2012 Nissan Versa Expert Review:Autoblog
America's Cheapest Car Returns With More
V is for Versa, and Nissan would like you to believe that its 2012 Versa also stands for volume, value, virtues, versatility and, since we're out of Vs, sophistication. While other automakers have been out to redefine the idea of the compact car as something hip and sporty – no longer the moped of cardom – Nissan developed this Versa "to redefine compact car value, giving buyers everything they want and need in one stylish package."
That means the Versa makes math arguments, not emotional ones. It wants to give you more than you'll get elsewhere and not make you feel bad about going for its attributes instead of allure. As the segment sales leader, that argument has been working for years. Yet with other manufacturers adding new variables, we went to Seattle to see if the Versa still makes a case for itself.
And it does... if you like numbers.
On our flight to Seattle, the seat next to us was occupied by a gentleman who works for travel portal Expedia.com. During some final-approach jawboning, he mentioned Expedia's exclusive deal with Air Asia, the low-cost airline owned by the same Tony Fernandes funding Formula One's Lotus Racing team. Mr. Expedia called the airline "the Southwest Airlines of Asia," and explained how Fernandes was succeeding rather impressively by offering a feature-rich flying experience at a cost appreciably lower than that of his competitors. An Air Asia flight wouldn't be as luxurious as one enjoyed in British Airway's Business Club, but it would cost about half as much and you'd still get lie-flat beds, free meals and no baggage fees.
In what we can only call high coincidence, we soon discovered that the 2012 Nissan Versa is a ground-based version of the same philosophy: big feature set, small price and just enough polish to make it all okay.
Perhaps the most important feature of the new Versa is the one that isn't on the car: the $10,990 sticker price (plus $760 destination and handling) for the base Versa S sedan. At the time of writing, there's no new car in America that's less expensive – and we're avoiding the word "cheaper" on purpose. The least expensive Hyundai in the States is the $14,195 Accent, which means venerable Nissan is trumpeting the production of a car that's $3,200 less dear than a Hyundai. Yes, it's also less powerful, less stylish and gets slightly fewer highway miles per gallon (it gets the same combined mpg, though), but just to be safe, we'd advise you to look out your windows for the man who said he'd be coming on a white horse...
Admittedly, while that base Versa S does come with air-conditioning and a modest two-speaker AM/FM/CD/Aux stereo, it will also come with liberal use of your own hands to operate the five-speed transmission (the Accent manual comes with six cogs) and manual door locks and windows. Furthermore, the dashboard appears to have been designed by a Cyclops, with a centrally-placed speedometer and tiny digital readout the sole occupants of the recess behind the steering wheel. The only option is the exterior color. This is a vehicle that defines the word "base." Jump to the near-Accent-spec Versa SV with a CVT (no manual offered on the upper trims) and more electric gubbins in the cabin and you're at $14,560.
Still, $10,990 for transport with mod-cons to get you comfortably through a Midwestern summer brought to you by Heat Miser, as well as the same six airbags and four driving nannies (ABS, EBD, VDC, TCS) of the top trims, is a noteworthy balm for our Great Recession times.
The complete pricing story is a short one, with just three trims – Versa S, SV and SL – at four prices points. Add the Xtronic CVT and high-efficiency alternator to the S and the price climbs to $12,760, but you can add the option of a $350 Cruise Control package that also throws in two rear speakers, silver steering wheel accents and – wait for it – a trunk light. The SV begins at $14,560 and is differentiated from the S with chrome accents on the grille and door handles, a Fine Vision gauge cluster that includes a tach and an ancillary digital panel, and "upgraded seat cloth." The Cruise package is standard, and the single optional package is called Convenience, also $350, which adds Bluetooth, more audio options (iPod, MP3, SSV, RDS), steering wheel controls, map lights and vanity mirrors. The peak of Versa Mountain is occupied by the SL trim at $15,560, which comes with the Convenience pack, then swaps alloy wheels for the 15-inch steelies of the lower versions and adds front fog lights, a 60/40 split rear seat and chrome interior accents. The only place up from there is to grab the Tech Package and avail yourself of Nissan's low-cost navigation system, Satellite Radio with Nav Traffic and a USB port on the double-din head. Nissan expects the middle-child SV to be the most popular model – a maxed out version tallies $15,770 including destination.
