Like a stand-up friend who makes hospital visits and remembers birthdays, the 2012 Nissan Versa seems the very image of reliability. There is no vice in this Versa; it is all virtue.
But virtue can be quite boring. This latest Versa comes out with inoffensive style. Its engine is small, getting good mileage and offering no temptation to blow over speed limits. The continuously variable transmission gives it smooth acceleration, lacking any jarring gear changes.
With its rock-bottom base price of $10,990, it is clear that Nissan's design brief focused on keeping the car inexpensive. CNET's car, in SV trim, ran a bit higher, $15,840 with its option package.
I was eager to test this Versa update, but was not quite prepared for the heavy use of hard plastics on the cabin. Nissan's designers seem to have distilled the essence of every cheap car made over the last 10 years with this interior. It lacks even the inkling of a frill.
Nissan sprinkles its cabin technology over the Versa models, with the top trim SL getting the most liberal dose. The SL can actually be had with navigation, but the poor little SV needs an option package just to get a Bluetooth phone system and iPod integration. Satellite radio is not even available at this tier. And don't bother asking what tech can be found in the base, S trim model.
The Versa's little engine uses variable valve timing to get 109 horsepower out of 1.6 liters.
What every Versa has in common is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, the little engine that could, cranking out a mere 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. This engine continues the sensible friend theme, advising frugality, pointing out that hundreds of horsepower is very unnecessary and it really does not take much engine power to run errands and drive to work for the average person.
This engine was perfectly capable of getting the Versa up to freeway speeds, just not quickly. And with a lack of sound insulation applied to the cabin, the little engine groaned terribly every time I hit the gas hard.
Nissan gives its best drive-train technology, the continuously variable transmission (CVT), to the Versa. This CVT programming is excellent, willing to let the engine speed shoot up to 5,000 rpm when I wanted passing power or pointed the little Versa up a hill. Unlike some other Nissan vehicles with the CVT, there were no programmed shift points for manual selection. The shifter merely had PRNDL positions.
The combination of the CVT and the 1.6-liter engine means decent fuel economy, although Nissan did not push the Versa into the 40 mpg set. Its EPA numbers are 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. I ended up with an average of 32.8 mpg, on the low side because of some time spent going uphill on a winding mountain road.