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2012 Nissan Versa sedan. (Mike Ditz/Nissan)
2012 Nissan Versa sedan. (Mike Ditz/Nissan)

2012 Nissan Versa Sedan

Versa is a roomy, economical workhorse Add to ...

Usually, when a manufacturer lays out its marketing plans for a new model, it speaks in general terms, using wide brush strokes, and covering as much ground as possible.

In the case of the new Nissan Versa sedan, however, the company is quite specific about its target market: social pragmatists and the South Asian community. Not necessarily in that order.

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The latter because traditionally this group has been "a huge component of the Versa's marketing and advertising," according to Nicholas Verneuil, senior model line marketing manager for Nissan Canada, and the former because these folks purchase a car to use as a workhorse - commuting to work, running errands, ferrying kids around and so on.

"This market is very important to us because it's one of the few in the country that is showing growth," adds Verneuil.

That doesn't mean the rest of us can't get in on the fun, though. As well as having the lowest sticker price in this category, the new Versa sedan also boasts of having the most rear-seat legroom, one of the larger trunks, and competitive fuel economy. The back-seat legroom, incidentally, really is impressive and apparently there's more room to stretch your legs back there than in a BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E-Class or Lexus LS460.

Sold worldwide as the Tiida and Sunny, the Versa sedan is now built on Nissan's new V platform and gets fresh sheet metal for 2012. Borrowing styling cues from its bigger brother, the Maxima, and, to a lesser extent, the Z models, it's more up to date looking than before and stacks up favourably against, oh, the Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla, although the Yaris and Accent are officially its closest rivals.

The new Versa also utilizes 20 per cent fewer components than its predecessor, and as a result, is 68 kilograms lighter and slightly shorter. It has the same wheelbase as before and a bigger trunk: 419 litres.

Power is delivered via a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine mated to either a five-speed manual or CVT automatic. This engine features a variable timing control feature, similar to that used in the Maxima, and power output is 109 horses with 107 lb-ft of torque.

And this is where the new Versa sedan falls a bit flat. Although fuel economy is up slightly over the previous version, this iteration is, in a word, gutless, and you really have to give it some welly to get anywhere in a hurry. This is especially true with the CVT-equipped version, which doesn't like to be prodded and can be unresponsive, taking its time getting up to speed or overtaking on the freeway.

Under highway driving conditions, in particular, kick-down time can be agonizingly slow when you're trying to get around that eighteen-wheeler, and during the launch, in Seattle (which has some of the worst traffic congestion in the United States), many was the time I wished a little more oomph was readily available.

Still, Nissan claims to have revised the CVT, removing some of the "rubber band" vagueness associated with this type of transmission and changing its overall ratio. Among other things, it also has an additional set of conventional planetary gears attached to help with "gearing" and fuel economy. The CVT also adds $1,300 to the car's price tag. I remain unconvinced about the usability of CVTs and would probably choose the manual gearbox, were I in the market for this car.

Elsewhere, there is only one interior colour choice available to Canadian buyers: charcoal. Apparently, those of us in the frozen north don't need to concern ourselves with the overheated interiors caused when a car with dark upholstery is parked outside in super-hot weather. The Americans will be offered lighter-hued interior fabrics, but we get it in black. Period. Like it or lump it. As I write this, it's approaching 40 degrees Celsius in Toronto.

The new Versa sedan will be offered in three trim levels: S, SV and SL. Basically, what separates them is standard equipment and transmission choices. The SV, for example, can be had with either the manual or CVT transmission and comes with air conditioning, remote keyless entry, power windows, and so on. The base S, meanwhile, is equipped with the manual gearbox only and is the stripper of the group.

Options include Bluetooth/hands-free phone, steering-wheel-mounted controls, iPod connectivity and Nissan's "bird's-eye view" navi system. However, these tend to come in groups and you can't get one without the other. Air conditioning, for example, can't be ordered by itself.

Introduced to the Canadian market in 2007, the Versa sedan is now built in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and will be in showrooms by mid-August. As for the hatchback version, it will remain in its present form for at least the next year, but a redesign is in its future as well.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Nissan Versa Sedan

Type: Four-door, subcompact, economy sedan

Price Range: $11,798-$17,098

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 109 hp/107 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual/CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km): 6.7 city/ 5.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Yaris, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta, Kia Forte

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