measures slightly shorter than the outgoing Versa sedan, but the trunk hangs an extra 2.7 inches past the rear wheels. That contributes to an ungainly tail but a massive trunk — 14.8 cubic feet, or clear into much larger Honda Accord and Toyota Camry territory.
The same goes for the Versa's cabin. It can fit four adults comfortably, which is nearly impossible in a Fiesta or Chevrolet Sonic. The front seats have long adjustment range and comfortable cushions, and the driver's seat bottom jacks up and forward independently of the seatback. Raising it adds thigh support without moving you closer to the wheel — an annoyance in many cars — but tall drivers who sit low may find the seat cushion too short. Drivers of all sizes will want a telescoping steering-wheel adjustment, like in the Fiesta and Honda Fit. The Versa's wheel only tilts.
Headroom in back is modest, but legroom is abundant. By the numbers, the Versa beats the Accent sedan by 3.7 inches and beats the Fiesta by nearly 6 inches. Nothing about the backseat feels subcompact — it's a cavern back there.
Most of the controls feel sturdy, and the chrome door handles and backlit gauges in uplevel trims stand out. But those are exceptions in a sea of low-budget blight. The climate dials are crude, and shiny molded plastic covers everything else. Forget armrests — the doors have a hard outcropping for your elbow. It's better than what your inboard elbow gets, which is nothing at all, even in the Versa SL. Basic conveniences such as map lights, a rear center armrest and a sunglasses holder are MIA. The previous Versa sedan had a lot of these things. Make no mistake: Its successor has moved down-market.
How It Drives
Like most entry-level cars, the Versa has adequate power for most situations, even with the air conditioning on. The continuously variable automatic transmission picks up engine revs quickly enough, but if you need power fast — merging in a pinch, for example — it delays a bit. Not that there's a whole lot there: The Versa's 109-horsepower four-cylinder howls loudly if you push it, and highway acceleration is modest. More than 160 pounds lighter than its predecessor, the Versa is no dog. But you'll want to plan your passing, especially with the added weight of passengers on board.
The steering wheel has good feedback at low speeds, but on the interstate the Versa feels out of its element. Wind and road noise are intrusive. At 70 mph, so much noise streamed off the A-pillar that I thought a window was open, and the car needs periodic corrections to stay on course. The steering gets soupier as speeds increase, adding an uncomfortable degree of guesswork to the whole process. The Versa isn't as bad as the Smart ForTwo, but competitors like the Fiesta have highway cruising down pat. Nissan has work to do.
Take it easy on curvy roads. The steering wheel points the nose where you want without too much slop, but our test car's Continental ContiProContact tires skated wide in modest handling maneuvers. Take a turn hard, and the Versa skitters off-course until the electronic stability system reins you in. Barreling around in a Fit, Fiesta or Mazda2 is fun. The Versa is best driven sensibly.
Though it has cheaper rear drum brakes — the norm for this class — the Versa stops confidently, with strong, linear pedal feel. Ride comfort is another plus. The last Versa was a soft car, and I'm glad Nissan didn't change the formula. The suspension picks up some highway rhythms, but for an economy car it isolates major bumps well. On broken pavement the Versa stays connected to the road, despite its low-tech semi-independent rear suspension. In a segment characterized by firm-riding cars such as the Fit Sport and Fiat 500, the Versa's comfort stands out.
At 30/38 mpg city/highway with the automatic, the Versa's highway gas mileage falls just short of the vaunted 40 mpg boasted by the Fiesta, Accent, Rio and Sonic. But EPA combined mileage is 33 mpg, which matches the Fiesta and automatic Accent. (As of this writing, combined EPA figures for the Rio and Sonic are still pending.) The EPA rates the stick-shift Versa S at 30 mpg overall.
Safety, Features & Pricing
The 2012 Versa sedan has not yet been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Per federal requirements, an electronic stability system is standard this year.
The stick-shift Versa S starts at a bargain-basement $10,990 — not bad, given air conditioning and a CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack are standard — but the CVT automatic adds a staggering $1,770, and power windows and locks requires the automatic-equipped $14,560 Versa SV. That's still affordable: Equipping most sedan competitors with an automatic transmission and basic power accessories costs $600 to $1,600 more.
Other options include a navigation system, full iPod stereo compatibility, steering-wheel audio controls and Bluetooth phone connectivity. Loaded up, the Versa tops out at $16,260.
Versa in the Market
Extreme bargains are scarce these days, and Nissan deserves credit for keeping the Versa wallet-friendly. But the new Accent, Fit and Fiesta are cars you actually want to own — brand emissaries that leave a good enough impression for first-time buyers to stay in the family when it's time to buy the next car. If the new Versa is anyone's first Nissan, it imparts a brand that's big on value and practicality but short on drivability and perceived quality — far from Nissan's reality, but the Versa's flavor all the same.
Among entry-level cars, value is crucial. But, increasingly, so is overall appeal. Nissan hit a bulls-eye with one of those. I just wish it had hit the board at all with the other.
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