By Eric Peters
Last year, the average price paid for a new car was about $35,000. But that doesn’t mean you have to pay $35k to drive home a new car.
A nice new car.
You could, for example, buy a brand-new Nissan Versa – with AC, with a four speaker stereo (Bluetooth, too!) and intermittent wipers – for just under $12k, sticker.
A Pinto re-imagined, it’s not.
Even better, it’s not small.
WHAT IT IS
It’s a compact sedan in terms of its overall size – but it has a mid-sized sedan’s interior space, including a backseat with 37 inches of legroom and an almost 15 cubic foot trunk, about the same as a Toyota Camry – or Nissan’s own Altima sedan.
Same-size on the outside rivals like the Hyundai Accent sedan have much less space inside – 33.5 inches of backseat legroom and a 13.7 cubic foot trunk. These much more cramped interior dimensions are typical of rivals in the Versa’s class.
Base price is $11,990 for the S trim with manual transmission; $14,130 for the S Plus trim with continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission.
A base trim Hyundai Accent sedan with manual transmission and that tight back seat stickers for $14,995 – about $3,000 more than the Nissan. That’s a big difference. It works out to a savings of about $125 per month over two years – which money could be put toward gas or some other thing.And there’s another difference.
Intermittent wipers are now standard in all trims, including the $11k and pocket change S.
The SV Special Edition package that Nissan made available last year continues for 2018. Order this and your Versa will come outfitted Cadillac-style, with leather trim, fog lights and a color LCD touchscreen with streaming audio and Messaging Assistant hands-free texting.
Price can’t be beat.
Room for the price can’t be beat.
Essentials features (AC, a very decent stereo) are included in that price.
Luxury options available, if you wish.
Simple drivetrain – not yet direct injected, no turbo, no ten speed transmission.
Bluetooth is standard – but some convenience features – cruise control, power windows, Sirius/XM satellite radio – aren’t available in the base S trim.
Lowest cost S trim is manual transmission only. Nicer-trimmed S Plus and SV are automatic-only. No mixing and matching.
More versatile five-door hatchback version is now a separate – and higher cost – model (the Versa note; base price $15,600).
The Versa’s standard engine is a 1.6 liter four cylinder driving the front wheels via either the standard (in S trims) five-speed manual transmission or (in S Plus and SV trims) a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission.
The engine makes 109 hp and 107 ft.-lbs. of torque.
Nothing special – which is exactly why it is special.
The Versa’s engine remains a relatively simple engine, as modern car engines go. It isn’t pressurized by a turbocharger, for instance – something that has become very commonplace even in economy cars – though whether this is a good idea in an economy car is hugely debatable.
Turbocharged engines are much more complicated engines. There are more parts – which means more possibilities for problems – and expenses – down the road. Turbocharged engines are also stressed engines – being pressurized engines. They have to work harder and endure more . . stress.
The Nissan’s isn’t – and doesn’t.
This includes its compression ratio – which is a still-reasonable 9.8:1 vs. the close-to-diesel compression ratios becoming not uncommon in other engine designs. Higher compression does give higher performance (power) and an fuel efficiency boost. Mazda’s “SkyActive” family of engines use this method to deliver both those things. Which makes them zippier things.
But Mazdas do cost more – and possibly down the road, too. The higher cylinder pressures in a high-compression engine often mean compression loss (and leakage) as the miles rack up. That blue smoke you sometimes see coming out of an older car’s tailpipe . . .
The Versa’s engine (which also still uses port fuel injection rather than the becoming ubiquitous direct injection, which involves two fuel pumps and fuel pressurized to several thousand PSI vs. 30 or so PSI) is as close as you’ll find to something like an economy car engine in a modern economy car.
Despite not having all the “latest fuel saving technology” – a turbo, high-compression/direct injection – the Versa’s mileage is still very close to top-of-the pack: 27 city, 36 highway with the manual transmission and 31 city, 39 highway with the CVT automatic.
As a cross-comparison, the Hyundai Accent’s standard 1.6 liter engine does have “the latest fuel saving technology” – including direct injection and very high (11.0:1) compression – but its mileage numbers are about the same for the manual-equipped model (28 city, 37 highway) and a couple of MPGs worse with the optional automatic (28 city, 38 highway).
The Hyundai’s engine is stronger – 130 hp and 119 ft.-lbs. of torque – and the Accent is quicker – zero to 60 in about 8.3 seconds vs. about 9.2 for the Versa.
But in an economy car, shouldn’t economy be the priority?
You’ve heard of Einstein’s Theory of Relatively. It is the idea that – among other things – speed is relative. On Earth, 600 MPH is speedy. In space, it’s hardly moving.
How speedily does most traffic actually move?
Most of the time, not very.
Notwithstanding all the power. Next time you’re out and about, observe how tepidly most drivers accelerate when a traffic light goes from red to green; how meekly they merge. All that power – going nowhere fast. It’s a weird disconnect. The average family car is quicker and faster – in terms of what it could do – than most high-performance sports car were back in the ’70s and ’80s.
But speed limits are still what they were 30 or 40 years ago on most secondary roads – and the torments applied for exceeding them are Medieval. This plus decades of passivity conditioning have resulted in the bizarre spectacle of 300 horsepower cars being driven as timorously as 82 hp K cars.
Which gives the advantage to the K car driver – or the Versa driver – if he’s prepared to use what he’s got.
