America's Cheapest Car Returns With More

2012 Nissan Versa

V is for Versa, and Nissan would like you to believe that its 2012 Versa also stands for volume, value, virtues, versatility and, since we're out of Vs, sophistication. While other automakers have been out to redefine the idea of the compact car as something hip and sporty – no longer the moped of cardom – Nissan developed this Versa "to redefine compact car value, giving buyers everything they want and need in one stylish package."

That means the Versa makes math arguments, not emotional ones. It wants to give you more than you'll get elsewhere and not make you feel bad about going for its attributes instead of allure. As the segment sales leader, that argument has been working for years. Yet with other manufacturers adding new variables, we went to Seattle to see if the Versa still makes a case for itself.

And it does... if you like numbers.


On our flight to Seattle, the seat next to us was occupied by a gentleman who works for travel portal Expedia.com. During some final-approach jawboning, he mentioned Expedia's exclusive deal with Air Asia, the low-cost airline owned by the same Tony Fernandes funding Formula One's Lotus Racing team. Mr. Expedia called the airline "the Southwest Airlines of Asia," and explained how Fernandes was succeeding rather impressively by offering a feature-rich flying experience at a cost appreciably lower than that of his competitors. An Air Asia flight wouldn't be as luxurious as one enjoyed in British Airway's Business Club, but it would cost about half as much and you'd still get lie-flat beds, free meals and no baggage fees.

2012 Nissan Versa base

In what we can only call high coincidence, we soon discovered that the 2012 Nissan Versa is a ground-based version of the same philosophy: big feature set, small price and just enough polish to make it all okay.

Perhaps the most important feature of the new Versa is the one that isn't on the car: the $10,990 sticker price (plus $760 destination and handling) for the base Versa S sedan. At the time of writing, there's no new car in America that's less expensive – and we're avoiding the word "cheaper" on purpose. The least expensive Hyundai in the States is the $14,195 Accent, which means venerable Nissan is trumpeting the production of a car that's $3,200 less dear than a Hyundai. Yes, it's also less powerful, less stylish and gets slightly fewer highway miles per gallon (it gets the same combined mpg, though), but just to be safe, we'd advise you to look out your windows for the man who said he'd be coming on a white horse...

2012 Nissan Versa side view2012 Nissan Versa front view2012 Nissan Versa rear view

Admittedly, while that base Versa S does come with air-conditioning and a modest two-speaker AM/FM/CD/Aux stereo, it will also come with liberal use of your own hands to operate the five-speed transmission (the Accent manual comes with six cogs) and manual door locks and windows. Furthermore, the dashboard appears to have been designed by a Cyclops, with a centrally-placed speedometer and tiny digital readout the sole occupants of the recess behind the steering wheel. The only option is the exterior color. This is a vehicle that defines the word "base." Jump to the near-Accent-spec Versa SV with a CVT (no manual offered on the upper trims) and more electric gubbins in the cabin and you're at $14,560.

Still, $10,990 for transport with mod-cons to get you comfortably through a Midwestern summer brought to you by Heat Miser, as well as the same six airbags and four driving nannies (ABS, EBD, VDC, TCS) of the top trims, is a noteworthy balm for our Great Recession times.


The complete pricing story is a short one, with just three trims – Versa S, SV and SL – at four prices points. Add the Xtronic CVT and high-efficiency alternator to the S and the price climbs to $12,760, but you can add the option of a $350 Cruise Control package that also throws in two rear speakers, silver steering wheel accents and – wait for it – a trunk light. The SV begins at $14,560 and is differentiated from the S with chrome accents on the grille and door handles, a Fine Vision gauge cluster that includes a tach and an ancillary digital panel, and "upgraded seat cloth." The Cruise package is standard, and the single optional package is called Convenience, also $350, which adds Bluetooth, more audio options (iPod, MP3, SSV, RDS), steering wheel controls, map lights and vanity mirrors. The peak of Versa Mountain is occupied by the SL trim at $15,560, which comes with the Convenience pack, then swaps alloy wheels for the 15-inch steelies of the lower versions and adds front fog lights, a 60/40 split rear seat and chrome interior accents. The only place up from there is to grab the Tech Package and avail yourself of Nissan's low-cost navigation system, Satellite Radio with Nav Traffic and a USB port on the double-din head. Nissan expects the middle-child SV to be the most popular model – a maxed out version tallies $15,770 including destination.

2012 Nissan Versa grille2012 Nissan Versa headlight2012 Nissan Versa wheel2012 Nissan Versa taillight

There are eight exterior colors in the armory, but only two interior treatments: charcoal and sandstone. If you were wishing there were more menu items, Larry Dominique, the VP of product planning, said that "over time you'll see more features come into the set."

What do you get for those prices? "Spaciousness and value" were the first words off the lips of Rob Warren, in charge of marketing the new car, and "value and interior roominess" was the immediate answer offered by Mark Perry, Nissan's director of product planning. In print and in person, Nissan reps kept stressing that the Versa is "a real car," referring to its features and capability, not some Cro-Magnon jalopy spit out the back factory door. The 90 cubic feet of interior volume, a few molecules grander than the Accent sedan, is plenty of room for business and pleasure. With the driver's seat in our on-duty position, when we sat in the rear we found heaps of room between our knees and the seat back. Putting the passenger seat so far back that it almost felt like lounging, there was still almost five inches between the front seat-back and our knees when we sat in the back seats. The trunk is another healthy cavity, with 14.8 cubic feet to play with. We're told that if you put the rear seat down, the boot can swallow a bicycle.

