Nissan, an automaker known for the menacing 370Z Coupe and phenomenal GT-R, is also known for the less striking and more conventional Versa. The Versa has been the company’s budget-oriented vehicle in North America for many years, going as far as to snag the title as the most affordable car on sale for most of those years. The first-generation Versa was a good ‘Point A to B’ car, but the lack of refinement left some wanting more. With the second-generation model, has Nissan crafted the de facto car for the most budget-oriented shoppers or has cost-cutting led to yet another ho-hum daily commuter? We hopped behind the wheel of the 2012 Nissan Versa SL to find out.
Before we begin, it’s important to note that while the Versa sedan is an all-new design, the Versa hatchback hasn’t been changed and is still the same model that has been on sale for the past few years. That is, Nissan is currently selling two notably different Versa models, stylistically and mechanically, alongside each other. This will change when the all-new Versa hatchback comes along.
We’ll start off by taking a walk around the car. At first glance, the 2012 Versa’s tall greenhouse makes it look large, not just for a subcompact car but for any class of car. Parked beside some notable mid-size sedans, including Nissan’s own Altima, the supposed subcompact stands taller and looks almost just as long. Such dimensions on a subcompact platform translate into some awkward proportions that make the car look bulbous and clumsy from certain angles. This is unfortunate because cars like the all-new Kia Rio and Chevrolet Sonic, the Versa’s direct competitors, have demonstrated that a good-looking subcompact is no longer an oxymoron. Admittedly, the Versa does look better in person than it does in pictures, especially in black.
So the latest Versa isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but Nissan likely had its priorities elsewhere. Succeeding at delivering an inoffensive exterior package, the company set its eyes on delivering class-leading practicality in a small sedan. And as it turns out, those forced-on proportions were just a means to achieving that end. With 90 cubic feet of passenger room and a 14.8-cubic-foot of trunk room, the Versa offers enough room to be classified as a compact car, making it the most spacious contender in the subcompact segment. As a focal point, the room offered to rear seat passengers approaches that of many mid-size cars, which will undoubtedly be a key selling-point. The seats are comfortable and there is more than adequate — by subcompact standards — leg and knee room, hip room and, especially, head room. Tall and heavy-built passengers will not be disappointed.
What might disappoint some people, however, is the Versa’s drab cockpit. While everything is simple enough to use and ergonomically laid-out, the overall design leaves much to be desired. The center stack and climate controls look chucky and almost cartoony, and the lack of a center armrest detracts from the high level of comfort otherwise offered. Fit and finish is acceptable, but the deficiencies make the abundant use of hard plastics very noticeable.
Being a budget car, the Versa is no GT-R on the powertrain front. All models are powered by a 1.6 litre 4-cylinder engine producing 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft. of torque (the hatchback offers a more powerful 122-HP 1.8-liter engine), which is on the lower end of the class spectrum. So long as acceleration is not a priority, the paltry output is adequate for everyday driving, especially in the city. The CVT transmission is quite and smooth, as is the ride on well-maintained roads. Things could get a bit jittery on rough pavement, but nothing unusual for the segment.
If you’re looking for a relatively sporty sedan, the Versa isn’t for you. And while an estimated 6.7 L/100km (42 miles per gallon) city and 5.2 L/100km (54 mpg) highway with the CVT is nothing to shrug at, those figures are at the middle of the pack. Still, the Versa is one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles on sale.
At an MRSP of $16,298 Canadian (priced at $15,560 in the US), the Versa SL comes standard with many features, including six-way, manual adjustable front seats; power windows and door locks; remote keyless entry; air-conditioning; Bluetooth; 12 volt outlet; and quite a few safety features. Ours was equipped with $800 worth of optional equipment — a navigation system with USB ports and XM satellite radio. That’s a lot of stuff, but the highlight of the Versa lineup is the base manual-equipped S model and its $11,798 starting price ($10,990 in the U.S.). If that figure sounds auspicious, that’s because it is. At that price point, the Versa S is the most affordable car in North America!
According to Nissan, its littlest sedan offers more space per dollar than any other car in North America, and that’s a fact we can vouch for. An ultra-affordable, ultra spacious sedan was what it set out to achieve and that is exactly what it delivered. Budget-minded shoppers will undoubtedly take notice. Despite this, we feel the car could have been better, particularly on the styling and powertrain front. It’s larger and more fuel-efficient — more of what buyers want — and a better overall package than the outgoing model, but it is not the de facto car in in the segment. Subcompacts are no longer the bare-bone, bare necessities they once were. They can be both attractive and fun, all the while being textbook fuel-misers, and that’s a lesson we hope Nissan takes to heart when designing the next Versa. As things are, the company’s not-so-little baby is still a good buy.