Small cars have always been a “staple” in Asia and Europe but they still play somewhat smaller roles here in North America (no pun intended).
Higher fuel prices and sticker shock on larger models, however, has seen interest grow in subcompacts, with the introduction of new offerings such as the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and, recently, the updated Toyota Yaris. That said, compared to Europe where nearly every manufacturer has one or two compacts in their portfolio (not counting sub species), in our neck of the woods, there still isn’t a great deal to choose from.
Nissan is betting that if one factor can shift people’s mindset, it’s the price. As a result, the Nissan Versa (at $11,798) currently competes with the Hyundai Accent as the most affordable mainstream car on the market.
For those used to the boxy 2007-11 Versa sedan, the new model comes as quite a dramatic departure (the old style hatchback version soldiers on, at least for now). From some angles it looks like a scaled down Altima; with bulging fenders and almost coke-bottle contours, which is probably a good thing. That said, from the side it does look a little ungainly, not helped by a substantial rear overhang, necessary to provide any meaningful trunk space in a car this size.
Moving to the cabin, it becomes quite clear that you’ve been shopping on a budget. While fit and finish is better than it used to be on entry-level cars, plenty of hard plastic and low rent seats clearly indicate this is motoring on a budget. Nonetheless, the controls are logically placed, everything’s easy to read and secondary functions are refreshingly simple to use compared with those on some modern vehicles.
Nissan has been making a big fuss over the 2012 Versa’s interior room and indeed, with an overall volume of 2,548 litres (90 cubic feet), it ranks as having one of the most capacious cabins in the sub compact class, with ample front and rear legroom. As for the trunk, it’s also quite big by sub compact standards, able to swallow some 419 litres (14.8 cubic feet) of luggage.
Well this is probably relative; nobody is likely to buy a 2012 Versa sedan based on performance. The only engine available at present is a 1.6-litre, dual overhead cam four-cylinder. It is indeed a variation of that used in the old Versa, though a dual injector system for each cylinder. Designed to improve fuel atomization and hence promote better combustion, resulting in more power and better fuel economy, it’s rated at 109 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m. and 107 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 revs.
Two transmissions are offered on the 2012 Versa sedan, a five-speed manual or Nissan’s Continuously Variable unit. The five-speed is reasonably slick shifting and in our opinion the best of the two options, at least in terms of driving involvement, allowing you to make better use of the engine’s power band. The CVT, by contrast, although improved, thanks to a secondary box that houses a set of planetary gears and a wider ratio, still feels sluggish, though a little better than before, especially on steeper inclines. In terms of fuel economy, the Versa isn’t all that impressive by modern standards, we noted some 9.4 litres/100 kilometres in the city, 6.9 l/100 km on the open road, noticeably less than the 6.0 l/100 km Nissan touts in advertising.
Although Nissan’s new corporate V-car platform underpins the 2012 Versa sedan, in terms of engineering, it’s pretty much standard small car stuff: unibody construction with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a solid beam axle out back. With only 15-inch wheels and tires available, the car delivers noticeable lean through the corners and the electrically assisted steering doesn’t exactly deliver a great deal of feedback. In fact, the 2012 Versa feels noticeably less sporting to drive than its predecessor and definitely lags behind cars like the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and Honda Fit, but then again, they’re quite a bit more expensive.
Despite the front disc/rear drum brakes, stopping isn’t bad and the ABS isn’t overtly aggressive, though it’s likely that most people who buy this car won’t subject it to frequent panic stops nor serious corner carving, which is probably just as well.
As mentioned, the 2012 Versa sedan is currently one of the lowest priced vehicles on the market ($11,798). For that you get the base S trim model, which comes exclusively with the five-speed manual gearbox. If you want the CVT, you have to step up to the mid-level SV at $13,798 and then tack on the mandatory with this transmission $400 Convenience Package (which includes Bluetooth, iPod interface, steering wheel audio controls and cruise control). The top level SL, priced at $16,298, comes with the CVT only though that price does include the mandatory $800 Technology Package which adds satellite navigation with a five-inch dash mounted screen, USB connectivity and Sirius/XM satellite radio. Once you’ve added in taxes and dealer fees, you’ll likely be pushing close to $20,000 for 2012 Versa SL, which pretty much puts this baby Nissan right against its main competitors in the segment.
Decent value for money.
You get what you pay for.
The bottom line
If you’re looking for truly inexpensive motoring in this day and age, the 2012 Versa is a good bet.
Like the Versa, the Sonic is a new edition for the 2012 model year. Offered in both hatchback and sedan configurations, it’s a huge improvement of the Sonic it replaces, delivering decent handling and rather good performance, especially with the 138 horsepower, 1.4-litre turbo charged engine and six-speed manual gearbox, though even the 135 h.p. 1.8-litre and six-speed automatic aren’t bad. Clearly more youth oriented, the $14,495 Sonic is one of the best value small Chevrolets in years.
Part of the “One Ford” strategy, the $12,999 Fiesta became a global product once again for 2011. Like the Sonic, it comes as either a sedan or a hatchback, with much marketing emphasis on the latter. A 120 h.p. 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine delivers decent response and the five-speed manual is one of slickest in the segment (the six-speed dual clutch is disappointing). Good handling and responsive steering set the Fiesta apart, though the hatch doesn’t boast much trunk space, and this little car can become quite pricey if you aren’t careful with the options list.
Toyota Yaris sedan
Although it gets a facelift for 2012, the Yaris sedan (not the liftback) is starting to feel its age, with limited features and a dated interior. Powered by a 106 h.p. 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine, with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, it’s decently put together and still offers good value, starting at $14,400. That said, it’s even less fun to drive than the Versa.