Ronald Montoya, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
With a base price of $10,990, the 2012 Nissan Versa 1.6 S is the least expensive new car in America. Its roll-up windows, manual door locks and two-speaker sound system are as bare-bones as it gets these days. It's all you need. Or is it?
The base model of any given vehicle is meant to entice you onto the showroom floor of a car dealership. Maybe you've seen such a car in a newspaper ad that carries the headline, "One at This Price!" You can't help but wonder if less is really more. Intrigued, you visit the dealership, take a look at the car, and just out of curiosity about a few more convenience features, you utter those fateful words, "Can you show me something a little nicer?" And then as usual you buy something a little more expensive than you can afford.
The question is, what kind of car can you get for $11,000? Is it a bargain, real value for money? Or is it a stripped-down shell of disappointment? It's a very interesting sort of automotive calculus. What do you get in the cheapest car sold in America? And what's more important, the newness of the car or the quality of the features?
At this price point, you cannot ignore the prospect of a lightly used car, which probably has more features for the same amount of money. In fact, for the same price as a base-model 2012 Nissan Versa 1.6 S, you can get a three-year-old Nissan Sentra with twice the number of standard features. Go back a couple more years and that same $11K can get you the larger and more refined Nissan Altima.
If you're like 90 percent of the car-buying public, the base price of this 2012 Nissan Versa 1.6 S is a bit deceptive, because chances are, you'll want an automatic transmission. This is the model we tested and the automatic adds $2,130 to the price tag. Tack on the standard $780 destination fee and suddenly this $11K car is a stone's throw away from $14,000.
The 2012 Nissan Versa is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. In Edmunds instrumented track testing, the Versa went from a standstill to 60 mph in 10.3 seconds. When it comes to braking, the Versa 1.6 S pairs its front disc brakes with rear drum brakes, so the action of the brake pedal feels a little long. The car still came to a stop from 60 mph in 131 feet, which is about average for this class.
Our test model of the 1.6 S was equipped with the optional continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). In theory, a CVT helps maximize engine efficiency so it gets the most out of a small amount of horsepower. The CVT does a good enough job of driving around town, delivering smooth getaways from stoplights and producing an effortless driving experience. At highway speeds, the transmission will occasionally search for its ideal ratio if you abruptly change the throttle input and you'll feel as if the power is surging.
Of course, the way in which you'll best appreciate the CVT's contribution to efficiency lies in fuel economy. The EPA says that the Versa is capable of an estimated 30 mpg in the city/38 highway and a combined 33 mpg. During our brief time with the vehicle, we recorded a best of 36 mpg and an all-around average of 30 mpg.
As far as handling goes, it's easy to belittle the soft calibration of the Versa 1.6 S's suspension and its unfashionable 65-series tires. Yet the Versa is impressively comfortable as a result, and the P185/65R15 Continental ContiProContact tires effectively isolate the cabin from the persistent road harshness that more aggressive tire choices always exhibit. The body rolls a lot in the corners, yet the car always proves predictable, although the cornering limits are not high.
The seats of this base model Versa are supportive, although the soft, spongy character of the cushions isn't to our taste, maybe because we've been spoiled by cars at high price points. This car features a six-way manually adjustable driver seat, plus the steering wheel tilts (although it doesn't telescope), which together improve your ability to find a comfortable driving position even in this basic, bare-bones car.
There's plenty of room inside the 2012 Nissan Versa, and this is especially true in the rear seat, which offers the most rear legroom among subcompact cars. Parents will be happy to know that they can fit a rear-facing child seat with room to spare — a rare feat in the subcompact class.
The Versa's engine doesn't make particularly good noises at full throttle, but its behavior at cruising speed is far more composed. Although you notice more wind and road noise than you expect when the car is accelerating, there's less noise at cruising speed than you expect.
It's easy to think that power door locks are a frivolous convenience item, yet this car's manual door locks were the thing that made the Versa 1.6 S seem cheap every time we drove it. Everyone complained about the manual door locks. And such unhappiness is intensified because the car has just one exterior door lock. The driver door is the only way into the car, and this becomes an obstacle not just for admitting passengers but also for loading gear. You can live with manual locks, but it's surprisingly annoying to do so.
On the other hand, we were pleased to see that the Versa 1.6 S's list of standard equipment includes air-conditioning and a good quality audio system. The stereo has only two speakers, but they sound good, and you also have a single-disc CD player and an auxiliary jack for your MP3 player. Of course, you can forget about controls on the steering wheel, not to mention cruise control. And if you need a navigation system, you'll be shopping for one from your local electronics outlet.
In our real-world usability tests, we found that the 14.8 cubic feet of the Versa's trunk are enough to accommodate a useful amount of luggage and a bag of golf clubs. At this trim level for the Versa, the rear seat cannot be folded down, which seriously compromises the car's utility. You get cupholders front and rear, plus bottle holders in the door pockets (a 12-volt power outlet, too), but forget about a remote trunk release.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Nissan Versa sedan was redesigned for 2012, and it shares some styling cues with the forthcoming 2013 Nissan Altima and 2013 Sentra. The Versa certainly has a more upscale look than before.
Inside the car it's a different story. Although this is far from one of the vinyl-trimmed interiors of the 1970s, the plastic is hard, not soft. The seat upholstery is more like seat covering, and it made us wonder about long-term durability. The instrument display is sparse and plain, although it reminds you that most modern instrumentation is about marketing, not science.
On the whole, the cabin of the Nissan Versa 1.6 S reminds you of a hybrid compact car, not a German sedan. It shows good build quality, but the look is purposely plain and the intention is function, not comfort and convenience.
Who should consider this vehicle
Worry-free practicality is the primary appeal of the 2012 Nissan Versa 1.6 S. It offers perfectly good performance, excellent fuel economy and surprising comfort. It is about transportation, not luxury. A used car might offer a greater level of convenience features, yet the Versa counters with an assured level of reliability and durability, not to mention a warranty to back it up.
The 2012 Nissan Versa 1.6 S demonstrates that cheap cars have come a long way in 20 years. If you need a fuel-efficient commuter car for the lowest price possible, then the Versa 1.6 S can be a good fit. Even so, cars with a greater level of convenience are enticingly close in price to this one, and we came away from the Versa feeling that we could do better. The Nissan Versa 1.6 S is clearly a bargain, but you have to decide if a bargain is really what you want.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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