The Nissan Versa is all but invisible on Canada’s small-car radar. Despite offering more interior space than the others and the lowest base price, it has failed to gain the traction enjoyed by South Korean and Japanese competitors. To address this, Nissan has given the Versa sedan a thorough makeover for the 2012 model year.
The Versa is available as both a four-door sedan and five-door hatchback. The hatchback carries over unchanged for 2012. It will be updated for next year. The sedan gets not only a new look, but a new and significantly more fuel-efficient drivetrain. It is based on the corporation’s new “V” (for versatile) global platform, which weighs 70 kilograms less and contains 20 per cent fewer parts. The wheelbase and width remain the same but overall length is down slightly.
The second-generation Versa sedan has a more contemporary look with curves where there were sharp edges. The body sits further aft. There is less of it up front and more behind the rear wheels allowing a larger trunk. Combined with a lower and sloping roofline, the visual effect is of a more aggressive vehicle. The downside is a loss of some rear-seat head room and interior volume. Despite this, the Versa is officially classified as a compact sedan, while it competes in the subcompact segment.
The interior, while larger than the competition, is pretty sparse. There are plenty of reminders of where costs were cut, including hard plastic surfaces and hollow-sounding panels. The front seats offer plenty of support for the torso but little for the bottom.
The rear is actually spacious for a car this size with enough head and knee room for a pair of full-size adults, more than many larger and more expensive cars. The trunk is equally impressive and beyond the norm in this size class. It can be expanded by folding the rear seat back down – but only on higher trim levels. On the others, the seat is fixed.
The hatchback carries on with a 122-horsepower, 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine and choice of manual or continuously variable transmission. The sedan gets a new 1.6-litre engine mated to a CVT or a five-speed manual gearbox, which is available only in the base trim level. Producing 109 horsepower, it is smooth and quiet until pressed hard. But the loss of horsepower compared to the previous Versa is readily evident.
The Versa sedan gets a new iteration of the company’s CVT automatic with a wider spread of ratios intended to help at either end of the speed spectrum. While slightly more civilized under normal conditions, a deep push on the throttle – often necessary when facing hills or passing situations with only 107 lb-ft of torque on hand – results in the engine leaping to near 5,000 rpm and hanging in there loudly while the car catches up. The lower ratios of the revised transmission could not make up for the lack of power. During instrumented testing at AJAC’s 2012 Canadian Car of The Year program, the Versa sedan recorded a leisurely 0-100 km/h time of 10.7 seconds.
But the new engine and revised transmission, along with the more shapely new body, have allowed a significant improvement in fuel efficiency. A light foot and flat roads reveal a thrifty nature.
On the road, the Versa offers a compliant and comfortable ride, better than most cars of this size and weight class. The electric power steering could use a little more feel and the car’s light weight was noticeable during severe wind conditions that might well have had a similar effect on other small cars. The amount of assist was about right for slow speeds and tight parking manoeuvres, but at higher speeds, on the open road, it was too light and lacked feedback.
The 2012 Nissan Versa sedan comes in S, SV and SL trim levels. Air conditioning is standard across the line, but otherwise the S is a basic automobile with wind-up windows, etc. The SV gets what has become standard fare on the base model of many competitors: power windows and locks, keyless entry and cruise control. The SL test vehicle also had wireless connectivity and alloy wheels.
The Versa offers a lot of room for little outlay. But, like most bargains, there are sacrifices.
2012 Nissan Versa SL
Type: Four-door subcompact
Base price: $17,826
Engine: 1.6-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 109 hp/107 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.5 city/5.4 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Sonic, Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mazda2, Toyota Yaris