It's a common complaint. People are working longer hours for less money with no pay raise in sight. But Americans are a culture who loves to shop, and that just requires us to be clever with our money in this economy. Shoppers are looking at prices and if we like a certain brand, we'll shop and shop and shop until we find the "right" price. And, if we can't find a price that fits our budgets, we either wait and save, or buy the off-brand bargain.

Five years ago, the automotive industry buzzed about China bringing cars to the United States that were so inexpensive that there would be no competition for them. Back then, we were talking about cars priced under $12,000, and we thought that at those ultra-low prices, Americans would substitute brand loyalty for extra cash in our wallets.

Fast forward to 2011. The established car companies are bringing out cars that are under $12,000 with no Chinese brands in sight. One of those products is the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan for just $10,990.

 

Small, Cheap and Mighty

The all-new second generation 2012 Nissan Versa Sedan is available in three models: Versa Sedan 1.6 S, offered in 5-speed manual ($10,990) and CVT automatic ($12,760), Versa Sedan 1.6 SV CVT automatic ($14,560) and Versa Sedan 1.6 SL CVT automatic ($15,560).

Nissan calls these entry-level vehicles "workhorses," for "commuting on weekdays, errand running on weekends and transporting family and friends all week long." The five-passenger Versa has plenty of interior room for its segment. Four adults can sit comfortably in the car, and a fifth person can squeeze in for short trips, too. There's also plenty of cargo area, and after a Costco run with two adults, we still had room leftover. The Versa sedan is longer than most of its competitors (175.4 inches) but its turning radius of 34 feet is less than some sports cars and only four feet more than the Fiat 500.

Many times, car companies add essential items such as air conditioning as options, or on a higher trim level car. This time the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan manual transmission includes as standard; anti-lock brakes, stability control, air conditioning, 6-way adjustable driver? seat and a two-speaker AM/FM/CD/Aux-in audio system. Shoppers who choose the automatic CVT transmission can also equip their Versas with bluetooth and cruise control.

Inside, the buttons are placed in intuitive and easily reached places. The buttons themselves are brushed chrome and look expensive for such an affordable car. The exterior design is benign in nature, which is a good thing. The Nissan Versa has sold 350,000 sedans and hatchbacks. It is not often you such a noticeable redesign in a second-generation car. The front of the Versa has been smoothed out, the jeweled headlights showcase Nissan's new signature sedan grille.

Most consumers will likely purchase the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan with automatic transmission. Nissan says their new next-generation Xtronic CVT? transmission gets three more miles per gallon combined than the manual transmission Versa. Nissan's CVT allows continuous change of the transmission gear ratio by connecting two pulleys with a metallic belt and changing their diameter by using hydraulic pressure.

 Nissan lightened the Versa by 150 pounds to increase the sedan's fuel economy. The 5-speed manual gets 27 city/36 highway miles per gallon, and the automatic transmission fares even better at 30-city/38 highway MPG. That's five miles per gallon more than the previous generation. The price of the vehicle and fuel economy is the focus of this car-buying segment, and Nissan knows it. "Better mileage means fewer stops at the pump, and more ?room in the wallet' for other activities" says Al Castignetti, vice president and general manager, Nissan Division, Nissan North America, Inc.

The 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine is rated at 109 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm and 107 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm. The pure drive on the side means you're getting advanced technology which says I not only get good mileage, but I have less CO2. The Puredrive badge will be on Nissan's cars that are eco-friendly with low emissions.

 

The competitors

There are different ways to compete in this field, by starting price, fuel efficiency or horsepower. The key players in this segment are the Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Chevy Sonic,Toyota Yaris and the Fiat 500.

The 2012 Fiat 500 ($15,500), 2011 Kia Rio ($12,295) and the 2012 Toyota Yaris ($14,115) are competitive because they have about the same horsepower as the Nissan Versa. The Fiat would cost $4,000 more than the comparably equipped Versa, and it takes premium gasoline while the Versa, Fiesta, Rio, Yaris, Sonic and Accent all require regular gasoline.

Another competitor to watch is the 2012 Chevy Sonic ($13,735) at 138 horsepower. The miles per gallon have not been announced.

If fuel efficiency is the deciding factor, then the 2012 Hyundai Accent wins, hands down. The Accent's ($12,445) combined fuel economy is 35 miles per gallon, the Fiat 500 ($15,500) gets 34 miles per gallon combined, the Ford Fiesta ($13,200) gets 33 miles per gallon and the Nissan Versa CVT ($12,760) automatic transmission gets 33 miles per gallon combined, while Versa's ($10,990) 5-speed manual gets 30 miles per gallon combined. But that extra fuel economy will cost you at least a couple thousand dollars more than the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan 5-speed manual transmission.

 

Whether you buy the 5-speed manual or CVT automatic transmission Nissan has refined the second generation Versa into a total value equation. Take the pay raise.

author photo

Lou Ann Hammond is a long-time transportation and energy buff with writing experience at Chevron, Wired Magazine, Green Car Journal and several others. Today, she is the owner of two automotive industry and legislation sites, www.carlist.com and www.drivingthenation.com.

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