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What I think: 2012 Nissan Versa

20 Nov

In 2007, the then-new Nissan Versa was a giant among subcompact cars, with interior volume that rivalled compacts and refinement that bettered some bigger cars. A lot has changed since then, and a number of the Versa’s competitors have caught up. Nissan’s response, for 2012, was to once again make the Versa the biggest small car there is.

It sounds like a counter-intuitive thing to do; don’t small car owners have to sacrifice interior space in exchange for affordable, efficient transportation? Nissan disagrees, and as a result, the redesigned Versa (available only as a sedan, while the hatchback is carried over for 2012) has more interior volume than a number of larger cars, including its own Maxima.

Rear seat legroom is the biggest shocker, with the Versa’s 940 mm (37 in.) making it a mini-limo, and handily out-legging the Maxima’s 879 mm ( 34.6 in.). The Versa’s trunk measures out to 413 litres (14.8 cu.ft.), which also bests the much larger Maxima, at 402 litres (14.2 cu.ft.), and impressed me by easily accommodating a full-size suitcase, a hard acoustic guitar case and miscellaneous other items (and a few more shopping bags on the drive home) with room to spare on a recent weekend road trip.

Despite the above, the new Versa sedan is actually shorter tip-to-tail (4,455 mm, or 175.4 in.) than the car it replaces, as well most compact sedans; the Hyundai Elantra stretches 4,530 mm (178.3 in.) between its bumpers, while the Toyota Corolla is 4,540 mm (178.7 in.) long.

Nissan boasts that the Versa comes with the lowest base price of any car in Canada, so while it competes space-wise with compacts (and even some mid-sized sedans!) its price pits it against subcompacts. If interior space is your priority, this car is a good place to start.

That said, it would be nice if Nissan had paid as much attention to rear seat headroom as it did to legroom. I stand a modest five-foot-seven, and my head was within an inch of the headliner in the back seat.

Up front, the tall front seating position and low cut of the windshield header put the line of sight too high for my liking, relative to the car, and the height-adjustable driver’s seat didn’t go low enough to be of much help. That height adjustment is a weird one, too: it has the effect of extending the bottom cushion at its highest position, and pulls it back in as it moves downward. Seems like it should be the opposite: push the bottom cushion out at its lowest, as that’s where taller drivers – who are more likely to have longer legs and taller torsos – will probably set it, and move it back in as the seat is raised, for drivers shorter both above and below the waist. No matter where I set the bottom cushion, the angle of it felt wrong — tilted too far forward – making me feel I was sitting on the seat, rather than in it. Add a steering column that doesn’t adjust for reach and pedals positioned too close, and the result is that I never found a way to get comfortable in this car.

A 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine is the only one offered here; that much of the story is carried over from last year’s sedan (the hatchback uses a more powerful 1.8-litre), but this is a new engine, with a new dual-injector design that Nissan says promotes more complete fuel combustion. They also added a new variable valve timing system and continuously-variable transmission (CVT) that is lighter and cuts friction by 30 per cent. Combined, the new setup cuts fuel consumption to 6.7 L/100 km in city testing and 5.2 L/100 km on the highway (from 7.8/5.9 L/100 in the 2011 CVT-equipped Versa sedan) according to Natural Resources Canada’s guidelines. My tester averaged just over 7.0 L/100 in city driving and 5.5 L/100 km on a windy return trip from hilly Vermont that involved speeds anywhere between 90 and 120 km/h.

That kind of fuel economy is welcome, but in this car, it comes at the expense of anything resembling performance. With 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque, the Versa is not fast. My tester’s continuously variable transmission was quick to let the engine rev high for maximum power in highway driving. Long uphill stretches – common in Vermont – had the little motor spinning at nearly 4,000 rpm just to maintain speed. The motor is reasonably smooth, but the droning of the engine as it and the CVT work together to get the car up the speed (and keep it there) is anything but appealing. By comparison, the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio twins use a 1.6-litre that generates 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft, as well as a better-performing six-speed automatic transmission, which they also share.

I’ve driven many CVT-equipped Nissans and, droning engines on acceleration aside, have generally come away with favourable impressions. This one was less endearing, thanks to a couple of weird tendencies. In moderate acceleration, it would frequently behave like a manual transmission with a slipping clutch in the first couple of seconds after leaving a stop, letting the engine rev without providing a lot of movement. The other involved the car accelerating smoothly to 40 or 50 km/h, at which point it would lose steam for a second or two, as if I had backed off the throttle (I hadn’t), before resuming regularly scheduled acceleration. Maybe both of these characteristics are the result of electronic powertrain programming aimed at saving fuel, but neither happened all the time (and they didn’t happen if I mashed the throttle, which I did once, out of frustration), but if I’d bought this car, it would have ended up back at the dealer for a sorting-out.

Like the powertrain, the Versa’s handling is far from exciting, with skinny 185/65R15 tires (standard across the line) that begin to shriek in protest at surprisingly low speeds. But sporty performance isn’t the point of this car; providing affordable basic transportation is, and the suspension meets that demand with a quiet, well-controlled and comfortable ride.

Nissan broke ground earlier this year with the Leaf, the first fully electric car to come to market from a mainstream automaker. It’s notable for not forcing its owners to give up much in the way of comfort and convenience, save for its 160-km driving range and its price, which is the highest of any Nissan car. I wish this new Versa could have been so compelling, but with a low price comes great compromise, apparently.

This review was originally published at Autos.ca.

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