There are eight exterior colors in the armory, but only two interior treatments: charcoal and sandstone. If you were wishing there were more menu items, Larry Dominique, the VP of product planning, said that "over time you'll see more features come into the set."
What do you get for those prices? "Spaciousness and value" were the first words off the lips of Rob Warren, in charge of marketing the new car, and "value and interior roominess" was the immediate answer offered by Mark Perry, Nissan's director of product planning. In print and in person, Nissan reps kept stressing that the Versa is "a real car," referring to its features and capability, not some Cro-Magnon jalopy spit out the back factory door. The 90 cubic feet of interior volume, a few molecules grander than the Accent sedan, is plenty of room for business and pleasure. With the driver's seat in our on-duty position, when we sat in the rear we found heaps of room between our knees and the seat back. Putting the passenger seat so far back that it almost felt like lounging, there was still almost five inches between the front seat-back and our knees when we sat in the back seats. The trunk is another healthy cavity, with 14.8 cubic feet to play with. We're told that if you put the rear seat down, the boot can swallow a bicycle.
Compare this Versa to the previous generation, though, and the 2012 is actually smaller: Nissan's site registers the 2011 sedan at 94.3 cubic feet of interior volume, with an inch more rear legroom and hip room, but an inch less rear shoulder room. Nissan boasts that the 2012 still owns best-in-class rear legroom.
In fact, the entire 2012 car is a fraction smaller than its 2011 counterpart. They share the same 102.4-inch wheelbase and 66.7-inch width, but the 2012 is 1.2 inches lower and 0.6 inches shorter. The body has been shifted back over that wheelbase, however, with the front overhang shrinking by about three inches, and an extra 2.7 inches placed behind the rear wheels to boost that cargo room. It's also lighter – the 2012 Versa sheds 150 pounds over its predecessor thanks to the new V Platform, which replaces the previous B Platform and has 20 percent fewer components – and incremental savings like lighter seats.
Perry said the shrinkage was made possible by the more compact engine and CVT. The second-generation, dual-injected 1.6-liter that will power all trims (the 1.8-liter engine has been nixed) is a new design that gets more horsepower but less torque than the 1.6 it replaces: 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet, a gain of two ponies and a loss of four pound-feet. Operating through the smaller, lighter, reduced-friction, second-generation CVT, it also gets better gas mileage, posting 30 miles per gallon in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined. Not only is the combined number the same as that of the 40-highway-mpg Hyundai Accent, but it also matches the combined mpg of the Fiesta SFE. The five-speed manual returns 27 city, 36 highway, 30 combined.
How does she run? Fine. And that's not a tepid "fine," either – that's an all-in, right-down-the-middle, hardcore fine. The CVT doesn't call attention to itself, nor does the engine unless you request every horse in the corral, in which case it groans like angry cattle. But you won't need to do that often; even the vertiginous, slow-speed slopes of residential Seattle didn't get the 1.6-liter out of shape. The suspension has been redesigned, but it's still independent MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam in back with stabilizers all 'round. It's fine. Steering gets de rigueur electric assist. It's fine. The NVH is fine. You could drive it all day and get out in good sorts. The whole thing is perfectly... fine.
And that rounds out the $10,990 nuts and bolts of the 2012 Nissan Versa, which is really what this segment is about – a highly favorable dollar-per-function quotient. If you have a little bit of money, Nissan has a lot of car for you.
As to how it looks... well, the Versa's visuals are its only dramatic aspect. We're not talking about dramatic looks, but how people feel about how it looks. While other automakers are tarting things up, Nissan's extra helping of vanilla hasn't gone over with the vocal set. When the Versa was unveiled at the 2011 New York Auto Show, we asked Nissan's VP of corporate communications, David Reuter, about the styling. His answer was, "The Fiesta may have been getting the press, this is what was selling. We were up 20 percent last year. Our competitors have gone for sporty and styling, but that's not what these buyers want. Subcompact buyers want a dependable, roomy car with good fuel economy, and they want the features and specs to feel they spent a lot more on a car than they did." Fair enough.
We will give the exterior design higher marks than the 2011 model – the current-gen being a sedan version of the five-door that we called an "inoffensively styled Japanese hatchy thing." We're going to start handing out dimes every time we write this, but it does look better in person. The three-quarter-angle press photos make the rear end look tapered, like it's trying to hide its tail, but standing next to it reveals a simple, shouldered sedan, creased at the tips and smooth along the sides for efficient airflow. More mature and more sophisticated, yes and yes.
