Pros: Interior space; low base price
Cons: Painfully basic interior; inferior driving characteristics; noisy drivetrain
The subcompact Versa, originally out in 2004 as a 2005 model, currently holds the status of cheapest car in America. With a base price of $10,990, the Versa is about as basic a car as one can get in the 21st century. Hand-crank windows, manual mirrors and door locks, a radio and a speedometer are about all the buyer gets at that price.
Nissan notes that, although amenities are few, interior space is plentiful. The Versa features 90 cubic feet of interior volume. Impressively, there is more rear legroom than in a BMW 5 Series or a Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
The 2012 Nissan Versa is fitted with a 1.6-liter inline-4 engine and is available in three models: S, SV and SL.
Comfort & Utility
Understandably, inside the cheapest car in America, there isn't much comfort to be had. The Versa has four doors, seats five, and has cloth seats that fold in a 60/40 split. Interior volume is 90 cubic feet, with an additional 14.8 cubic feet of trunk space. Sure, an owner can fit plenty of stuff in the Versa, and its good rear legroom space means the Versa can carry several people. But we wonder if anyone would really want to. The cloth seats are small, hard and relatively uncomfortable.
With nearly no power-controlled features, everything feels like a struggle with the Versa. Rolling down all the hand-crank windows requires a great deal of reaching and stretching. Without power door locks, accessing the back seat is a chore. There could be another chore ahead of you, that of filing a police report for stolen items when you inevitably forget to reach through the tiny gap between the front seat and the B-pillar to relock the back door.
These struggles might be livable for the savings if you choose the absolute base model. But when options are added and the sticker price nears $14,000, we wonder why buyers would even consider the Versa. The Mazda2, for example, does everything the Versa can but better, also at the $14,000 level.
Surprisingly, the Versa can be optioned with some technological features, including Bluetooth connectivity, a navigation system with a five-inch touchscreen display, XM satellite radio and an iPod/USB interface. These are part of the $700 Tech package, only available on upper-end models.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Versa is offered with only one engine: a 1.6-liter inline-4 producing 109 horsepower with a new dual injector fuel system. Customers can choose between a five-speed manual transmission and a subplanetary continuously variable transmission. The EPA has rated the Versa at 27 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.
The Versa has front seat-mounted side impact supplemental airbags and roof-mounted curtain side impact supplemental airbags.
In addition, the Versa has been designed with Zone Body construction with front and rear crumple zones, an energy absorbing steering column, hood buckle creases and safety stops and pipe-style side door guard beams. Nissan also includes vehicle dynamic control and traction control on all Versa models.
Driving the Versa feels average. The CVT allows power to flow to the front wheels fairly smoothly. The engine is short on horsepower but tries its best to keep the little vehicle gliding along at highway speed. We can't really complain about the driving characteristics of the Versa. It's nearly everything else about the Versa that's complaint worthy.
The Versa feels light and flimsy in a market of very substantial-feeling subcompacts. As basic transportation, the Versa is fine. If you compare it with the newest offerings from its competitors, however, it pales in comparison. There isn't one feature-aside from interior volume- that makes the Versa stand out.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Sonic - At a base price of $13,865, the Sonic might be one of the best-driving vehicles in the subcompact market. An optional turbocharger, not available on the base model, adds to driving pleasure.
Kia Rio - At $13,400, the 2012 Rio is a far cry better than its previous iteration. The Versa, in fact, has more in common with the old Rio than the new Rio does. The Rio is spacious, good-looking, energetic and comes with a 100,000-mile warranty.
Mazda2 - The Mazda2's $14,530 base price is the highest in this group. For that cost, you get all the attributes of a subcompact, plus confidence and poise.
Those set on a Versa should buy the base model at $10,990. The Versa is just as big inside at the base price as it is fully loaded, so save yourself $4,000 and stick to the bargain-basement model. Any more money shelled out for more features simply isn't worth the expenditure.