Unlike most new cars, the Versa S is not strong on showroom appeal; its job is to allow dealers to place newspaper ads that scream “DRIVE HOME A NEW VERSA FOR JUST $59 DOWN!” while the sales reps upsell their prospects to vehicles that are nicer and more profitable rather than the $12,800 base Versa sedan.
|Engine: 1.6 liter 4-cylinder engine producing 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: S models offers a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic; S Plus gets a CVT.
Fuel Economy: 27 MPG city/36 MPG highway with a manual trans, 26/35 with the 4-speed automatic, and 31/41 with a CVT. We drove the manual and averaged 35.1.
Price: $12,800 as tested, including an $810 destination fee.
So the Versa S does its best to fade into the background with body-color window frames and blacked-out door handles (the opposite of the nicer SL and SV models). Its 15″ steel wheels wear simple plastic wheel covers, and color choices are limited to white, silver, grey, black, or blue. Even the chrome garnish that surrounds the grille on nicer Versas is jettisoned in the name of thrift.
Can You Bear Such A Basic Cabin?
But if you check out the standard equipment list, you’ll see that the Versa isn’t quite so stripped down as you might expect. Forget about nice-to-haves like power windows, mirrors or locks, Bluetooth, or even a remote trunk release; you won’t find them. But the Versa S does come with air conditioning, a two-speaker stereo with an auxiliary input jack, and power steering, all standard. The only option for the S is a four-speed automatic, priced at $1,000; Nissan also makes a $14,600 version called the S Plus, which comes with cruise control, a CVT transmission, and a few extra paint colors, plus a trunk spoiler.
With none of the contrasting-color interior trim found on nicer Versas, the S model’s dash is a large, unadorned expanse of hard black plastic, echoed by more plastic on the door panels. The seats are covered in a material that feels like institutional bed linen, and like most cut-rate car upholstery, it’s a magnet for pet hair. But the big windows let in plenty of light, and the playful shapes throughout the cabin give it a bit of personality. And it’s hard not to appreciate the straightforward control layout, with simple three-dial air conditioning controls and an easy-to-use stereo.
The real surprise is the back seat, which is incredibly roomy — in fact, the Versa offers more back-seat head- and leg-room than many mid-size cars, including Nissan’s own Altima. The seat bottom cushion is a bit short; with so much space, there’s certainly room for more thigh support. Still, it’s almost scandalous how much comfort is on offer for back-seat passengers. The trunk is generously sized at 14.9 cubic feet, and at the Versa’s cheap price, we can forgive the chintzy trunk mat and the lack of a fold-down seat (which is offered on the SV and SL).
All this space had us thinking of the Versa in a family way, so we looked into its crash test scores. Again, better than we expected given the price: Though it failed the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s tough new small-overlap crash test (as have many small cars), the Versa scored “Good” (best possible marks) in front, side and roof-crash tests. From the Fed, the Versa earned four out of five stars, with only three stars in the front-impact test. Like all new cars, the Versa comes standard with antilock brakes, electronic stability control, and six airbags (two in front, two front-seat-mounted torso airbags, and side curtain airbags), but advanced active safety features such as lane-departure or blind-spot warning systems or a backup camera are nowhere to be found.
Light Weight Makes Little Engine Ok
All Versas are powered by a 109 horsepower 1.6 liter engine. It’s noisy, but its 107 lb-ft of torque provides all the zip the 2,400 lb Versa requires. EPA fuel economy estimates are 27 MPG city and 36 MPG highway for the five-speed manual and 26/35 with the optional four-speed auto. The CVT in the S Plus is significantly better at 31 city/40 highway, but we were quite satisfied with the 35.1 MPG we saw in our manual-transmission test car.
Steering precision is not a Versa strong point, but the ride is comfortable and smooth and the suspension takes on big jolts without the cheap-sounding clunks and clatters we’re used to hearing in other inexpensive cars. A light clutch and reasonably precise shifter rounded out a driving experience that was quite a bit better than we expected given the Versa’s bargain-basement price.
Overall, we were impressed by how much Versa one gets for 13 grand. Of all the amenities not found in the Versa S, the only two we missed were power locks (with only one key slot in the driver’s door, getting the family in and out and getting the car locked up becomes a major production) and the remote trunk release (which makes locking one’s keys in the trunk a real possibility). But we had everything else we needed: Room for our growing kids, air conditioning, music, and enough power to merge onto the freeway without aggravating our ulcers. That pretty much fills our basic family-car requirements.
And if you want more, the Versa offers it: SL and SV models have significantly nicer interiors and more creature comforts, without a huge increase in price. A fully-loaded Versa SL with power everything, alloy wheels, Bluetooth, automatic transmission, keyless entry and ignition, touch-screen stereo with satellite radio, and optional navigation system lists for $18,460. That’s more than $700 hundred bucks better than the least-expensive Honda Civic sedan.
In terms of cheap-car rivals, the Chevrolet Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage come the closest on price at $12,995 and $13,790 respectively. Both offer more standard equipment, but they can’t match the Versa on size or speed. (We’re intentionally leaving out the $13,240 Smart ForTwo, which lacks air conditioning and a back seat.)
One could argue that the best alternative to the Nissan Versa S is a good used car; there are plenty of serviceable family sedans to be found for thirteen grand. But there’s a lot to be said for the peace of mind that comes with a new car, especially one covered by a nice long factory warranty — in the case of the Versa, 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper and 5 years/60,000 miles on the powertrain.
It may not be glitzy, it may not be glamorous, but the Nissan Versa S is a better car than we expected, especially given its bargain-basement price. Not only does it provide new-car peace-of-mind (and that new car smell), but it’s easy to live with and even offers serious family-car credentials. In terms of basic A-to-B transportation, it’s about as good a bargain as you’re going to find.