2012 Nissan Versa SV
|Thrifty little car with issues|
|Why we’d buy it: Highway mileage, space|
|Why we wouldn’t: Workmanship, unstable feel on some highways, poor radio|
|Mileage: Review by David Zatz.|
The Nissan Versa is an inexpensive, economical little car with fine highway mileage, but in four days driving around Detroit, we did not grow to like it — though we appreciated the gas mileage on the freeway.
Our test car was admittedly part of a rental fleet, but we were the first rental drivers; it had only just been checked in, and had all of six miles on it. Thus, it was not a bad representation of a retail Versa.
As given to us, there were a few problems. The remote didn’t work (bad batteries perhaps?), the emergency brake’s plastic cover was apparently only attached at one point and had already slid mostly out of sight, and two of the body panels were mis-aligned. In today’s world of nearly perfectly assembled cars, that was somewhat surprising.
Our initial impression was still favorable, since the gas mileage on the highway was so strong: we measured 36 on average at 75 mph, 2 mpg below EPA estimates (our city mileage was well below the EPA’s estimate of 30 mpg). The engine was not exactly sports-car material, but it was still more than adequate for any reasonable acceleration. The Versa uses Nissan’s own CVT — the same one sold to Chrysler for the Caliber, Compass, and Patriot — which seemed to be better matched to the engine in the Versa. The CVT was generally well-behaved; there were only a few times when it seemed to lag, but it doesn’t take long to figure out how to work with it, and there were only a couple of times when acceleration seemed low. The tradeoff was in our favor, as we used very little gas while going from the airport to Ann Arbor to downtown Detroit to Auburn Hills and back around.
Around town, as with most modern cars, gas mileage was nowhere near the highway levels; we dropped into the high teens in heavy city traffic (with Michigan’s absurdly long red lights and high speed limits) and into the 20s in regular city traffic.
The interior was essentially “workable cheap.” The climate control system felt cheap but worked intuitively; the air conditioning was sufficient to keep cool in 95-degree weather, which is good for a small, inexpensive car. The cruise control was well designed and easy to use, with a bright green light to tell you when the system was active and a big, well separated cancel button, with all controls on the wheel.
There were separate mechanical levers for opening the trunk, gas cap, and hood, all well marked and easy to find.
We did have some gripes with the controls, including the small, hard to reach seatback adjustment lever, coupled with long stretches between seat-back detents. The rheostat was one of those “push to go through each level of illumination” models, dangerously mounted on the gauge cluster, in the hardest-to-reach location (right behind the steering column); the trip computer control, which one is likely to cycle through while driving, was in an equally foolish location. That said, one must commend Nissan for even putting a trip computer into a car of this price class.
As for the stereo, while we figured out how to adjust bass and treble, the clock remained out of our reach, and without an owner’s manual we did without it. Audio tuning controls have 11 steps (-5 to +5), and are done with buttons; tuning stations in is done with seek up/down and steering wheel controls that cycle you through the presets. There are two FM bands, one AM. Sound quality was minimal, with over-emphasized, muddy bass and poor clarity.
This may be a good place to mention the hazard flashers, which periodically locked themselves on for no apparent reason. It often happened just after starting the car, but sometimes they went on at low speeds — and by “on,” we do mean “on,” not blinking, just staying on. After a while they would either go off on their own, or could be shut off by activating the flashers.
Interior space was good for the class, with liveable back seats, an interior that seemed as big as those one class up, and a good-sized trunk; however, one driver’s size-12 shoes did not quite fit between the brake and center console, so that pressing down on the gas pedal, unless the foot was positioned perfectly, meant hitting the brake as well.
The interior was noisy, but not absurdly so. Cutting down the noise to Cruze or Dart levels would add a great deal of weight and hurt acceleration and gas mileage, and many buyers would probably prefer the noise, which is no worse than an average mid-sized car of ten years ago.
The ride was a mixed bag; all bumps were well cushioned, making rough city streets much easier, but the ride was still, oddly, rather busy, seemingly finding pavement imperfections where none exited. On I-94, near DTW, the suspension had an unfortunate resonance with the pavement, resulting in a cyclic bouncing at speeds from 60 to 80 mph (traffic on I-94 generally runs from 75-80 in this stretch, and dropping below 60 was not an attractive option). Other vehicles (Cube excepted) did not have this problem.
What’s more, on concrete, the Versa felt almost out of control, certainly unstable, at highway speeds (70 and up). The steering was twitchy on blacktop and concrete alike, but on any kind of concrete, it seemed to want to go its own way at random, an uncomfortable attribute. The Versa also got blown around by cross-winds, though that’s often an issue for lightweight cars.
Cornering was not the Versa’s strong suit, but it was acceptable if not quite up to par for a compact or subcompact. It at least matched the Yaris.
The Versa was a better driver than the Toyota Yaris, with a more responsive powertrain and better ride and overall feel except at highway speeds; it did not feel as cheap or as much of a compromise as the Yaris, and it has the biggest interior in its class. If you're looking for a cheap, economical city car, the Versa might be a good candidate, but ignore the highway mileage and compare based on city mileage; if you want to do highway driving, see if you can get an extended, “real highway speeds” test drive, preferably on concrete. You might find a used Cobalt or a new, “low price special” compact to be a better deal — or you may prefer the Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent, or other competitors in the Versa’s price class. But if you want space, the Versa’s got far more of it per dollar than you’re likely to get anywhere else.
The 2012 Nissan Versa comes in sedan or hatchback forms; the sedan starts with the S, and we tested the mid-level SV. There’s also an SL package at the top. All use the same 109 horsepower, 1.6 liter engine; the stick-shift is only available on the base S, with the CVT being standard on SV and SL. The base S lists for just $11,770, including destination; our SV started at $15,760, which takes the car from “unique value” territory into “lots of competition.” Our test car also had $170 of floor mats. Nissan does not charge extra for different paint colors. The Versa is made in Mexico, and carries a three-year, 36,000-mile basic warranty with a five-year, 60,000 mile powertrain warranty. Safety features include standard side curtain airbags for all passengers.