The Nissan Versa has been an anomaly in the inexpensive car market: not especially fuel-efficient but roomy, soft-riding, and well-finished inside. The 2012 Versa sedan’s redesign (the hatchback remains unchanged for now) goes in a different direction.
A key engineering priority for Nissan was to keep the Versa’s roominess while improving its fuel economy. Compared to the last one we tested, our 2012 test car weighs an amazing 250 pounds less. The previous up-level 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is gone; all Versa sedans now use a 1.6-liter unit. The four-speed automatic on lower Versa trim lines is also extinct; all Versa automatics are continuously variable transmissions. (A manual is only available on the base S trim level, and it worth noting that it actually has lower EPA numbers than the CVT.)
EPA ratings for the CVT version are now 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway. This falls shy of the magic 40 mpg highway number many competitors are going for, but it’s a big jump from the previous Versa, which only managed 25/33 with the four-speed automatic box.
Nissan worked to hold the line on price while adding content. The Versa now starts at $11,750 including features like antilock brakes, stability control, and air conditioning—stuff that the previous super-cheapo Versa lacked. Moving up the ladder, we bought a Versa 1.6SV sedan that stickered at an impressively low $15,490. Compare that to our last Versa, a 2009 1.8S sedan that cost $16,130 with optional power windows/locks and ABS.
All of these achievements are impressive at least on paper. But first impressions suggest that Nissan might have zigged while competitors have zagged. The Versa remains roomy for the class, but the surprising plushness of the old model is gone. It now feels efficient but rather hard-edged and dour. Problem is, other redesigned-for-2012 competitors like the Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and the fall arrival Chevrolet Sonic are raising the bar for expectations in this segment. They aim to be both fuel-efficient and stylish, making them more welcoming (but also a bit more expensive) than the basic Versa.
We’ll see how all of these budget players compare when we thoroughly test them at our track.