By Keith Griffin
Imagine being so warped as to wax enthusiastic about America’s cheapest selling car. Well, color me just a little bit warped because I come to praise the 2012 Nissan Versa as the perfect compact for a family of four.
The Nissan Versa is the least-expensive four-door sedan on the market at just $10,990 with a manual transmission but if you need an automatic instead the starting price is still a reasonable $13,120 in the base S trim level that Nissan loaned me for a week.
Love this car for no reason other than its interior space that is packed into a compact size. Four six-foot adults can comfortably sit in this little sedan. As Nissan likes to point out, the Versa has more rear legroom space than the Lexus LS460, BMW 5-series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Have small kids? They can’t kick the front seats.
The trunk is surprisingly spacious. It swallowed up all the necessities for our family of four on a weekend trip to Old Saybrook. A week’s worth of groceries were similarly handled with room to spare.
Why am I so enthusiastic for such a basic mode of transportation? Because car manufacturers are no longer treating their small cars like compromises. There is a lot of quality instilled in compact and sub-compacts like never before. One no longer feel like they are settling when buying a car like the Versa.
There is one caveat to my enthusiasm. The Nissan Versa has a lot of interior space but one glaring interior design problem. The driver’s door (and probably the passenger’s side as well) need to be redesigned so the door handle, where the power window buttons and other controls sit, don’t jut into the driver seating.
If you’re like me, a well-nourished person might be a good way to put it, you’re going to find it annoying. Honestly, it would stop me from buying the car but slimmer drivers may not find it a problem. Keep it in mind during a test drive.
You do compromise on power. The 1.6-liter engine is rated at 109 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 107 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. But I never had any problems merging on the highway and it comfortably cruised along at 70 mph.
Is the cabin quiet at that speed? No but to sometimes to attain a low price manufacturers do have to cut some corners. Besides, shame on me for breaking the speed limit.
The Nissan Versa comes equipped with a continuously variable transmission. Purists tend to sneer at the CVT but Nissan is really the only doing them right. There’s no hunting for gears as common in some versions by other automakers. The best automatic transmission is those you never notice and that’s true with the Versa.
Standard safety features found on every 2012 Versa sedan include the Nissan Advanced Air Bag System (includes dual-stage front supplemental air bags and front seat side-impact supplemental air bags for chest protection), seat-mounted driver and front passenger side-impact supplemental air bags, and roof-mounted curtain side-impact air bags for front and rear outboard occupant head protection.
As expected, fuel economy is strong in the Versa. It’s rated at 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined with the CVT transmission (27/36/30 mpg with the 5-speed manual transmission). My real-life fuel economy numbers were closer to a combined 29 mpg but I run the A/C strong and would push the Versa to accelerate harder than those scientists at the EPA do.
The model I drove was the SV trim level that included things like upgraded cloth seats (yes, they still make cars with actual cloth seats), cruise control, Fine Vision instrumentation, chrome grille accents, and body-color dual power remote-controlled sideview mirrors. It had a price tag of $14,980.
It’s at that price point that the Versa becomes less competitive. You’re going to find better cars at that price like the Hyundai Accent. It’s only about $300 more and is better equipped (but it’s not going to be as spacious).
So, if it’s good basic transportation you want (or need a car for your kids), the base Nissan Versa is the way to go, especially if you need a big backseat space for older kids. It’s when you start to move up the trim levels that it loses some of its appeal.
(Keith Griffin, news editor for CTLatinoNews.com, is also president of the New England Motor Press Association. For the latest new car news, follow me on Twitter at aboutusedcars. You can also learn about buying and selling a used car at UsedCars.About.com.)
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Length: 175.4 inches
Width: 66.7 inches
Height: 59.6 inches
Engine: 1.6-liter four cylinder
Horsepower: 109 horsepower @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 107 lb. ft. @ 4800 rpm
EPA estimated mpg city/highway: 30-mpg city/38-mpg highway
Base price: $10,990
As-tested price: $14,980
Also consider: (a comparative vehicle) Hyundai Accent, Chevy Sonic,Kia Rio, Ford Focus