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.
Nissan's continually variable transmission is the best in the business, letting the engine operate at optimum speed and making for good drivability.
Ride quality is about what I would expect from a car at this price, jouncy over rough roads and bumps. The suspension gear is textbook for this class of vehicle, independent struts in front and a torsion bar at the rear. Similarly, the brakes are discs in front and drums in back, which, however, does not prevent the Versa from having traction and stability control systems. Nissan also implemented an electric power-steering system to help with efficiency.
One of the strangest features of the car, and a possible hint toward Nissan's future cabin electronics, was a proprietary port on the console. Similar to Audi's digital music interface, this port accepted a cable with an iPod connector at one end, and I assume that cables with a USB port, mini-USB, and auxiliary input would also be available.
The stereo features a couple of dedicated iPod buttons, as well. Although the Versa only has a single-line radio display, it is possible, if not terribly intuitive, to access a connected iPod's music library, and even browse music by artist and album. I found myself accidently turning up the volume until I figured out that the seek and track buttons scroll through the music category lists.
The stereo features optional iPod integration, and fits music library browsing onto this single-line radio display.
Continuing in the economy-car vein, the Versa SV only gets a four-speaker audio system, but for all that it did not sound terrible. There was little separation or distinction of the different instruments in a track, as I would expect, but the music came through with little distortion.
The optional Bluetooth phone system was also very basic, the same one Nissan has been putting into its cars for some time. It actually did have a phone-book function, but instead of pulling contacts from my phone, I would have had to manually load it, not a fun prospect. Voice command is the only way to access the phone system, and that is the only car system it controls.
Tech is obviously not the focus of the 2012 Nissan Versa SV. Navigation is only available at a higher trim level, and the stereo and Bluetooth phone systems are not quite as good as those found in competitive vehicles, such as the or .
The running gear is more impressive, as Nissan uses modern technology to help fuel economy. The small displacement engine has variable valve timing, and the CVT gets the most efficiency out of the engine without negatively impacting drivability. The electric power steering system is well-tuned for feel.
Although boring, the car has a reasonably attractive exterior design. The cabin and trunk are surprisingly roomy. The cabin electronics interface is hampered a bit by the single line radio display. Other automakers are beginning to explore larger displays, even in economy cars.
|Model||2012 Nissan Versa|
|Powertrain||1.6-liter four cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||30 mpg city/38 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||32.8 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Auxiliary input|
|Audio system||4 speaker system|
|Price as tested||$15,840|