By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
I’m often asked what car I would buy if I were shopping for a new car. I usually don’t have a specific answer because there are usually several equally appealing cars in a given class of cars. It’s just too close to call — and comes down to subjectives and intangibles. Which one looks better to you — and so on.
But if I were in the market for a new economy car, and was looking to get the most car for the least money, the 2012 Nissan Versa 1.6 sedan would be the only car I’d be looking at.
I’ll tell you why — and then you tell me whether you agree.
WHAT IT IS
The Versa is Nissan’s entry-level car.
Last year, it was sold in five-door hatchback or sedan body styles — both of them very similar in overall layout (same “high roof” profile) with the main differences being price and equipment.
This year, the Versa’s become two noticeably different cars — the same five-door hatchback as before plus an all-new standard-style sedan (no more “high roof” profile) with completely different sheet metal. This new sedan is now the lowest cost version of the Versa — with a starting MSRP of $10,990.
That also makes it the least expensive new car on the market.
The next-closest (in price) is the $12,545 Hyundai Accent. But the Accent is a subcompact while the Versa is a compact in the same ballpark, size-wise and interior space-wise as a $16,230 (to start) Toyota Corolla or $15,805 (to start, without AC) Honda Civic — with significantly more rear-seat head and legroom that the subcompact Accent (including almost four inches more rear-seat legroom). Ditto the $13,200 Ford Fiesta — which has six inches less rear-seat legroom.
On price — and size for the price — there’s nothing else like the Versa on the road right now.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The Versa sedan is all-new.
In addition to the different body, there’s no more sharing of drivetrains between it and the hatchback Versa.
Last year’s sedan could be had with either a 1.6 or 1.8 liter engine. For 2012, the sedan is the only Versa that comes with the smaller 1.6 liter engine while the more expensive hatchback ($14,380 to start) now comes only with the larger, more powerful 1.8 liter engine.
Also, AC — and a stereo — are standard equipment now. Previously, both were extra-cost options on the base model Versa.
The High Value choice in a new compact car; arguably what the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic used to be — but aren’t anymore.
More than enough scoot for everyday driving.
AC’s standard equipment — even on the $10k version (it’s extra cost in the $15,805 Civic).
More than just usable back seat area.
Sensible 15-inch steel wheels. Cheap (to replace) 15-inch tires.
Excellent — close to class-leading- fuel economy.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Last year’s Versa 1.6 sedan cost $1,000 less to start (blame inflation — not Nissan).
Conventional sedan layout of the 2012 model loses about an inch of rear seat headroom compared with last year’s “high roof” sedan.
Also about an inch of backseat legroom, too.
UNDER THE HOOD
The sedan version of the Versa comes with 1.6 liter, 109 hp four teamed up with either a five-speed manual or (optionally) a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic.
This engine is slightly smaller and a bit less powerful than the 1.8 liter, 122 hp engine that’s now the standard engine in the Versa hatchback — but not by a noticeable amount.
The 1.6 sedan takes about 10.2 seconds with the five-speed stick to get to 60 vs. about 9.4 for the 1.8 hatchback.
What’s more relevant is that the Versa 1.6 sedan is no slower than a new Toyota Corolla (10.1 seconds) and only slightly slower than a new Honda Civic (9.3 seconds).
Another comparison point is fuel economy. The 1.6 Versa is rated by the EPA at 30 city and 38 highway — better fuel economy than the nearly $16k (to start) 2012 Honda Civic without AC: 28 city, 36 highway. And the $16k to start Corolla? It registers 27 city, 34 highway.
To put a finer point on it, the less-than $11k (and compact-sized) Versa 1.6’s gas mileage is only 1-2 MPGs off the absolute best mileage of the highest-efficiency subcompacts on the market right now — models like the 2012 Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent, which though very nice cars are also very little cars — with far less backseat legroom and which still cost two or three grand more than the Versa.
ON THE ROAD
My wife had an early ’90s Corolla when we first met. You still see ’90s-era Corollas on the road today, 20 years later. Reason? Though there is nothing dramatic or exciting about them, these cars are superb as everyday transpo appliances. They have a nice ride, excellent visibility, adequate power — and they just go and go and go and go… .