Inside, it's plastic fantastic. The steering wheel buttons are cute, the instrument panel has nice dimensionality and the range of plastic textures and tones shows some thought went into it. The controls are firm and solid. It has less style but more (praiseworthy) substance than the Fiat 500, even though the meager center console features look like flotsam in a plastic sea. Earlier, we avoided the word "cheaper" because nothing about the interior screams "We cut corners to make this happen." But, especially in the S, it does say 'really inexpensive' – probably because it is. The cabin doesn't move the needle, but there's nothing wrong with it. And did we mention there's a lotta room inside and it's a fine place to work?
Since the Versa is the runaway segment sales leader and Nissan hasn't been giving them away compared to the competition, we'll trust that Nissan knows what buyers want. And in the new Versa, the company has thoroughly delivered on all of the points Reuter outlined*. (*Reliability results to come.)
So it should be case closed, right?
It would be, except for the fact that the inexpensive subcompact forest has never been so lush in features, and frankly, never had any kind of style until now. The base 2012 Versa represents a 30-percent discount compared to a Hyundai Accent, but even Nissan believes the $14,560 SV will be the biggest mover, so we'll use that for comparison. A 2011 Ford Fiesta SE sedan rings up $14,500, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic sedan will start at $13,735 (note: we don't know how it will compare feature-wise) and the aforementioned Accent is $14,195. The competitors are packing more style, but elsewhere it's give-and-take when it comes to other considerations like interior room, power and gas mileage. On top of that, the new Toyota Yaris this way comes, Dodge is prepping a 40-mpg runabout and we have to assume the hottified 2012 Kia Rio will be priced to fight.
Can the Versa's clear, unadorned function beat those kinds of form? That's a huge question.
It won't take long to find out, with the 2012 Versa sedan going on sale this week. (If you're wondering about the hatch, the best we could get as to its arrival was that it will come "in the cadence of global launches.") And if at the end of 2012 the Versa still lords over the segment, then Nissan can assign another term to that V: "Vindication."
New Car Test Drive
All-new sedan version easy on the wallet.
The 2012 Nissan Versa lineup features a completely re-engineered version of the Versa sedan. The 2012 Versa is available in sedan and hatchback variants, but while the Versa sedan is all-new, the 2012 Versa hatchback carries over on the previous-generation platform. A new hatchback will be introduced as a 2013 model.
Both Versa body styles offer spacious interiors with decent head- and legroom, making them a good choice for larger drivers. Back-seat passengers will find rear-seat leg room as good as that in larger cars and SUVs, making Versa a usable four-passenger car. The cabin is comfortable and offers a good number of conveniences. In short, the Nissan Versa is a roomy, practical small car.
The 2012 Versa sedan is all-new and therefore a better choice than the hatchback. The new sedan gets better fuel economy than 2012 Versa hatchback.
The 2012 Versa four-door sedan rides on a new platform, dubbed V for versatile, which makes the 2012 Versa sedan 150 pounds lighter than the first-generation sedan (2008-2011 models). This second-generation Versa sedan uses a slightly smaller engine than before, a 1.6-liter four-cylinder good for a modest but effective 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on the 2012 Versa sedan, while a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is included on higher trim levels. The 2012 Versa sedan also gets revised steering and suspension, which makes for more responsive handling.
Fuel economy is the name of the game for the new 2012 Versa sedan. Thanks to weight savings and new engine technology including dual fuel injection, the all-new 2012 Versa sedan achieves an EPA-estimated 27/36 mpg City/Highway and 30 mpg Combined with the manual, or an admirable 30/38/33 miles per gallon with the CVT.
The 2012 Versa hatchback, unlike the sedan, carries over unchanged from 2011. The hatchback is essentially the same body style as the first-generation version that launched as a 2008 model. It rides on the previous-generation platform. The hatchback uses a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 122 hp and 127 lb-ft of torque. On the base Versa S hatch, a 6-speed manual transmission comes standard, with an optional 4-speed automatic. The hatchback's extra power and weight dings fuel economy, with an EPA rating of 26/31/28 mpg City/Highway/Combined with the manual and 24/32/27 mpg with the automatic. The upper-level Versa SL hatchback comes standard with a CVT, which brings fuel economy up to 28/34/30.
