Ripe for The Daily Grind

2012 Nissan Versa Sedan 1
2012 Nissan Versa SV sedan. All photos by Randy Stern

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2012 Nissan Versa Sedan

Not all subcompacts are created equal.

For consumers looking for an inexpensive and efficient mode of transport, we are often taken down a path where 40MPG is the main, if not the only, selling point. A consumer never asks what they lose in the process of gaining high efficiency. They understand that a subcompact is smaller than the average car sold in North America they will lose precious space in some cases and will also lose strong throttle response when needed.

Of course, this comes from a chauvinistic view of being, well, Americans.

In Europe and Asia, these vehicles are the norm. Most likely, a diesel engine will be plunked under the hood, compensating for some loss of low-end performance. Not to mention, diesel is less expensive than regular unleaded petrol in most of the world. Yet, the so-called B segment induces volume sales no matter where they are sold – except right here in the good ol' U.S. of A.

What if there is a subcompact that placates to American tastes? One that can fit a family of four comfortably. One that achieves high fuel economy and offers enough performance to go places – near and far.

2012 Nissan Versa Sedan 4

This is where Nissan's newest car comes into play – the Versa sedan.

Prior to the arrival of the new sedan, the old Versa was a by-product of the alliance with Renault. Underneath its mash-up of Nissan and Renault design elements is a DNA that was co-developed with the likes of the Renault Clio and the Dacia Sandero. Known as the Tiida outside of America, the Versa was introduced as a larger solution to the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Aveo. It was large and comfortable inside and offered a range of engines that balanced performance with economy.

Yet, the first gen Versa was quickly outclassed by every new subcompact that was introduced. To counter the onslaught from its competition, Nissan developed a new generation model that would take the latest design elements from the brand, but developed on a revised version of a common platform that is currently shared with products from Renault, Dacia and Samsung.

When it was introduced in China a couple of years ago, everyone thought the new Tiida/Versa was a bit unusual. Not exactly as polarizing as the Juke, but some observers remarked that the new Tiida/Versa appeared to be a bit overdesigned. The fact is that Nissan had been focusing on a new design language that will hopefully make them distinctive amongst its competition. This was reinforced by recent debuts, such as the upcoming 2013 Altima sedan and the Pathfinder concept.

While you can still get the old version of the hatchback, the new Versa arrives here as a sedan only out of its plant in Mexico. The result has taken both Versas to the top of their class in sales here. Recently, Nissan almost yielded 10,000 units sold in a single month with a mix of the old hatch and the new sedan.

How good is it? Let's start from the outside, where the latest Nissan design language is on display for the first time. From the sweeping grille to big flowing taillights, the Versa sedan appears to be big on the outside for its class. In many cases, it is. All four doors open wide to accommodate every kind of body to minimal contortion. There’s plenty of glass to look out of – including out back.

The one design feature that drew my concern was the C-pillar and its "up-tick" side window profile. On some vehicles, it works. On the Versa sedan – not so much. It gives it a "retro" feel, but I can't recall which Nissan (er, Datsun) it was ever grafted onto that ever sold here. Then again, it is only a detail that the aesthetic consumer would fixate on.

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Inside is the real story of this subcompact. Before you get behind the wheel, sit in the back seat for a moment. Notice that you have more legroom than any sedan short of a Rolls-Royce Phantom. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I have never seen any cabin of its size for a car in the second smallest class sold in this country. Go out to the back and you will be surprised by an overly generous trunk – 14.8 cubic feet, to be exact – denoted by the overhang out back.

There's plenty of space up front as well, though you might want some more comfortable seats to go along with that room. The cushions seem a bit short and the seatbacks lack bolstering to keep bodies locked in the corners. Also, the mid-level Versa SV tester driven here lacked center armrests for those wanting to take it for longer journeys. If you overlook those foibles, the seats are rather comfortable for the job it has to do everyday.

Instrumentation is straightforward with two right-sized dials for the speedometer and tachometer with a screen in the middle for fuel and temperature gauges and all the necessary readouts for the odometer, trip computer and fuel economy readouts. Switches are right to the touch, including the knobs and slider for the air conditioning, heater and ventilation system. The new steering wheel is really cool with nice switches for the cruise control and audio functions.

The audio system looks the same with most Nissan models. Though you get Bluetooth in the Convenience Package equipped on this SV tester, you do miss getting SiriusXM satellite radio. You have to the top of the line SL to get your fill of OutQ, BPM and Backspin. The Versa only has four speakers, but be careful with amping up the bass and treble with them – there will be some feedback and buzz if you hit the limiter of the audio settings.

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Being the smallest and lowest-powered engine in the Nissan lineup, you will be surprised by the 1.6litre dual overhead camshaft, four valves-per-cylinder engine under the Versa’s hood. It may only have 109 horsepower, but it appears to give you much more than the spec sheet. Part of it comes from some engineering geekery – dual fuel injectors per cylinder that directly injected, for example. Again, Nissan shows off its engine development prowess resulting in a surprising and pleasing burst of energy. The Versa sedan keeps up with traffic nicely to even pass a few folks when asked to do so. You may be put off by the noise it makes when pressed into service, but it settles down nicely for it to do the job intended for you. A bit more noise deadening would work, but consider that this is still a subcompact designed to be a starter car for families and careers.

Connected to this engine is Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission – one of the best in the business right now. It works very well with the basic 1.6litre mill giving it the right ratio at the right speed. The front wheels provide traction for this driveline combination.

When driving the Versa, one would not expect sporty performance and driving dynamics. The Versa’s basic job is to get you from Point A to B without fuss or drama. The ride is on the soft side, but very poised when needed. Yet, the Versa reacts to road imperfections, including bumps and uneven surfaces. Handling is safe, but there is plenty of body roll on curves and banks. It does react well for evasive maneuvers.

As with every Nissan driven lately, the steering action is sharp and quick. There is a bit of play on center in the wheel, but it corrects itself nicely. Braking is sure and correct in both regular and panic stops. In all, Nissan made sure its best tenets in driving dynamics are in tact throughout the line – considering the degree of performance once you get into the levels of the Maxima, 370Z and GT-R.

The biggest selling point of a subcompact is fuel economy. We want our small cars to attain appropriate levels of efficiency. The Versa is no exception, as it turned a fuel consumption rating of 35.2MPG. This appears to be the record in fuel consumption amongst non-hybrids/electric vehicles reviewed in V&R.

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One thing to consider is the price of admission when shopping in this class. Luckily, the Versa offers one of the lowest sticker prices in this market for a basic S Sedan starting at $11,770. However, this mid-level SV model with the Convenience Package came out to $16,280. In relative terms, this is a very inexpensive car to buy and run.

There were plenty of reasons why the Versa became the best selling subcompact in the USA since the introduction of the new sedan. The cabin is the huge draw, along with a willing and able driveline. The price points seem right for people with tighter budgets looking for spacious family (and/or your best friends) transport without apology.

However, some might dismiss the Versa as being bland and boring compared to others in this class. At the prices Nissan is asking for the sedan, do you expect absolute excitement all of the time? No one buys a Versa sedan to hoon in parking lots or run in road rallyes.

Where the Versa sedan really works is in the daily grind. For my day job, I drive 11.8 miles between home and work. Nine of those miles are done on freeways. The Versa's 109 horsepower, engineering geekery, enormous space, fuel economy and everyday looks simply justify the need for a commuter sedan that doubles up as family transport and grocery getter.

Perhaps this is why Nissan sells 10,000 Versas per month – including the old hatch. If you want to be one of them, you'll know why Versa sedan is indeed ripe for your daily grind after a drive or two.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Nissan North America, Inc.

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