Nissan Versa sedan — Spacious and affordable

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

If our only choice for a beach trip involving three adults, beach gear, a big cooler, and luggage was a subcompact sedan, we would be happy inside a 2012 Nissan Versa. We know this because the Versa was our vehicle on a five-day late-fall beach outing in North Carolina and again as our year-end holiday conveyance in Southern California.
The two biggest reasons for our automotive happiness — the Versa probably has the most rear-seat passenger space of any subcompact in the 2012 lineup. And its enormous-for-a-small-car trunk, measuring 14.8 cubic feet, will swallow up scads of items for fishing and sunning at the ocean, and gifts galore for family and friends.
Also a consideration is the sedan’s gas mileage of 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. On first blush that’s not particularly attractive considering several competitors have 40 mpg highway ratings. But the Versa’s combined city/highway rating of 33 is at the top of the class.
In virtually all sub-compacts, negotiation for leg room between front and rear passengers is a necessity unless everyone on board stands just five-feet tall.  Not so in the Versa. One of our usual riders, relegated to the back seat, was instantly sold on the Versa based just on seat comfort and leg room.
She also expressed wonderment at the sedan’s trunk space, which rivals many larger sedans and trumps such competitors as the Hyundai Accent (13.7 cubic feet), Ford Fiesta (12.8) and Toyota Yaris (12.9).
For those on a strict budget who would prefer to purchase new rather than used for a variety of reasons including the assurance a bumper-to-bumper warranty brings, the Versa outfitted correctly is one of the least expensive cars on the road. The base Versa sedan can be purchased for a starting price of just $11,750 including destination. 
If you are a hatchback fan as we are, be advised that only the sedan is all new. The hatchback continues relatively unchanged from 2011, starting at $15,240 including destination, and will probably get a complete makeover for the 2013 model year.
While the base sedan model is not flush with equipment, it is not a stripper. Standard equipment includes a six-speed manual transmission, air conditioning, a radio/CD player, six-way adjustable driver’s seat, and a full range of safety including traction and stability control, four-wheel ABS, tire pressure monitoring and front and rear head airbags.
Most people will avoid the six-speed manual transmission, but even if the continuously variable transmission (CVT) is added, the sticker price is still within reach of frugal minded buyers at $13,520.
Load up the Versa with everything Nissan makes available including navigation system, satellite radio, upgraded audio system with Bluetooth, and a full range of power equipment and the price is $17,020. Versa still remains affordable for those who want the extras.
Our beach going sedan, a mid trim-level SV with automatic transmission, came with only one option — $170 floor mats — and carried a sticker price of $15,490. Our California sedan was the loaded one including the floor and trunk mats for a grand total of $17,190.
Styling has been improved. The outgoing Versa has the tall, narrow look of some small Japanese sedans of the early part of the decade — think Toyota Echo — but the new version is lower, more planted, with smoothed out lines, a nice flowing roofline, and body molding accents over the fenders. It’s not flashy like some we see from Korea — so we’ll call the Versa stylishly conservative. 
The Versa sedan comes with a new 1.6-liter 4-cylinder making 109 horsepower replacing the 1.8 liter with 122 horses. But don’t fret over the lack of horses. We found the new Versa, which weighs about 150 pounds less to be every bit as enthusiastic as the outgoing model. It handled all our beach chores in good fashion, and lots of hill climbing in California without drama. In fact last summer in our initial experience with the car in Seattle, it climbed the steep city grades with aplomb. We tested it with the manual and CVT both, and both were up to the task.
When the need arises to task the engine at the upper ranges of the rev band, it becomes rather noisy, as most small engines do. We recently assailed the Hyundai Accent for being noisy but the Versa may actually win “the most decibels award.”
The fuel-efficient engine is at a disadvantage, however, when compared to some of the new sub-compact entries such as the Hyundai Accent and the Chevy Sonic, which have bigger engines (both rated at 138 horsepower) and overall superior performance.
The carryover hatchback-style Versa comes standard with a 1.8-liter four making 122 horsepower mated to either a four-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. Even with the extra horses the hatchback seems no quicker than the sedan because the hatch is 300 pounds heavier.
We found the Versa easy to drive with excellent outward visibility. Particularly noteworthy is its around-town demeanor, climbing into tight parking spaces and negotiating heavy city traffic with ease. Not so noteworthy is its passing and merging prowess. You will find times when it’s necessary to put the pedal to the metal to get the response you need. Not perfect, but not bad for the money. Ride and handling is on the better side of good with the suspension being relatively firm yet compliant enough to take speed bumps without jarring one’s teeth.
Inside the sedan, the controls are straight-forward and the gauges are easy to read. The interior materials are OK, but it appears Nissan’s bean counters may have had their way because of large areas of hard plastic and some cheap-feeling controls. If you’re a bit broad you might find the seats a little narrow, but still comfortable.
Our biggest gripes with the mid-trim-level Versa was its lack of passenger assist grips, the absence of a center armrest (a feature we demand in every car), no trunk button on the key fob, and no outside temperature gauge. Most of these features can be had by simply opting for the top SL edition starting at $16,320.
We also don’t like to go anywhere without satellite radio and that too is available — as a $700 tech package — on the SL trim, but unavailable on the lower trim levels.
The Versa is not without its disappointments but if you desire to drive a small footprint with good fuel efficiency and a manageable car payment it is very attractive and if you want — or need — adequate room for four adults, then this Nissan may be the car for you. And if you dress it up you might not be disappointed at all.
Base price: $11,750; as driven, $15,490 (SV)
Engine: 1.6-liter 4 cylinder
Horsepower: 109 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 107 foot-pounds @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: Continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Length: 175.4 inches  
Curb weight: 2,350 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 10.8 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 38 mpg highway, 30 mpg city
0-60: 9.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent
The Good:
• Roomy interior, adult-friendly rear seating
• Excellent overall fuel economy
• Large trunk
• Affordable price
The Bad:
•  Mid-level trim lacks such features as driver arm rest
The Ugly:
• Engine merging, passing performance could be better