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.