Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
Thirty seconds behind the wheel of the 2012 Nissan Versa Sedan was all it took for us to fully appreciate the all-new Mexican-built four-door. Well, that and a quick peek at its price.
The Versa packs unquestionable new-car value. Within a compact car's footprint it delivers midsize sedan ride comfort and interior dimensions. And, at $10,990, the base-model 2012 Nissan Versa 1.6 S Sedan is the least expensive car available in the U.S.
But here's the best part; we like driving it.
In truth, the price is $11,750 after adding the $760 destination/handling fee. That price still undercuts what Nissan clearly views as its biggest competition, the 2012 Hyundai Accent GLS, by $1,455.
Standard equipment includes a 1.6-liter 109-horsepower four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, six airbags, stability- and traction-control, ABS, tire-pressure monitoring and an AM/FM/CD/aux stereo. Now the bad news. You also get just two speakers, steel wheels, manual crank windows, manual locks and specific seating materials, which are satisfactory but not exactly luxurious.
Fuel economy is part of the good news. The 1.6 S with the five-speed manual is expected to earn 27 city/36 highway/30 combined mpg. And all Versas come with a three-year/36,000-mile basic warranty (including roadside assistance) and a five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty. Despite its marketing strength, Nissan expects this base car will account for just 5-7 percent of sales once it is available in August.
Opting for a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) raises the price by $1,170 and improves fuel economy to 30 city/38 highway/33 combined for the Versa 1.6 S CVT. A $350 Cruise Control package becomes available at this level, which includes an upgraded steering wheel, two more speakers and a light for the trunk.
The Volume Player
The majority of 2012 Versa sedan sales are expected to be the midlevel 1.6 SV CVT ($15,320) that includes everything above plus power windows/locks, remote entry, chrome exterior trim, better instrumentation and improved seating materials. The SV Convenience Package ($350) is available with Bluetooth, an upgraded audio system with iPod control and steering wheel controls, map lights and vanity mirrors.
At the top of the model pecking order is the $16,320 Nissan Versa SL that includes everything above plus alloy wheels, foglamps, 60/40 split-fold rear seats and slightly upgraded interior trim. A $700 SL Tech package adds XM Satellite Radio, navigation with a 5.0-inch color touchscreen and XM Traffic, and a USB port.
Although it's a unique and quite attractive proposal to offer an in-dash navigation system in an "economy car," our limited experience with this one was less than ideal. It's the same unit Nissan uses in its fun-to-drive Juke crossover, and it has considerable interface shortcomings. In fact, during our time with the Versa we reverted to using our mobile phone because its map and interface were superior.
Aside from its funky nav system graphics and interface, the Versa's interior is hard to complain about. OK, the seat bottoms are a little short for full-size Americans and there's no armrest between the front seats, which is also a problem in our long-term Juke. But that's it. Otherwise, the inside of the Versa is a fine place to spend time.
Nissan has put some sweat into the details, even including height adjustment on the driver seat. And the materials, while nothing you'd see in a Bentley, are impressive at this price point.
Fit and finish is at typically high Nissan standards, and the rear seat is huuuuuuuuuuge. The Versa's rear headroom and legroom would be impressive at any price. In fact, it offers more rear legroom than a BMW 5 Series, Lexus LS 460 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
This is surprising considering the Versa's wheelbase and width remain unchanged, while the car's overall length decreases by 0.6 inches with a 2.7-inch longer rear overhang. Height is down by 1.2 inches.
Because of the larger rear overhang, the trunk has grown as well. It's now a very large 14.8 cubic feet, which is about the same size as the trunk of an Infiniti M56.
Every 2012 Nissan Versa drives with the same, controlled bigger-than-it-should ride. We're also fans of the sedan's excellent four-cylinder engine and sophisticated CVT. Nissan has enjoyed well-deserved praise for its well-sorted pulley-regulated "Xtronic" automatic on nearly every vehicle it builds, and the Versa benefits from the technology.
This year, looking for a lower-revving top-gear ratio for improved highway fuel economy, they've added a planetary gearset within the CVT. On our drive, we observed the engine speed at 2,400 rpm at 70 mph.
We feared this new layer of mechanical overdrive might improve fuel economy but diminish what we've always appreciated about Nissan's CVT, namely intelligent gear holding and response when conditions or driver mood change. We're glad to report we didn't detect any difference in how the transmission behaved in any conditions.
We've lambasted other manufacturers' attempts to pair a hard-working four-cylinder engine and elastic CVT, but Nissan nailed it again. No complaints. The Versa's engine and transmission work in quiet harmony to deliver an adequate amount of acceleration with a minimum amount of drama. Because this second-generation Nissan Versa sedan is 150 pounds lighter, the car's acceleration should remain in the low-to-mid-9-second range to 60 mph.
Despite the changes to the CVT and within the heavily revised HR16DE four-cylinder engine, Nissan did not achieve the magic "40-mpg highway" number others in the segment have managed to reach.
With new dual fuel injectors and continuously variable timing on both intake- and exhaust valves, Nissan eked out just 2 more horses, but the 38-mpg highway estimate represents a relatively huge 3-5 mpg improvement over the 2011 Nissan Versa Sedan depending on model/engine/transmission.
A by-product of the revised 1.6L engine's efficiency is more complete combustion and thus lower carbon-dioxide emissions. These are both indicated by the new "Puredrive" badging, which appears on the trunk lid.
The more powerful 1.8-liter engine is available only on the carry-over first-generation Nissan Versa hatchback, which Nissan will continue to sell alongside the new Versa sedan. An all-new Versa hatchback is in Nissan's future.
Steering and Brakes
Electric-assist power steering has a reputation for offering as much feeling as a reluctant apology, but Nissan managed to improve this as well. Steering weight increases appropriately with speed and its on-center response and self-centering coming out of a corner would challenge a "novice" to detect anything he might call vague or out of the ordinary.
Brakes remain vented discs up front and drums in the rear, and Continental ContiPro Contact low-rolling-resistance all-season tires (185/65R15) are also carried over. And the combination works very well.
ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency brake assist are even standard across the model line and we'll bet the car's reduced curb weight will help improve its previously average stopping distances and fade resistance. We'll let you know after we have a track day with the car.
Sense of Pride
This car will be impossible for the marketplace and Nissan's competition to ignore. With its combination of space, efficiency, features, safety and appealing design, the 2012 Nissan Versa Sedan is proof that automakers know more people will feel comfortable adopting austerity measures of their own as long as we can also maintain our need for practicality, comfort, safety and yes, a sense of pride.
Not to mention, the price is right.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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