Only time will tell about the Versa’s long-haul durability. But in every other respect, it reminded me of that excellent little Corolla my wife used to have. It’s an undemanding and extremely satisfying car. Because as you motor along, you can’t help but thinking how you paid five grand less than that guy sitting next to you in his new Corolla. And his car’s no quicker — and gets worse gas mileage.
I’d personally choose the standard five-speed manual, just because I personally prefer manuals and also because it would mean not spending the extra money on the optional CVT automatic. However, you should know that Nissan makes perhaps the best CVT automatics in the business. They behave very much like regular automatics most of the time, without the obnoxious whirring sounds and too-high-RPM holding that is typical of other-brand CVTs. Only when you floor it — and hold it — will you even be aware it’s a CVT. Because of course, there won’t be the usual series of upshifts through the gears. Instead, the CVT puts the 1.6 liter engine near its power peak at 6,000 RPM and holds it there as long as you hold your foot down. But as soon as you back off, so does the CVT — and engine RPMs settle back to a reasonable level (2,800 RPMs or so at 70-ish, steady-state cruising).
I’ve written previously about published 0-60 times. Specifically, that while a 10 second Versa won’t outrun a 6 second Mustang in a 0-60 drag race — out in the real world, there’s not much drag racing going on. If you want to drive faster than the cars around you, usually you can — no matter what you’re driving. The Versa 1.6 is certainly powerful enough to stick with traffic. Try it yourself and see.
The only situation where I can see real-world concerns about the car’s power/performance is in high-altitude areas, especially if you often carry passengers. No doubt, a people-loaded (or empty) Versa 1.6 would struggle dealing with a 7,000 ft mountain pass.
So would a new Corolla. Or Civic.
AT THE CURB
The exterior is bland — but it gets much more interesting once you open the doors. Especially the rear doors. Check the specs: The Versa 1.6 has 37 inches of rear seat legroom vs. 36.2 inches for the 2012 Civic sedan and 36.3 inches for the Corolla. Front seat legroom is about the same in all three, too. The only sucky area is that headroom in the Versa’s second row (36.6 inches) is slightly less than in either the Civic (37.1 inches) or the Corolla (37.2 inches) thanks to the new “standard style” sedan roofline. Last year’s Versa sedan had more headroom than the Corolla or the Civic. Even so, it’s still very close — and all have more-than-just-usable back seats. They are actually comfortable — even for large adults. You can’t say that about the backseats in subcompacts such as the Accent and Fiesta and others like that — which typically have 4-6 inches less rearseat legroom than the Versa 1.6 does.
The interior layout is simple, functional and unpretentious. An Altima-esque hooded gauge cluster with large tachometer and speedometer provides a touch of sportiness — and if you like, you can order an in-dash GPS nav system, a higher-end feature to find in such a modestly priced car. Personally, I’d skip that and buy a portable TomTom instead. In fact, Nissan might consider offering a TomTom as a factory option, the way Fiat does with the 500.
Also notice the 15-inch wheels. They are steel. That means when you hit a bad pothole or bump a curb, they are less likely to be damaged. And if you do damage one, a steel wheel is usually much less costly to replace than an aluminum wheel. And, dig the plastic wheelcovers. Even better, dig the 15-inch tires. You will come to appreciate them when the time arrives to replace them. The idiot craze to fit ever bigger wheels (and tires) to even everyday transpo cars is costing the people dumb enough to buy into it a fortune in faster wear — and much higher tire replacement costs, too. Expect to pay $40 or so for a 15-inch tire for your Versa vs. $100 (or more) for a 17 inch “performance” tire.
But the big news is that Nissan has made AC standard equipment (it was optional previously) and also includes an adequate stereo with CD player (the previous base model Versa only came with pre-wiring, but no actual stereo at all, much less a CD player).
So while the price of the 2012 Versa 1.6 sedan is higher than the price of the previous Versa 1.6, it’s not much higher — and you do get significantly more equipment. Most people have to have AC — and at least a basic stereo. So the previous $9,999 Versa would have stickered out closer to $11,500 equipped with those necessary options.
The 2012 Versa 1.6 base model — as it sits, with nothing else ordered — is perfectly serviceable for everyday transportation duty.
Toyota and Honda are going to be in deep trouble, I suspect, as buyers start to look beyond the reputation and more at what you get nowadays for your money. Including what you can get at a Nissan store vs. what you’ll find for the same money at a Honda or Toyota store.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s hard to argue with $10k — brand-new.