The compact car market is white-hot. The new Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra have lifted the segment to new levels of refinement while at the same time improving fuel economy to 40 miles per gallon on the highway and beyond. Instead of turning their attention back to trucks and SUVs, manufacturers are going even smaller. Automakers have begun pouring vast resources into the smaller subcompact segment, and the result has been a wealth of all-new models. The Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent and Ford Fiesta are all-new or updated and vastly superior to prior subcompacts that still linger in our memories like an unpleasant aftertaste.
Nissan has put its subcompact under the knife, too, as the 2012 Versa features all-new sheetmetal, revised powertrains and a fresh interior. The previous Versa was known for being larger and less expensive than its competition, and its sales reflected that – it's been the most popular model in its segment. But we've been curious to learn if this latest redesign may help or hurt the Versa's standing, so we borrowed the keys to a top trim 2012 Nissan Versa SL Sedan for a week to find out.
The Versa may have brand-new sheetmetal, but that doesn't mean Nissan had any intention of deviating from its tried and true B-segment formula. Starting at just $10,990, the Versa continues to boast the lowest starting MSRP in the segment, undercutting the Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent by $1,300 or more. Our Blue Onyx SL tester wasn't close to $11,000, but it was still a relative bargain at $15,560 (plus $780 for delivery).
The SL is nearly $5,000 more expensive than the base Versa, and all that extra money buys you many of the features new car buyers have grown to expect. We're talking standard features like keyless entry, upgraded cloth seats and a four-speaker sound system. Among the (once) high-end features that come with SL trim are Bluetooth hands-free phone integration, an iPod interface, upgraded audio system and easy-to-operate steering wheel-mounted controls. The SL also includes a continuously variable transmission in place of the standard five-speed manual, cruise control and power windows and locks. Safety features include anti-lock brakes, stability control and a full complement of front, side and side curtain airbags.
With a $15,560 price tag, we didn't expect much in the way of accoutrements, but it doesn't cost much extra to bend metal. The exterior of the Versa sedan is all-new for 2012, with more curves just about everywhere. The SL trim level adds chrome accents on the grille and door handles for a touch of class to go along with seven-spoke 15-inch aluminum wheels.
Overall, we think the Versa looks awkward thanks to its tall roofline and narrow width, but those dimensions are the reason the cabin feels so spacious. When you step inside the cabin of the Versa, there's an overwhelming sense of roominess. The biggest surprise is rear seat legroom, which is ridiculously accommodating for such a small car at 37 inches. The Fiesta can only manage 31 cubic inches, or a half foot less than the Versa. Even the full-size Honda Accord can only manage another two-tenths of an inch more rear leg room than the Versa. Click on the Autoblog Short Cut below for more on the Versa's leg-stretching rear seats.
While we're big on the roomy accommodations of the Versa, the rest of the story inside is less appealing. This sedan features one of the cheaper-feeling interiors in the segment, even in top-shelf SL trim. The plastics are sub-par, the dash design is snooze-inducing and touchpoints like the steering wheel and shift knob are feel cheap. The driver's seat is fairly comfortable, but the lack of a center armrest means that fatigue can set in that much more quickly on moderate-to-longer trips.
So the interior of the Versa is less than ideal, but the B-segment isn't known for its top-quality animal hides and state-of-the-art infotainment tech. The same can be said of the power under the hood, as the Versa is motivated by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine packing a middling 109 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 107 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 RPM. That isn't a lot of power, even in this class. The Fiesta offers 120 horsepower from its 1.6-liter engine, while the Honda Fit promises 117 horsepower from its 1.5-liter. Luckily, at 2,424 pounds, the SL sedan is a bit lighter than either the Fiesta or the Fit. Nissan does offer a 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter mill, but only under the hood of the Versa Hatchback, which remains largely the same despite the Nissan's overhaul of this sedan variant.
Our tester featured Nissan's Xtronic gearbox, which to its credit is among the least annoying CVT transmissions on the market at any price. Nissan has made a sustained commitment to developing its CVT and it shows through the hardware's smooth operation that doesn't drone endlessly like many other transmissions of this type. It's still not our favorite type of transmission, but that's the sort of tradeoff one makes in the name of fuel efficiency.
When we applied that power to the road, we were rewarded with the kind of acceleration that requires patience to appreciate. AOL Autos says a jaunt to 60 takes 9.2 seconds, but it feels more like 10 or 11 – if not more. Acceleration is even more of a challenge on the freeway, where passing should only be tried if the guy in front of you is wearing a Rex Harrison hat and driving an Oldsmobile 98 with a busted right blinker. The upshot to the Versa's pokey ways is that it's a genuine fuel-sipper. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Versa can manage 30 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. We were happy with the 33.8 mpg we averaged during our time with the Versa – nearly five mpg better than what we achieved in our recent week-long stint with the much smaller Mazda2.
The subcompact segment has historically been low on power but high on efficiency, and the Versa certainly checks those boxes. But offerings in this segment like the Sonic, Mazda2 and Honda Fit have also begun offering impressive driving dynamics that keep the driver engaged in spite of the power deficit. Unfortunately, that's not the modus operandi of the Versa Sedan. Up front, the Versa comes with an independent strut suspension with stabilizer bar, and out back is a torsion beam axle with integrated rear stabilizer bar. The torsion bar rear suspension doesn't lend itself to agility, but it does provide a cushy ride for highway cruising. When cornering at speed, the Versa feels top-heavy and lists noticeably, and the Continental P 185/65/R15 tires audibly beg for mercy.
Nissan has added speed-sensitive electric power steering to the Versa to help conserve fuel. Electronic tillers seem to be a hit or miss affair, and the Versa takes a big whiff at feel and accuracy, though there is at least a bit of weight baked-in. Nissan also only offers disc brakes up front and drums out back, and while discs at all four corners are preferred, the Versa's disc/drum combo provided plenty of bite to stop this 2,459-pound sedan without any fuss.
The Versa is the lowest-priced sub-compact sedan in the sub-compact segment, which is great news for shoppers searching only for inexpensive transportation. After all, a lot of buyers look at vehicles as appliances to get them from Point A to Point B, and we're sure many will be satisfied with high fuel economy numbers, a comfortable ride and spacious cabin.
But a week spent with the 2012 Nissan Versa SL left us turned off by its disconnected driving dynamics, lack of power and one of the least impressive cabins on sale today. To top it off, it's not much to look at, either. There are a growing number of vehicles on the market that can deliver great fuel economy and a low MSRP, and a few of them manage to even look interesting and feel sporty. The Versa just isn't one of them, but it's still the cheapest... if not the roomiest.