The Nissan Versa is swimming upstream against a tide of new, small cars. The second generation of Nissan’s entry-level model, at least the sedan version, has been given a makeover for 2012 in hopes of helping it stand out in the crowd.
Nissan relied on a voluminous interior and the lowest price in the industry, to spur sales of the first generation Versa. That was not enough, however, to stave off the onslaught from Hyundai and Kia, who have used the current advantage of favourable exchange rates to offer consumers a great deal of value.
For the new Versa sedan, which maintains the same wheelbase and width as its predecessor, Nissan kept that roomy interior and cloaked the four-door sedan version in a new set of panels with a more rounded and contemporary look while maintaining a low price point.
The new body sits slightly further back on the platform. There is less overhang up front and more at the rear, resulting in an even roomier trunk. The new roofline is lower and this, combined with a rearward slope, gives the car a more aggressive look. It also cuts slightly into rear seat headroom. But that is not as much of a problem for the Versa as it would be for the competition because the Versa has the roomiest interior in the class.
That class includes such worthy competitors as the Chevrolet Sonic, Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mazda 2 and Toyota Yaris.
The five-door hatch back Versa carries over for 2012 unchanged. It goes to the makeover studios next year.
The new sedan is built in Mexico and based on Nissan/Renault’s “V” (versatile) global platform which is comprised of 20% fewer parts and weighs 70 kilos less than its predecessor.
While roomy, the interior is a pretty sparse scene. Cost-cutting is evident everywhere, but most obviously in the amount of hard plastic surfaces. The front seats are comfortable and supportive and the rears, as indicated by the volume, numbers, are actually spacious.
There is enough head and legroom in the back seat for a pair of big adults, more in fact than many cars a size higher on the scale. The rear seat-back folds for additional trunk space – on the highest trim level. It remains fixed on the others...
Perhaps more significant than the new look, is the new drivetrain that allows the second-generation Versa sedan to boast some pretty impressive fuel economy numbers. It gets a new 1.6-litre engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission or an updated CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). The manual is available only on the base model.
The new engine develops 109 horsepower and while smooth and quiet, the loss of power compared to the old engine’s 122-horsepower, is easily felt.
The most recent version of Nissan’s CVT boasts a wider ratio spread; at one end it tries to make up for the loss of power from the new engine and on the other it allows more relaxed cruising.
While civilized and practically unnoticed under normal, part-throttle conditions, this engine/transmission combination does not favour heavy throttle applications. A deep push on the “loud” pedal, necessary quite often with only 107 lb. ft. of torque on hand, causes engine revs to leap to near 5,000 rpm and stay, there buzzing away, until you let up. And that can take a while. During instrumented testing at AJAC’s 2012 Canadian Car Of The Year, program the Versa sedan recorded a leisurely 0-100 time of 10.7 seconds.
If you drive on flat roads and rarely pass, climb hills or carry more than a single passenger, you will likely have a more favorable impression of this powertrain.
The upside – and for many this benefit will outweigh the negative qualities of the CVT – is impressive fuel mileage. The new engine, updated transmission and more aerodynamics shape of the new Versa sedan combine for a hybrid-like level of fuel consumption.
Where the Versa does shine, in addition to interior space, is its ride quality. Compliant, yet not too soft, the suspension impresses for a car of this size and weight. It is actually more comfortable on the open road than many larger and more expensive automobiles. The electric power steering is a little too light for my tastes but once again, driving styles differ.
The 2012 Versa sedan comes in S, SV and SL trim levels. Air conditioning is standard across the line, even on the price-leading S version – a big plus.
The step up to the SV adds power windows and locks, keyless entry and cruise control. The SL, like my tester, has wireless connectivity and alloy wheels.
The Versa offer a lot of room for little money and a fuel-sipping drivetrain at the cost of performance and civility. Like most bargains, there are sacrifices.