Pros: Spacious interior; low base price
Cons: Painfully basic; feels flimsy compared to competition; noisy drivetrain
What's New: Optional 4-speed automatic transmission; updates to SV Convenience package and SL Tech package; higher fuel economy rating for CVT-equipped models
With a base price of $11,990, the 2013 Nissan Versa currently holds the status of cheapest car in America. It's one of the most basic cars offered here in the new millennium. Hand-crank windows, manual mirrors and door locks, a radio and a speedometer are about all the buyer gets at that low price.
Although amenities are few, interior space is plentiful. The Versa features 90 cu ft of interior volume. Impressively, there is more rear legroom than in a BMW 5 Series or a Mercedes-Benz E-Class. And now in its second year since a redesign, the Versa is becoming better equipped.
The Versa is fitted with a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine and is available in four trim levels: S, S Plus, SV and SL. Changes for 2013 include a 4-speed automatic transmission option, a 60/40-split folding rear seat for the SV Convenience package, a backup camera for the SL Tech package, updated interior trim for the SV and new equipment like a proximity key for the SL. Finally, models equipped with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) get a 2-mpg boost in highway fuel economy thanks to a wider gearing spread for the CVT.
Comfort & Utility
Understandably, there isn't much comfort to be had inside the cheapest car in America. The Versa has four doors, seats five, and has cloth seats. Interior volume is 90 cu ft, with an additional 14.8 cu ft 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. A new driver's armrest for SV and SL models improves the situation, at least in the most commonly used seat.
With nearly no power-controlled features in the base model, everything feels like a struggle with the Versa. Rolling down all the hand-crank windows requires reaching and stretching to which modern drivers are unaccustomed. With no power door locks, the driver must squeeze his or her hand through the tiny gap between the front seat and B-pillar to reach the rear door lock. That makes accessing the backseat a chore and increases the odds of accidentally leaving the vehicle unlocked.
The savings might make these struggles livable if you choose the absolute base model. But step up to the Versa SV with power windows and locks and the price jumps to nearly $15,000. For that kind of money, competitors like the Mazda2 compete strongly on both price and value.
Surprisingly, the Versa can be optioned with some high-tech features including Bluetooth connectivity, a navigation system with a 5-inch touchscreen display, XM satellite radio, an iPod/USB interface and a backup camera. Except for Bluetooth which is part of the $450 Convenience package for the Versa SV, these are part of the $900 Tech package, only available on the top SL trim.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Versa is offered with only one engine, a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine producing 109 horsepower, but customers can now choose one of three transmissions: a 5-speed manual transmission, a 4-speed automatic or a CVT. With the base manual, the Versa S is rated at 27 mpg city/36 mpg hwy. With the newly available 4-speed automatic, the Versa's price jumps by $1,000 and fuel economy drops by 1 mpg in both city and highway driving. Choose the CVT -- a $1,700 option on the Versa S or standard on the SV and SL -- and fuel economy jumps to 31 mpg city/40 mpg hwy.
The Versa has front seat mounted side impact supplemental airbags and roof mounted curtain side impact supplemental airbags.
In addition, the Versa is 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 fairly 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 given its affordability. But driven back to back with the competition, the Versa's drawbacks are revealed.
The Versa feels light and flimsy in a market of surprisingly substantial subcompacts. As basic transportation, the Versa is fine. If you compare it with the newest offerings from its competitors, however, it pales in comparison. Aside from interior volume, the Versa doesn't really have a single feature that makes it stand out.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Sonic - At a base price of $14,200, 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 but also to the cost.
Kia Rio - At $13,600, the 2013 Rio is far better than its previous iteration. In fact, the Versa has more in common with the old basic transportation Rio than the new and improved Rio does. The redesigned Rio is spacious, good-looking and energetic. Plus, it comes with a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty.
Mazda2 - The Mazda2's $14,720 base price is the highest in this group. But for that price, you get all the positive attributes of a subcompact without sacrificing confidence and poise.
Those set on a Versa should buy the $11,990 base model. The base Versa is just as big inside as it is fully loaded, so save yourself $4,000 and stick to the bargain-basement S model. On a vehicle like this, extra features simply aren't worth the higher cost. But in terms of value and bang for your buck, the base 2013 Nissan Versa S is tough to beat.