For the last few years, the Nissan Versa and Hyundai Accent have been battling it out for the title of America's Least Expensive Car. Hyundai has retired from the race for 2012, leaving Nissan as the low-cost champion with their all-new 2012 Versa sedan. But is the Nissan Versa a car you would actually want to live with, or is it too cheap to tolerate? Read on.
First Glance: A little more money, a lot more stuff
Since 2009, the Nissan Versa has been fighting the good fight in the cheap-car wars, offering lots of space and legendary Nissan reliability at a rock-bottom price. When Nissan announced an all-new Versa sedan for 2012, I was pleased to learn that they intended to keep the bargain pricing.
The new Versa starts at $11,750 ($10,990 plus $760 destination charge). That's a thousand dollars more than last year, but the Versa now includes standard air conditioning, a stereo, and electronic stability control, all of which were extra-cost options on the old entry-level Versa. Ah, but there is one catch: An automatic transmission costs a whopping $1,770, roughly double what most automakers charge. So for the 90% or so of Americans who prefer to drive an automatic, the Versa actually costs $13,520. That's still good value, though, and the story gets better as you pile on the options: an automatic Versa SV with power windows and locks, cruise control, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity can be had for $15,670, about $1,600 cheaper than a comparably-equipped Hyundai Accent GLS. Fully equipped with alloy wheels, satellite radio, and navigation, the Versa tops out at $17,020, not much more than a stripped-down Honda Civic sedan.
But where the Versa just can't compete with the Accent, the Civic, or most other cars is style. The old Versa was awkward in a loveable sort of way, but the new one is just sort of awkward. There's nothing overly offensive about the Versa's looks, and in fact there are some nice styling cues borrowed from other Nissans. I've done my best to flatter the car in my photos, but in real life the Versa is oddly proportioned and sits uncomfortably on its wheels, resembling a bad Chinese plastic model of a Maxima. It reminds me of one of Nissan's third-world products -- a car built for Central America or Eastern Europe where ruggedness and reliability are more important than beauty.
In the Driver's Seat: Cheap seats
The Versa's dashboard is a strange jumble of rounded shapes; as with the exterior, I don't really understand the styling statement, but I do like the functionality. Simple controls make for safer driving, and Versa's dash layout is about as straightforward as it gets -- although it seems ironic that the base-model Versa S, the only model available with a manual transmission, doesn't get a tachometer, while the automatic-only SV and SL models do. Material quality is excellent: The plastics are as good as what I would expect from a $20,000 car, although when I twisted the air-conditioning dials it was obvious that they used cheap (but reliable) cable connections rather than electronics. At the prices Nissan is charging, I can live with that. My one real complaint is the seat cloth in the S model, which is barely of bed-linen quality; SV and SL models get much nicer upholstery.
One of the old Versa's claims to fame was its massive back seat, which was roomier and more comfortable than many mid-size sedans. The new Versa's back seat has shrunk slightly, losing about an inch of head, leg and shoulder room. Even so, there are still acres of space, but the short bottom cushions don't provide enough thigh support. I don't get that -- the Versa actually has more back-seat legroom than Nissan's mid-size Altima, so why be so stingy with the seat cushions? I have the same complaint about the front seats -- the backrests are delightfully comfortable and supportive, but the bottom cushions aren't long enough. And while I'm complaining, why does only the top-of-the-line Versa SV get a fold-down back seat? That seems like a rather ridiculous bit of cost cutting -- good thing the trunk is so big at 14.8 cubic feet.
On the Road: All I could ask for
The outgoing Versa offered a 1.6 liter engine in the cheapest model and a more powerful 1.8 liter engine in the pricier ones, but the new 2012 Versa gets just one engine, an improved version of the 1.6. Power output (109 hp/107 lb-ft) is similar to the old 1.6, but the new Versa is about 200 lbs lighter, so there's plenty of scoot. The automatic Versa I tested felt very sprightly from a stop, although passing power was limited, as it is in most of the Versa's competitors. Fuel economy is significantly better than the old Versa: Automatics are now rated at 30 MPG city/38 MPG highway, competitive with its rivals and much better than last year's Versa (24/32).
The fuel economy gains can be partially credited to the continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT), which until now has only been offered on the Versa hatchback. CVTs are controversial: Rather than using fixed gear ratios like a conventional transmission, they use a system of belts and movable pulleys that allow the engine revs to rise and fall as needed. (Read more about how CVTs work here). This makes the car sound like a motorboat, which many drivers have trouble getting used to. Me, I love CVTs because they provide a smoother ride along with significantly better acceleration and fuel economy than conventional transmissions -- well worth living with the strange sound.
Speaking of sound, the Versa makes an awful lot of it. The engine is quiet at idle but noisy the rest of the time, and out on the highway the engine and the tires seem to be engaged in a constant shouting match. The level of road noise certainly isn't unacceptable, but it's one of the few reminders of the Versa's cheap price. But there's nothing cheap about the way it drives: The Versa rides comfortably and handles well, with commendably good steering feel.