We've driven Nissan's Versa hatchback in the past and enjoyed it as an affordable subcompact. For 2012, Nissan has redesigned the less popular Versa sedan on a new chassis, making improvements to its styling, roominess and standard features. With an entry price of $10,990 (plus delivery), it's a good budget car in a woeful economy.
Appearance: It has a slightly top-heavy look, though its lines are downright aerodynamic compared with the previous boxy model. The body is given some flair with creases above the fenders at the beltline. We like the bold head- and taillights and their sweeping designs, which almost seem out of place on the little car. Our tester was the top-line SL trim, which had fog lights, silver-toned accents on its trapezoidal grille and 15-inch alloy wheels.
Interior: Viewed from the perspective of a low-priced subcompact, it's impressive. There is adequate head- and legroom for adults in both front and rear seats, and the car can seat five — snugly. With our SL trim, we got 60/40 split rear seats for pass-through storage of longer items. The trunk is large (14.8 cubic feet) for its class; we've driven midsize sedans that seemed to have less space. For smaller items, there's a spacious glove box. Our SL had some upgraded touches: six-way adjustable driver's seat, Bluetooth phone connection, iPod interface, steering wheel controls, intermittent wipers and trip computer. The controls are retro and simple to use. The bad news: Unlike some new entries in this class (Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent), the cabin surfaces are notably "budget plastic" with lack of character in its bland design. But the fit and finish are good. We both noted that the doors close with a disconcerting tinny sound.
Performance: Lyra didn't like it. She felt the continuously variable transmission (long one of Nissan's strong points) allowed the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine to rev noisily, especially on the highway. You'd wish you could wear earplugs, she says. (Nissan claims the CVT is more efficient than a standard seven-speed automatic and produces better mpg — an estimated 30/38.) Maybe Peter didn't get enough seat time, but he didn't feel Versa's transmission and interior noise were worse than other cars in this class. Still, the acceleration is adequate. We both felt, however, that the electronic power steering was on the light side. And you'll frequently be reminded of its light weight, especially on a windy day or when you're being passed by big rigs.
Our 3 favorites
Pricing: The base S model starts at $10,990, which makes it the least expensive car on the market.
Room: You can actually carpool as long as everyone doesn't mind getting close.
Pass-through: It extends an already roomy trunk.
Back to basics: Simple controls = less fumbling.
MPG: 30 in city, 38 in highway are not bad.
Storage: Good trunk space, plus a huge glove box.
The bottom line: For Lyra, the CVT is a deal-breaker. Peter likes the entry price point. But as you move away from the base model, are you better off looking at a bigger car or one of its competitors with more features?