The 2012 Versa sedan beats the fuel economy of the 2012 hatchback by a wide margin, making the new sedan more economical in the long run than the hatch. An all-new 2013 Versa hatchback will introduced in late 2012 or early 2013 as a 2013 model, so look for that.
The Versa subcompact competes with the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, and Hyundai Accent. Those looking primarily for space might like the Versa's larger dimensions, which are larger than those of the Fit or Yaris. Versa also offers a low price of entry. All in all, the Nissan Versa is good basic transportation with good fuel economy at an affordable price.
The 2012 Nissan Versa is available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback.
The 2012 Versa sedan comes in three trim levels: S, SV and SL. Versa S comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission ($10,990) or an optional CVT ($13,120). Features include air conditioning, manually adjustable driver's seat, a trip computer and a two-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack. Versa S models ride on 15-inch steel wheels. A Cruise Control package ($350) is available on models with the CVT and includes cruise control, two additional audio speakers and trunk lighting.
Versa SV sedan ($14,980) comes standard with the CVT and the Cruise Control package plus keyless entry, full power accessories, upgraded cloth upholstery and upgraded gauges. The SV Convenience package ($350) adds Bluetooth handsfree phone connectivity and an iPod/USB port.
Versa SL sedan ($15,990) gets everything that comes with the SV Convenience package plus a 60/40-split-folding rear seat, fog lights and 15-inch alloy wheels. The SL Tech package ($700) adds navigation with touchscreen interface and satellite radio capability.
The Versa hatchback is available in two trim levels. Versa S comes standard with a 6-speed manual ($14,670) or an optional 4-speed automatic ($15,870). Features include air conditioning, full power accessories, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat, a four-speaker audio system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack, plus 15-inch steel wheels. The Plus package ($500) adds keyless entry and cruise control. A Special Edition package ($700) is also available on hatchbacks equipped with the automatic transmission and includes the features found on the Plus package plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an upgraded audio system, steering-wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth handsfree phone capability and unique 15-inch alloy wheels, the latter of which are also available a la carte ($470). Versa SL hatchback ($18,590) comes standard with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and includes all the S model's optional equipment plus keyless ignition/entry, better cloth upholstery, front and rear center armrests, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and a six-speaker audio system. Navigation with a touchscreen interface ($700) is also available.
Safety features on all Versa models include front airbags, supplemental front seat-mounted front side airbags, roof-mounted side curtain airbags, antilock brakes (ABS), traction control, stability control, Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) and brake assist.
The Nissan Versa looks bigger than a subcompact car. The new sedan is slightly more than six inches longer than the old hatchback. The old hatch is nearly an inch taller than the new sedan. The Versa is slightly larger than many of the subcompacts, such as the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic, but it's smaller than the compact-class cars such as the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze.
The all-new 2012 Versa sedan is a friendly, approachable little car, without the aggressive, angry lines that many car companies are hooked on these days. The sedan's styling is clean, fluid and well proportioned. It's short on style and personality, however.
In front, the Versa sedan uses Nissan's new signature sedan grille design and jewel-like headlights. Other exterior features include an available chrome-accented grille, chrome door handles and fog lights.
The sedan employs clever design tactics that are not only aesthetic, but also practical. For example, the indented line in the middle of the roofline helps to reduce roof panel vibrations. In back, the shape of the trunk lid offers improved aerodynamics over the previous model, which decreases drag and helps to improve performance and fuel economy.
The 2012 Versa hatchback carries over from 2011. The hatch has a broad, somewhat V-shaped grille flanked by triangular headlights. The Versa SL hatchback, with its front spoiler below the bumper, has a more sporty look. It has an exceptionally short rear overhang, which means very little of the car extends past the rear wheels. In back, the side edges of the tailgate angle sharply inward to clear the cat's-eye taillights. On the SL model, the hatch gets a roof-mounted spoiler.
While the interiors of the Versa sedan and hatchback differ in design, their basic virtues are similar.
The Versa models have remarkably roomy cabins, with a generous amount of headroom along with enough legroom for 6-footers to sit in back.
Versa's fabric-covered front seats are manually adjustable but lack lumbar support, making them comfortable enough during for moderate commutes, but support fades over long drives.