Especially if you’re paying attention. Anticipate the light going green. The guy next to you in his 300 hp whatever-it-is probably isn’t. He is probably texting – or just unfocused, his mind on other things. If you’re ready and he’s not – then you win.
Regardless of his theoretical under-the-hood advantage.
Try it and see.
Nine times out of ten, you’ll win in a car like the Versa – if you’re prepared and make use of everything you’ve got. This entails actually driving, of course – and that is an activity actively being discouraged. But – again – this can work to your advantage in the same way that laws forbidding radar detectors work to the advantage of the smarter set who ignore such laws.
It is also fun. In the sense of the sage saying that it is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. And for the record, a 9-ish second time to 60 isn’t slow – even by modern standards.
If you want to experience a slow new car, try a Prius C hybrid. It needs 11 seconds to get to 60, which doesn’t leave much to work with.
On handling and such: Will the Versa out-corner (or out-brake) sportier-in-principle sedans? No, of course it won’t.
The Versa handles and brakes vastly better than the Beetle; in comparison, it’s a four-door Ferrari. Its limits are high enough that (unlike the Beetle) you have to work at it to reach them. In ordinary day-to-day driving, you will never approach them.
Who needs more?
If not, why pay extra for it?
Sedans aren’t as popular as they once were – arguably because they’ve become so much less practical than they once were. Especially in the Versa’s class – in which you get much more room for your money if you go with a hatchback or even a small crossover SUV. These have become extremely popular because they are practical. Their higher rooflines, wide-opening rear liftgates and backseats that fold flat make up for their small overall size.
These all start out several thousand dollar higher than the Versa sedan – and there’s less room to haggle that down . . . because they’re popular. If you don’t buy it, the guy behind you will.
But the Versa’s a very practical sedan – for its size and otherwise.
To get a handle on this, have a look at some key Versa stats – vs. the best-selling mid-sized car in the country, Toyota’s Camry sedan. The Versa is 175.4 inches long overall vs. 192.7 inches for the Camry, a difference in length of not far from two feet. Bu the Versa’s front and backseat legroom – 41.8 inches and 37 inches – are within a hair of the much larger on the outside Camry’s: 42.1 inches up front and 38 inches in the back.
But the Camry’s base price – $23,495 – is almost exactly twice the Versa’s base price.
And the Camry is among the roomier mid-sized sedans on the market right now. Most have considerably less room in the back. Nissan’s own Altima sedan (a Camry cross-shop) has just 36.1 inches of legroom in its backseats and only 15.4 cubic feet of trunk space, despite being two notches up the Nissan totem pole.
And in small sedan equivalents like the Hyundai Accent, you’d better assume the position. The fetal position. It only has 33.5 inches of backseat legroom – nearly four inches less than the Versa. That’s ok for young kids but tight for teens and harsh on adults – which makes a car like the Accent sedan much less practical than the Versa as a primary family car.
Also practical are the standard 15-inch steel wheels, which are sturdier than the aluminum wheels almost all new cars now come standard with (chiefly because they shave a little curb weight and also because they look snazzier than steel wheels with plastic trim covers). Steel wheels stand up better to potholes – and are much more resistant to warping caused by over-tightening of lug nuts, which happens a lot.
Ride quality is usually better on 15s, too – because there’s more shock-absorbing tire between you and the road than there is in a car riding on 16 or 17-inch wheels with short -and so, stiffer – sidewalls.
Steering response might not be as “sharp,” but we’re talking economy . . . right?
What used to cost you more are things like air conditioning and a serviceable audio system.
Both are standard in the sub-$12k Versa S – as are intermittent wipers. It’s a lot for the coin, particularly in historical context. Economy cars used to be defined by the absence of air conditioning; they maybe came with an AM radio, usually extra cost. Intermittent wipers? Might as well expect a ribeye on the Value Menu at McDonalds.
You toughed it out.
But when you can buy a brand-new car with AC, a better-than-decent stereo (four speakers, Bluetooth) and intermittent wipers for under $12k, how do you convince people to buy cars that cost more than $12k?
Well, you can restrict things like cruise control and power windows to the higher-priced cars. That and the optional CVT automatic transmission. These and a few other little things – like a rear seatback that folds fully flat – are what separate the $12k Versa S from the slightly pricier Versa S Plus and Versa SV.
Also the Versa from cross-shops like the Accent sedan.
But the take-home point is that they are little things – not deal-breakers like no air conditioning.
Spend more on availables like the 5-inch LCD touchscreen, upgraded stereo, keyless ignition and leather trim . . . if you want to.
But not because you have to.
Just as the engine is simple, so also the rest of the car.
If you’re among the heretics like me who doesn’t want a car that second-guesses your every move, assaults you with corrective buzzers and lights – you’ll love this car.
It doesn’t even have a seatbelt buzzer.
Just a red light that is very quiet (it comes on if you neglect to “buck up for safety” on the drive down to the mailbox). This also means you won’t be assaulted by a buzzer if you put unbuckled groceries on the front passenger seat.
If only it didn’t have to have six air bags – the current minimum necessary to comply with Uncle’s various fatwas – Nissan could probably sell you one of these for $10k and still make a profit on each sale, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In addition to being an exceptionally economical car, the Versa’s a viable family car . . . and not a sad car.
Too bad they don’t make more like this.
Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive and motorcycles at ericpetersautos.com. Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!
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