Compare this Versa to the previous generation, though, and the 2012 is actually smaller: Nissan's site registers the 2011 sedan at 94.3 cubic feet of interior volume, with an inch more rear legroom and hip room, but an inch less rear shoulder room. Nissan boasts that the 2012 still owns best-in-class rear legroom.

2012 Nissan Versa interior2012 Nissan Versa front seats2012 Nissan Versa rear seats2012 Nissan Versa trunk

In fact, the entire 2012 car is a fraction smaller than its 2011 counterpart. They share the same 102.4-inch wheelbase and 66.7-inch width, but the 2012 is 1.2 inches lower and 0.6 inches shorter. The body has been shifted back over that wheelbase, however, with the front overhang shrinking by about three inches, and an extra 2.7 inches placed behind the rear wheels to boost that cargo room. It's also lighter – the 2012 Versa sheds 150 pounds over its predecessor thanks to the new V Platform, which replaces the previous B Platform and has 20 percent fewer components – and incremental savings like lighter seats.

Perry said the shrinkage was made possible by the more compact engine and CVT. The second-generation, dual-injected 1.6-liter that will power all trims (the 1.8-liter engine has been nixed) is a new design that gets more horsepower but less torque than the 1.6 it replaces: 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet, a gain of two ponies and a loss of four pound-feet. Operating through the smaller, lighter, reduced-friction, second-generation CVT, it also gets better gas mileage, posting 30 miles per gallon in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined. Not only is the combined number the same as that of the 40-highway-mpg Hyundai Accent, but it also matches the combined mpg of the Fiesta SFE. The five-speed manual returns 27 city, 36 highway, 30 combined.

How does she run? Fine. And that's not a tepid "fine," either – that's an all-in, right-down-the-middle, hardcore fine. The CVT doesn't call attention to itself, nor does the engine unless you request every horse in the corral, in which case it groans like angry cattle. But you won't need to do that often; even the vertiginous, slow-speed slopes of residential Seattle didn't get the 1.6-liter out of shape. The suspension has been redesigned, but it's still independent MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam in back with stabilizers all 'round. It's fine. Steering gets de rigueur electric assist. It's fine. The NVH is fine. You could drive it all day and get out in good sorts. The whole thing is perfectly... fine.

2012 Nissan Versa engine

And that rounds out the $10,990 nuts and bolts of the 2012 Nissan Versa, which is really what this segment is about – a highly favorable dollar-per-function quotient. If you have a little bit of money, Nissan has a lot of car for you.

As to how it looks... well, the Versa's visuals are its only dramatic aspect. We're not talking about dramatic looks, but how people feel about how it looks. While other automakers are tarting things up, Nissan's extra helping of vanilla hasn't gone over with the vocal set. When the Versa was unveiled at the 2011 New York Auto Show, we asked Nissan's VP of corporate communications, David Reuter, about the styling. His answer was, "The Fiesta may have been getting the press, this is what was selling. We were up 20 percent last year. Our competitors have gone for sporty and styling, but that's not what these buyers want. Subcompact buyers want a dependable, roomy car with good fuel economy, and they want the features and specs to feel they spent a lot more on a car than they did." Fair enough.

We will give the exterior design higher marks than the 2011 model – the current-gen being a sedan version of the five-door that we called an "inoffensively styled Japanese hatchy thing." We're going to start handing out dimes every time we write this, but it does look better in person. The three-quarter-angle press photos make the rear end look tapered, like it's trying to hide its tail, but standing next to it reveals a simple, shouldered sedan, creased at the tips and smooth along the sides for efficient airflow. More mature and more sophisticated, yes and yes.

2012 Nissan Versa steering wheel2012 Nissan Versa instrument panel2012 Nissan Versa USB port2012 Nissan Versa door

Inside, it's plastic fantastic. The steering wheel buttons are cute, the instrument panel has nice dimensionality and the range of plastic textures and tones shows some thought went into it. The controls are firm and solid. It has less style but more (praiseworthy) substance than the Fiat 500, even though the meager center console features look like flotsam in a plastic sea. Earlier, we avoided the word "cheaper" because nothing about the interior screams "We cut corners to make this happen." But, especially in the S, it does say 'really inexpensive' – probably because it is. The cabin doesn't move the needle, but there's nothing wrong with it. And did we mention there's a lotta room inside and it's a fine place to work?

Since the Versa is the runaway segment sales leader and Nissan hasn't been giving them away compared to the competition, we'll trust that Nissan knows what buyers want. And in the new Versa, the company has thoroughly delivered on all of the points Reuter outlined*. (*Reliability results to come.)

2012 Nissan Versa

So it should be case closed, right?

It would be, except for the fact that the inexpensive subcompact forest has never been so lush in features, and frankly, never had any kind of style until now. The base 2012 Versa represents a 30-percent discount compared to a Hyundai Accent, but even Nissan believes the $14,560 SV will be the biggest mover, so we'll use that for comparison. A 2011 Ford Fiesta SE sedan rings up $14,500, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic sedan will start at $13,735 (note: we don't know how it will compare feature-wise) and the aforementioned Accent is $14,195. The competitors are packing more style, but elsewhere it's give-and-take when it comes to other considerations like interior room, power and gas mileage. On top of that, the new Toyota Yaris this way comes, Dodge is prepping a 40-mpg runabout and we have to assume the hottified 2012 Kia Rio will be priced to fight.

Can the Versa's clear, unadorned function beat those kinds of form? That's a huge question.

It won't take long to find out, with the 2012 Versa sedan going on sale this week. (If you're wondering about the hatch, the best we could get as to its arrival was that it will come "in the cadence of global launches.") And if at the end of 2012 the Versa still lords over the segment, then Nissan can assign another term to that V: "Vindication."