The controls are easy to use and well placed, while features like navigation, Bluetooth and an USB port are welcome touches in this price range. On our test car equipped with navigation, we particularly liked that the 5-inch touchscreen displayed the station name, artist, and song title simultaneously while we jammed to XM satellite radio, a feature that's tough to find, even on much more expensive vehicles. On the downside, when our phone was paired with Versa's Bluetooth connection, we found the incoming call ringtone unpleasant and annoying.
The interior materials are of decent quality for the class, though the new sedan is nicer than the previous-generation hatchback. Three large, conventional knobs operate the climate control system. While nothing is fancy, everything is readily visible and within reach.
The Versa offers lots of legroom and headroom and it's a real standout in terms of hip room. The width and the substantial structure of the front seats makes the Versa a good choice among subcompacts for larger drivers.
Back seat space on sedan and hatchback models is particularly impressive. Even a six-footer shouldn't feel cramped as the rear seat legroom is at or near the top of the class. The Versa Sedan gives up about half an inch of rear-seat headroom to the Hatchback, but that's not all that much.
The Versa sedan boasts an enormous trunk for a subcompact, with 14.8 cubic feet of space. The hatchback nets a generous 17.8 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats in place and a maximum of 50.4 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. While this is quite large, it falls short of the Honda Fit and its flat load floor.
The Nissan Versa has modest power and is a solid choice for A-to-B transport. Fuel economy depends on the model and powertrain. The sedan with the Continuously Variable Transmission will give you the best bang for your buck with an EPA-estimated 30/38/33 City/Highway/Combined mpg. On the low end of the scale, the Versa hatchback with the 4-speed automatic gets 24/32/27 mpg.
Unless you like rowing through the gears on a manual, we recommend the CVT. It doesn't shift gears like an automatic transmission. Instead, a segmented belt rides up and down on cone-shaped pulleys to vary the speed ratio between the engine and the drivetrain. It's smooth and efficient, and most drivers probably won't notice it's anything other than a regular automatic. Nissan excels at CVT technology.
Because the hatchback uses the larger 1.8-liter engine, it has more oomph than the sedan, though at the expense of gas mileage. We had no problem merging into traffic on a fast free-flowing freeway. On winding roads, we found the hatchback's handling to be perfectly adequate. It's not sporty like a Mini Cooper, nor is it sloppy like budget cars of a few years ago.
With the new sedan, acceleration is perfectly adequate around town and on flat highway roads. But we quickly found the Versa sedan's limits once we hit hilly terrain at freeway speeds. In these situations, we often found ourselves driving with the pedal all the way to the floor.
Models equipped with the CVT behave slightly differently than those with manual or traditional automatic transmissions. For one, there is a sound of the engine revving before the car accelerates, which can be a bit disconcerting at first. And in regular stop-and-go traffic under slow acceleration, there is no sensation other than the car moving forward, with no sound or feel of shifting gears. The continuously variable transmission is a far cry from the clumsy gear shifting once common on small four-cylinder cars with 3- and 4-speed automatics.
Versa is one of the first cars in this price category to feature electric power steering. In the past we have been disappointed in the poor feel of electric steering, but Nissan seems to have designed this system so it feels just as good as any hydraulically powered steering. Sporty drivers might wish for more feedback from the steering and more power, but there's no reason for others to complain.
Braking on the Nissan Versa is decent. Because it uses rear drums, the brakes don't have the crisp bite found on cars that use discs all the way around. In past years ABS and brake assist were optional on the base model, but now all Versas come standard with these safety features.
The Nissan Versa delivers excellent roominess and decent performance in an affordable, fuel-efficient package. The sedan is all new for 2012 and gets significantly better fuel economy than the hatch. A new hatchback is on the way as a 2013 model; the 2012 Versa hatchback is a previous-generation version. By compact standards, Versa excels in terms of headroom and its cabin is roomy enough to seat four in relative comfort.
New Car Test Drive contributor Laura Burstein reported from Los Angeles on the new Versa sedan. John Rettie reported on the hatchback.
Nissan Versa S Sedan 5-speed manual ($10,990), 4-speed automatic ($13,120); SV Sedan ($14,980); SL Sedan ($15,560); S Hatchback manual ($14,670), automatic ($15,870); SL Hatchback ($18,590).
Options As Tested
Tech Package ($700) includes navigation with touchscreen interface and USB port; carpeted floor mats ($170).
Nissan Versa SL sedan ($15,560).
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