Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: 2012 Nissan Versa 1.6S: A surprisingly frugal, functional, no-nonsense Nissan

2012 Nissan Versa 1.6S

Honestly, I didn’t know they made cars like this anymore. No power locks. No power windows. No keyless entry. No tachometer. Hubcaps. Unpainted mirrors. Yes, my friends, this is a stripped down model. But you know what? It’s actually refreshing. There are fewer electrical doo-dads, less motors to worry about, no confusing climate controls, and heck, there’s only one gauge to look at. Talk about combating distracted driving. It’s plain, simple, intuitive, basic. Most people immediately think the base model of any subcompact is going to suck. Even I thought this car was going to be a “penalty box” to drive for a week. No navigation? No alloy wheels? Not even keyless entry? Truth be told, I became fond of this no-nonsense Nissan. After all, there’s nothing wrong with frugal, and this car is quite good at it.

In all fairness, I knew this base model Versa was in the press fleet, and I knew I wanted some seat time in it. I hadn’t ever driven a Versa, let alone the new-for-2012 Versa sedan. The previous generation came with a 1.6 liter engine—the same as in this review model—and a larger, more powerful 1.8 liter mill, which is not available for ’12. It’d been some time since I’d driven the “basic transportation” model of any car. Most of the press vehicles are the top-of-the line trim levels. However, to call this “stripped down,” is a relative thing. Even this base model comes with air conditioning, Nissan’s Xtronic CVT, CD player with auxiliary jack, trip computer with MPG readout, and the cruise control package. I mean, this is hardly stripped down compared to some of the economobiles of the 1980s which, if I remember correctly, listed pneumatic tires as a safety feature. No, the Versa 1.6S isn't sexiest or most attractive vehicle on the small car market (in fact, it's rather bland looking), and it has a heavy looking rear end. But it has a lot of good things going for it that are beyond its bland sheet metal.

2012 Nissan Versa 1.6S interior

Have a seat inside this Versa’s interior, and nearly everything is black or gray plastic, sans the silver trim on the steering wheel, which is part of the cruise control package. Black seats, black dash, black door panels. Everywhere you look it’s black, except the headliner, which is gray. The good news is, the plastics feel solid and of a higher caliber than other manufacturers’ dash materials. The instrumentation is incredibly simple. In fact, at one point I questioned, “Who stole all of the gauges?” There’s one dial: a speedometer. There is a small amber LCD screen that gives you the odometer reading, range, and MPGs. The rest of the dash is also very simple. Intuitive three-dial climate control; very basic radio/CD player with aux input (with mediocre sound quality at best); a glove box; a couple of cup holders; the vents, and that’s about it. No fancy-schmancy here. Just functional minimalism—but it works. It was actually nice to get into a car that was so simple, so easy to use. Everything was where it should be, and none of the design elements looked like they came from a Klingon war ship.  

2012 Nissan Versa's back seat 

The front seats are, you guessed it, basic. I found them quite comfortable, though. They’re a one piece design with fixed headrests—likely a cost saving measure. No, the fabric doesn’t feel the best, but it isn’t bad. However, one thing I didn’t like was their propensity to collect cat hair. We have two cats at home, and these seats got covered in feline fur. Moving to the back, the rear area is cavernous. Full sized adults will be comfortable, for certain. Everyone was astonished by the amount of leg room. The other amazing thing is the trunk. It’s huge! One downer is that the rear seat does not fold down; it’s fixed. This is likely another cost-saving measure.

 As mentioned, the Versa has crank windows. But they seemed to roll up quickly and easily. The locks—also manual. The only gripe I had with the locks is there are only two keyholes on the exterior: one on the driver’s side, and one for the trunk. Guys take note: This base Versa doesn’t alloy much chivalry. I went to get the door for Mercedes, but got there to find no keyhole. Oh well. I guess the driver has to get in first. Overall, the Versa was very comfortable to spend time in, even if it isn’t the most luxurious.

