No matter what some pundits might say, the fact remains that in North America, we simply don’t live in a small car culture. Given a choice between buying a pint-size people mover and something that’s bigger and better equipped at the same price, in most cases consumers will opt for the latter.
|1. With its $10,990 base price the 2012 Versa is currently the least expensive car for sale in the U.S.
2. A new dual-injection setup helps the Versa’s 1.6L 4-cyl make 109-hp and achieve 30/38-mpg.
3. The five-speed manual gearbox is only offered on the S and SV trim levels.
4. A split 60/40 folding rear seat isn’t available on the base car.
That said, even at the entry level, a car needn’t be a penalty box on wheels. That’s something Nissan is hoping it has with its revamped 2012 Versa sedan. Designed to compete with the likes of the Ford Fiesta sedan and recently re-worked Toyota Yaris, it promises to offer a good blend of fuel economy, practicality and interior room at the lowest possible entry price. Question is, does it?
Certainly in the looks department, the new Versa is a radical departure from the old, which was rather sensible and boxy looking, leaving some to question whether it was actually conceived for 1997 instead of 2007.
The new one is much more fluid, following Nissan’s current design language, sporting curvaceous fenders and an almost cokebottle profile from some angles. Squint and you might mistake it for a baby Altima sedan. That said, in profile it perhaps looks a tad awkward thanks to a noticeable rear overhang. Clearly necessary to provide any meaningful amount of trunk space, this aspect is by no means unique to the Versa – the Fiesta suffers from it too.
There’s an old saying, you get what you pay for and for most consumer goods this still rings true. However, despite it’s low entry price point ($10,990), the Versa is decently screwed together, there’s also styling aspects that have a functional purpose, such as the crease in the roof which helps reduce vibrations transmitted into the cabin, while available front fascia and wheel deflectors also help lower the car’s drag coefficient, down to a respectable .31 cd.
Nissan is actively promoting the new Versa’s interior space as a major selling point and when you step in you’re greeted with a cabin that does indeed feel rather spacious. Boasting an overall volume of 90 cubic feet, with some 14.8 feet of trunk space, the Versa definitely ranks among the most capacious cars in its sub-compact class and legroom is particularly impressive.
For an entry-level car, interior fit and finish isn’t bad, sure there’s acres of hard plastic, but it feels decently solid, with the controls not feeling as flimsy as some Nissans in the past. The seats aren’t going to win any awards for design and fit, but they’re decently comfortable by small car standards and far better than those found in some recent offerings, notably the recently departed Chevy Aveo.
However it’s the accommodations for rear seat riders that impress the most. There’s enough leg space for even tall adults and sitting in back doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been relegated to the kiddie pew. However, the low entry price of this car means there are some limitations. Most of the good stuff, like air conditioning, keyless entry, cruise control, Bluetooth, hands free communication and in-car navigation/entertainment system with 5-inch screen costs extra.
The Versa is offered in three trim levels for 2012: S (priced at that $10,990), SV ($14,560) and SL ($15,560), though by the time you’ve added in all the extra features on the top of the line SL, such as the Tech Package, which include Bluetooth, the nav system and Sirius XM satellite radio – you’re looking at around $18,000, which is a significant jump from the much-touted base price.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
It’s not often that the concept of ground up redesign actually rings true, though the 2012 Versa comes closer than most. Underpinning it is Nissan’s new corporate-wide V-platform that actually weighs less than its predecessor by some 150 lbs (most of that due to fewer components). The 2012 is also shorter and lower, though that extra 2.7-inches in rear overhang lends the impression that it is in fact longer.
In terms of actual engineering, the new Versa is small car conventional: unibody construction, familiar MacStrut front suspension with a torsion beam axle in the rear. Only one engine is currently offered in North America, a 1.6-liter twin-cam four cylinder, the second generation HR16DE. Improvements over last year’s motor include a dual injector system for each cylinder, designed to provide better fuel delivery, atomization and improved combustion. Continuously Variable Timing Control on both the intake and exhaust ports also helps promote better burning and is said to improve fuel economy by four percent. In the Versa sedan, it’s rated at 109 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 107 lb-ft of torque at 4400.
Two transmissions are available: a five-speed manual and a CVT. While the latter isn’t likely to generate a lot of enthusiasm, to Nissan’s credit there’s been a fair bit of work done to it in order to try and improve pick up. An auxiliary box housing a set of planetary gears and wider ratio, result in a notably improved driving experience, especially when cresting hills or curves, there’s more of an aggressive downshift, allowing the engine to work in its peak rpm range, without having to floor the accelerator. Interestingly enough, the little four-banger, although still somewhat of a buzz bomb, isn’t quite as thrashy as some other small fours we’ve sampled. In terms of fuel economy, Nissan says this engine will help the Versa do 30 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the open road, the best we could muster was 25/34 respectively.
Handling and ride are about average for the class, not as sporty as the Fiesta, but more dynamic than the outgoing Yaris (we had yet to sample the new model as this review went to press). Turn in is fairly precise and despite electric assist, the steering doesn’t feel as disconnected as some setups we’ve tested.
Given its small footprint, the tires, especially the optional 185/65/15 high rolling resistance rubber, provide plenty of protest when you start chucking this little car about, though in the context for what it was designed for, the Versa is reasonably stable and predictable, though on really rough roads the rear beam axle can make it seem a bit choppy at times. Ride is decent enough, even on bad pavement (we ended up in the midst of a very long construction zone during our test drive), which should prove welcome for the majority of commuters at which the Versa is aimed at.
Considering the car’s entry price it probably comes as no surprise that front disc and rear drum brakes are standard, though fortunately so is anti-lock, electronic braking assistance and of course Nissan’s Vehicle Dynamic Control system. The anchors are decent enough, though like every other dynamic aspect of this car, do what’s asked of them and not a whole lot more.
Despite relatively high fuel prices, small cars still haven’t caught on with the majority of North American consumers. The 2012 Nissan Versa aims to entice them by offering new car motoring at a used car cost. Although it’s not going to win any awards, in terms of an every day commuter car, it’s a competent, if a somewhat uninspiring effort, delivering a decent blend of quality, refinement, safety and practicality for not a lot of pocket change. Just like it says on the box.