By Kevin Miller
Nissan’s Versa has been a solid entry in the low-cost, entry-level car segment, with a base version of the first-generation Versa sedan actually claiming the title of cheapest car available with its $9995 base price. While that price didn’t include much standard equipment (like air conditioning or a radio), more expensive versions with more generous equipment levels (including features like keyless entry/go and leather-wrapped steering wheel) were available, though with such an inexpensive starting point the Versa was always a Spartan vehicle.
For 2012, the second-generation Versa has launched in the US, in sedan-only form (the older five-door is sold alongside the new sedan, but an updated five-door is rumored to be coming next year). I had the opportunity to spend a week with a top-of-the-line Versa SL sedan.
The Versa is relatively tall and narrow, which lends the car awkward proportions from some angles. Accentuating that awkwardness are front and rear doors which look like they belong on a substantially larger car, though those doors do provide entry into a spacious interior. As with most vehicles which are sold both as hatchbacks and sedans (think Ford Fiesta or Hyundai Accent), the trunk breaks up the vehicle designer’s lines and lends an awkward look to the car; taillamp assemblies that reach frontward along the rear fenders add a bit of visual interest but don’t reduce the awkwardness. Up front, generic lamp assemblies and a generic grill lend very little distinction to the Versa’s appearance.
Inside, seats are upholstered in grippy black cloth. The driver’s seat is height adjustable, but unfortunately the seat is definitely the type that you sit ON rather than IN, with a squishy cushion that seems convex rather than cosseting. I had a difficult time getting comfortable in the driver’s seat; the steering wheel without reach adjustment (tilt only) and the lack of a center armrest both contributed to my discomfort. The steering wheel is of an appropriately tidy circumference, and does have audio and cruise control buttons mounted on its spokes; it is made of a black polymer without any leather wrapping. Door panels are molded from hard plastic, though they do have thin fabric upholstered panels decorating their interior, and front doors have bottle holders molded into the pockets.
The instrument cluster has clear analog speedometer and tachometer located behind the steering wheel, with a smaller digital display for odometer, fuel level, temperature, and trip computer display. The three-knob manual climate control was intuitive to use, and the stereo was a straightforward unit, though using the head unit to play a desired track from my connected iPod was essentially impossible with the limited controls on the stereo and the single-line text display; I ended up unplugging the iPod, starting the track I wanted, then reconnecting the iPod. Using the AUX-input rather than the iPod cable might actually be easier to do. The dash is attractively assembled, constructed from plenty of low-gloss hard plastic.
Windshield wipers did an effective job clearing the windshield in Seattle’s ever-present rain, and Nissan’s engineers paid attention to aerodynamics, so that the side windows were kept clear of water when driving in rain. Unfortunately, the only 12 V power outlet is in the center console behind the emergency brake handle; the power cord of my portable navigation unit wasn’t long enough to allow connection of the device when it was mounted to the windshield.
The back seat is accessed through very long rear doors, and has reasonable legroom . The seat cushion is squishy (read: unsupportive), and the curvature of the roof means that headroom is compromised despite the car’s tall profile. The rear doors don’t have pockets molded in, and there’s no armrest in the 60/40 split folding rear seat; cup holders are provided between the front seats, where the driver’s armrest should be.
The trunk which looks so awkward on the outside is plenty spacious inside. I was able to load it full of boxes for a trip from Seattle to Portland, and its 14.8 cubic foot capacity had plenty of space left even after my suitcase and briefcase were added. There are no cargo management features in the trunk though, so groceries bags will slide around unless you spring for an aftermarket organizing solution. The trunk has a manual remote release mounted on the floor near the driver’s door opening; opening the trunk from the outside requires inserting the key in the lock and twisting. How quaint.
On the road, the Versa’s 109 HP, 1.6 liter four moves the Versa effectively enough, though the CVT (continuously variable transmission, which is mandatory on all but the base Versa S) produces the typically-odd slipping-gears sensation and not much thrust. While speeds in excess of 80 MPH are theoretically possible, the very soft suspension tuning, coupled with 15” wheels and imprecise steering feedback made driving the Versa at speeds over 75 MPH unpleasant. At that speed, steering required constant correction and the soft suspension accentuated the feeling of being disconnected from the road, so the Versa just didn’t inspire confidence on the freeway at such high speeds. That being said, around town and at normal highway speeds the Versa was nimble and had sufficient power to keep up with traffic. Creeping along traffic the CVT sometimes produced a jerking sensation, which I also experienced in the Nissan Juke. The front disc/rear drum brakes on the Versa stopped the car reliably every time, and have antilock control tied in to the Versa’s stability control system.
The Versa is rated 30/38 MPG city/highway by the EPA when equipped with the CVT. During my five days with the Versa, I covered 444 miles, about 390 of which were on the freeway between Seattle and Portland. After my rainy trip to Portland, the trip computer reported average consumption of 33.8 MPG; after my return at the end of the week the computer reported 36.2 MPG. I did have to fill the tank once, as it holds just less than 11 gallons of fuel.
The entry-level Versa S starts at $10,990 and does without things like power door locks and windows, split folding rear seats, and gets just two speakers for its audio system. The top-level Versa SL we reviewed is $15,560, and includes power locks, windows, and mirrors; upgraded seat upholstery with fabric door trim, four speakers and USB interface for the audio system, Bluetooth phone integration with steering-wheel mounted audio controls, and 15” alloy wheels. Equipped with no options, adding the $860 destination charge brings the total to $16,340.
In a crowded field of subcompact sedans including Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, and Hyundai Accent, the Versa stands out as having the best city fuel economy, tied for second place in highway fuel economy, and has the least power (Sonic and Accent each have 138 HP), and when similarly equipped is within $500 of each of those competitors. Versa is the narrowest of these vehicles, has the least rear head room, has the longest wheelbase, is the longest by a couple of inches, and leads the pack in both interior volume and cargo space. At 2459 lbs, it is also the lightest of the bunch; it is also the least –distinctive looking of the bunch. With all of these cars so close in specifications, it makes sense for a prospective buyer to drive each of them to see which one suits you best.
Nissan provided the Versa, insurance, and a full tank of gas for this review.