2012 Nissan Versa's 1.6-liter engine
Driving the Versa isn’t exactly exciting, but it was a lot better than I figured it’d be. Highway manners are quite good. Wind noise is minimal and the ride is smooth and soft. Steering was on center and predictable. Acceleration was also better than expected, even with the CVT. Cornering isn’t the 1.6S’s high point, thanks to narrowish 185/65/15 tires. However, again, it wasn’t really that bad. In fact, the whole driving experience is rather pleasant and comfortable. Nearly each and every time I drove the car I was impressed by its ability to be not terrible. Make no mistake—this is basic transportation. But who knew basic transportation could be this “not bad”? Dare I say … good?

To make matter even better, the Versa is rated at 30 city and 38 highway on 87 octane dinosaur juice. Over my week with the car, I eeked out 36 MPG. Color me impressed.

So how much will a base model Versa with the CVT and cruise control cost your cheap ass? The answer is $14,040. I think that’s a great price. This is a roomy, well-built, quiet, comfortable car that is fuel efficient, not hideous looking (though not exactly a looker), simple to operate, and pleasant to drive. What more do you want in basic transportation? Don’t need the CVT or cruise? You can get a Versa for $11,770 including (yes including) destination. And that, my friends, is a hell of a deal. It also makes Versa the least expensive new car on the market.

2012 Nissan Versa 1.6S rear shot

There are buyers out there looking for a new, no-frills car. Yes, these vehicles are few and far between, as most buyers want power everything. But I’d go as far as to say the 2012 Versa 1.6S is likely at the top of the heap for those looking for an inexpensive new car to get them from point A to point B in the most comfortable manner. Plus, with a back seat and trunk this big, you can afford to be frugal and bring your friends. 


Ducati Scotty said...

This car reminded me of my dad's old AMC Concord. Basic but inoffensive, drives just fine, and reliable and functional as hell. Sooner or later my beloved Honda Civic will die and I hope this car is still around when it does. The really basic model with a stick, not the posh CVT one Andy got.

Duke said...

I like the Versa sedan but the lack of a folding rear seat is a deal killer. I can understand cutting costs but c'mon! How much would a hinge and a latch really cost? Doesn't have to be 60/40. Doesn't even have to fold completely flat. Just have it go down far enough to carry some lumber, or fishing poles that don't come apart in the middle. I've never known a car that didn't have a folding rear seat.

In fact, I wasn't aware that the Versa didn't have a folding rear seat until you mentioned it. Do you happen to know if it's an option or is this something that just isn't available on the sedan?

Jason Reece said...

The top-of-the-line SL trim level is the only model that has a split-folding rear seat.

nlpnt said...

...and at $16,770 with destination and mandatory CVT, there are better options.

I see a LOT of base new-model Versas around but hardly any SVs or SLs.

Anonymous said...

Nice review. Hopefully you get a 5-speed manual version to test out later on. There aren't much reviews on the manual version, but the very few that I have seen have said decent things about the manual.

Kevin T. said...

Note that the previous-gen base model Versa didn't come with a fold-down rear seat either, although it did come with such frills like a tachometer and adjustable headrests, and generally used much higher quality materials inside, so clearly Nissan has cut costs on the new Versa. And to make room for that big trunk, the gas tank has been reduced to a tiny 10.8 gallons, down from 13.2 gallons in the previous gen Versa.

The $11,770 manual transmission model is probably a loss-leader for Nissan, because the base model with CVT is a steep $2130 extra. And for some reason you can get the mid-range SV trim level Versa with a manual in Canada, but in the U.S. it is CVT-only. Even the Nissan dealers I've spoken with were surprised by this choice to restrict the manual to only the most stripped-down model. Hopefully the forthcoming new Versa hatchback will be available with the stick-shift in more trim levels.

Duke said...

I haven't been able to find any manual Versa sedans in my metropolitan area. Everything is CVT. I'm starting to think that sub $12k base model is a unicorn. Cheapest I've been able to find is upper $15k, with most over 16k. As nlpnt put it, there are better options at this price.