2012 Nissan Versa Sedan: First Drive

July 15, 2011

After having been behind the wheel of nearly every new model on the market, as we have, it's tempting to lump vehicles into two categories. On one hand are the cars that inspire and encourage you to enjoy driving, give you innovative features, or just make you look or feel exclusive or stylish. And on the other, there are cars that, within certain constraints, are designed to simply get you reliably from point A to point B, without blowing the bank.

And just as the 2011 Versa, the all-new 2012 Nissan Versa definitely fits into the latter bucket.

Basic, economical, and very low-priced

That's certainly not a put-down. Nissan has no qualms in tagging the Versa as one of the latter; it's a no-nonsense model designed for people who want a new car, with a new-car warranty and good gas mileage, along with up-to-date safety features and connectivity options. And at a starting price of just $11,750, including destination, it's looking like it'll be the lowest-priced 2012 model.

From the side profile, the new Versa Sedan has a curvier, lower roofline and looks quite different than the current (outgoing) version. While the new Versa's wheelbase and length are virtually unchanged, Nissan has trimmed some length from the hood and added it to the trunk and backseat; the new model is also more than an inch lower overall.

While those changes make a lot of sense from a pragmatic standpoint, they're a little tougher to digest from a design perspective. The new Versa impresses like a bargain-basement suit; it's contemporary up close, but doesn't fit altogether as well as it could as a whole. Nissan has dressed up those new proportions with design elements from larger Nissan and Infiniti sedans, some European surfaces, and a few new design cues—including an all-new grille design that the rest of the Nissan lineup will soon get.

Inside, the design is less controversial, feeling like a collection of cues and switchgear inherited from other Nissan vehicles. The center console is still very angular and upright, containing sound systems and rectangular air vents, but the dash gets more curvy near the edges and includes round, aimable vents. There's no neat wrap from the dash around to the doors; and the doors themselves feel thin, with hard plastic panels.

Under the hood is a completely new 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. It skips direct injection (which would have been expensive) in favor of a dual fuel injector system, plus twin continuously variable valve timing, and it altogether makes 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. It purrs almost silently at idle, but moderate or rapid takeoffs command only partially masked old-school econocar sounds.

The Versa is also the first product from the automaker to get a new version of the Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). In it, a small planetary gearset is added so that the CVT can offer a wider span of gear ratios—wider than most seven-speed automatics, Nissan says—in a shorter package. The gearset is engaged by a torque converter and allows an especially tall (considering the engine size) top gear.

CVT good for gas mileage, but not enjoyment

Nissan claims to have cut the rubber-band-like lag in response, from the time you step down on the accelerator for an increase in speed until the CVT lowers the ratio and raises revs, but it's only a bit better for drivability. The new CVT merely rushes up to its new, taller top gear early, then balks a bit to ramp up the revs in 'D.' Only if you shift to the 'L' position (or, on the highway, click the 'O/D off' button) you can raise revs ahead of time and avoid some of that ramp-up. All said, any push of the right foot is met with coarse and vocal protestations, and this is never a fast car (count on about 11.5 seconds to 60 mph).

Over three different test vehicles, over varying levels of urban and suburban stop-and-go in dense Seattle traffic (plus a few expressway stretches), we averaged between 31 and 34 mpg. That's about on par with the official EPA estimate of 30 mpg city, 38 highway. The five-speed manual in the base model (not available for our test drive) isn't nearly as fuel-efficient, though, at 27/36.

Otherwise, there isn't much to get the pulse going in the driving experience. All models come with anti-lock front disc and rear drum brakes. And while the Versa's light yet precise electric power steering system made the Versa easy to place in urban driving, the steering felt too light at highway speeds and required constant small (over)adjustments at highway speed. That said, ride quality is good among very affordable small cars, and the Versa seems to take on urban potholes or freeway choppiness quite well.

Also at highway speeds, there's no masking that the Versa is one of the cheapest vehicles on the market and that some measures that would have masked noise, vibration, and harshness have been skimped in the name of keeping the bottom-line cost down. Other signs of deep cost-cutting include the hard, hollow plastic door and dash surfaces. Throughout the lineup there are only two interior color themes: Sandstone and Charcoal.

The cabin space of a mid-size csr—almost

With an overall interior volume of 90 cubic feet, in theory the Versa has the cabin of a mid-size car. But while you might be able to fit four adults in the Versa, they might not be comfortable for a long drive. Front seats are a mixed bag; their lower cushions feel flat and short (about par for the class, actually), yet their backrests include surprisingly aggressive side bolsters that curve around your back comfortably (provided your build isn't too stocky). In back, headroom is still quite limited for adults, though. Officially, the backseat is more spacious than that of a Mercedes-Benz E-Class or BMW 5-Series, says Nissan, but at a long-legged 6'-6," I found headroom to be prohibitively tight in the Versa, even though legroom was perfectly adequate. Trunk space is abundant at nearly 15 cubic feet; but it tapers in from the sides at the front, and the back seat is split 60/40 only on the top SL.

Then there's one big, big cheap-out: On all but the top SL model, the backseat of the sedan doesn't fold forward. At all. For those trading in used cars with that feature, there might be some disappointment.

The new Versa Sedan will be available at dealerships beginning next month and initially offered in three different models: 1.6 S, 1.6 SV, and 1.6 SL. Base S models come with manual wind-up windows, no power mirrors, and strictly the basics, but air conditioning is now included in all models.

Nissan is again planning to rely on pricing as its trump card, straight out of the starting gate. It boasts that a 2012 Versa S, with manual transmission, A/C, and CD sound, is priced $3,205 below the Accent.

Other standard safety equipment on the Versa includes roof-mounted side airbags covering all outboard occupants, side-impact torso airbags in front, and electronic stability control. Versa SV models get cruise control; power windows and locks; keyless entry; chromed door handles; plus numerous trim and visual upgrades. Top SL models get the split-folding back seat, plus alloy wheels, Bluetooth, and fog lamps. Top options, all in simplified packages, include Bluetooth, XM Satellite Radio, a navigation system with XM NavTraffic, and USB/iPod controls. Fully loaded, a Versa SL costs about $18k.

So is the Versa for you? Based on our first driving experience, we can say that the new version is just as much (if not more) of an appliance as the outgoing. It'll get you to work reliably, safely, and quite comfortably. The Versa's design and purpose isn't all that charming, but it fits a need, and it fits it well. 

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