By Allen Penticoff
Several Mr. Green Car columns ago (“Saving money with a low-cost new car,” April 18-24 issue), I had a listing of the 10 least expensive new cars. The least expensive car on the list was the Nissan Versa. Recently, I took one for a short drive to see what low buck will get you.
Again, Bill Barr at Anderson Nissan in Loves Park accommodated my request for a test drive. The subject car was a Nissan Versa S sedan, which window stickered at $14,550. Even the lowest-priced cars can’t escape some options. The base price is $13,120. This includes a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), power steering, power brakes and air conditioning. The $350 “cruise package” adds cruise control, rear stereo speakers and a trunk light. If you’d like carpet on the floors and in the trunk, that adds another $170, and splash guards (mud flaps) $130. This is your basic car.
The Versa S is pretty spartan, to go without carpet or mud flaps. The interior of the test car was all black plastic with no attempt to hide it. The seats were of an inexpensive mono-tone black fabric and not particularly comfortable. With the seat back bolt upright, the fixed headrest intruded on my head. Not until I reclined the seat back a
notch did that interference go away. But, it is a very roomy cabin, for the front seat and back. The trunk is spacious as well. Rear-seat passengers will find plenty of adult-sized legroom.
The controls and instruments are very basic: knobs and a single analog speedometer with an LCD display of fuel and mileage. Windows are manually operated, as are the door locks. Visibility out is good. Handling is good, except I noted a bit of wandering while driving up North Alpine Road. Without doing a full driving test — I’d guess the issue is tire related, maybe a bit less pressure would cure it. The ride over the bumps was good, with a fair amount of body roll in turns for a car this size — which is common on sedans, as the manufacturer chooses ride softness over handling prowess. Few who would buy this car would care — they are looking for basic, reliable transportation, not a sports car.
The EPA mileage rating is pretty good — 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, typical performance for the lower end of the new economy cars.
Acceleration with the 1.6-liter, four-cylinder was good, not great, with some buzz under hard acceleration, mostly because of how the CVT transmission works. Again, those buying this car would not notice or care that much — it works.
If you’re like most people, bare bones transportation does really appeal to you. The next trim level up is the Versa SV, which carries a sticker price of $16,060. The extra $1,510 gets you a substantially nicer car. The interior is still mostly plastic, but nicer colors and textures. The seats improve dramatically in appearance and comfort. The instrument pod has an analog tachometer accompanying the analog speedometer and LCD info displays — both nicely done. A better steering wheel along with better climate controls and stereo. In all, these and other features make it the car most people will buy and be very happy with. It’s almost as if the S version were intentionally cheap to drive people to buying the SV version — which is still a bargain.
Barr said they don’t sell too many of the Versa S, but now and then someone comes in who has a certain dollar limit they are unwilling to exceed, but still want a new car’s reliability and warranty. That was the essence of my April column.
A hatchback version of the Versa is also available. The sticker on one I looked at was a bit more than $17,000, but Barr says it is being replaced by a new design for 2013. Some bargains could be in store in buying a new 2012 hatchback when the 2013 shows up on the dealer’s floor. It seemed a bit sportier and more versatile than the sedan.
I commented to Barr that these new low-end cars are remarkably inexpensive. I paid $15,000 for my bare bones (with A/C added) 1992 Honda Civic VX 20 years ago. We don’t need to do the math to see the manufacturers have pruned away a lot of build expense to keep these cars affordable. It’s as if there has been no inflation in the last 20 years. So, if you’re in need of reliable, simple, not-too-frilly and economical transportation, the Versa may be your car.
From the July 25-31, 2012, issue