When buying a car, affordability and desirability are generally at opposite ends of the spectrum. That means building an inexpensive automobile that s desirable is a black art. Every rivet, every upholstery upgrade adds to the bottom line. Think about how many parts you ll find in an automobile. Adding a penny to each one adds up to a considerable amount of cash. Don t forget, it doesn t cost any less in manpower to bolt a fender onto an economy car than a luxury ride.

Enter the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan. It is very inexpensive (cheap is such a...well, cheap word). Nissan boasts that at $10,990, it s the least expensive new car sold in the US. That s still true when you add $760 for delivery. Add on every option, including navigation, and your looking at 17 large.

A low price is good and all but the question is where does it land on that affordable/desirable spectrum? Does that low price get you more than a sardine can? I attended the press launch in Seattle to find out.

V Stands For...

In Versa s case V means new (yeah I know that s the letter N, stay with me). This car has been created from the ground up and Nissan has christened the platform V (for versatile). It uses 20 percent fewer components and weighs about 150 pounds less than the outgoing B platform. Eventually it will underpin up to 10 different models so it s appropriately named.

It s expected that budget cars are cramped. That is not the case with Versa, its cabin has the kind of space found in a mid-sized sedan. That s due in part to the new drivetrain. Nissan s second-gen 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine gets some high-tech features including twin injectors for each cylinder (most engines get by with one). This dual injector system provides a wider pattern and finer spray of fuel so combustion is more thorough. Horsepower is rated at 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 RPM.

Versa s standard gearbox on the S model is a five-speed manual. SV and SL models get a Continuously Variable Transmission. Its design adds an auxiliary gearbox using planetary gearing, giving it a wide set of ratios- 7.3:1. Nissan claims it s broader than some seven-speed automatic gearboxes and using that planetary gearset allows for tighter packaging meaning more space for the passengers.

It Also Stands For Value

Pricing works very simply- There are three different models, each gets a minimal of option choices to keep costs down. The base S at $11,750 includes air conditioning, a basic CD/AM/FM sound system with an aux jack to plug in an MP3 player. And... of course tires (with steel wheels and covers naturally). The transmission is a five-speed manual.

Move up to the SV and there s chrome trim around the grille and door handles, body colored mirrors, an automatic CVT transmission, some great looking gauges, power windows and cruise control. The lone $350 option package gets you map lights, vanity mirrors, Bluetooth and USB port for iPod integration. I d spring for it.

At the press launch in Seattle I m living large (and yet frugally) in a top-of-the-line SL model that spirals up to the dizzying price of... $16,300. To SVs equipment, SL adds standard alloy wheels, steering wheel controls, plus iPod and Bluetooth integration. Add $700 for XM satellite radio and navigation (a basic unit with a five-inch screen that works well). SL also gets a better sound system, though it still won t please audiophiles.

Comparing the outgoing Versa to the 2012 model, the price drops by about $1,500. Against the competition, comparably equipped it s about $3,000 dollars less.

V Is For Vrrroom?

Not really and it shouldn t be expected to be. With no time to do an acceleration test, the seat of my Levi s guestimates a 0-60 time of around 10 seconds. In typical fashion the continuously variable transmission has an elastic quality about it, gliding from virtual gear to gear.

As mandated by Uncle Sam for 2012, there s electronic stability control. Anti-lock brakes have decent pedal modulation. They are 10-inch discs up front, 8-inch drums in the rear.

The soft ride of Versa is meant to keep everyone comfortable and road noise is average at highway speeds (a compliment at this price point). Power steering is electric. Push it hard into a corner and Versa understeers at a moderate rate. In short, driving dynamics are perfectly fine.

The all-important fuel economy is EPA rated at 30 miles per gallon city, 38 highway. The S exclusive five-speed manual drops that to 27 city, 36 highway. That s not a typo, machines and computers are more efficient than you and me. Yes, the magic marketing number is 40 MPG number these days. Basic high school math reveals that if you drive 15,000 miles a year and pay $4.00 a gallon for gas it will cost only 36 bucks more each year for fuel.

Space. The Versa Frontier.

The spacious interior of Versa uses a lot of hard plastic but fortunately it looks fairly good. The SL I m driving has cloth inserts on the door panels and the upgraded gauges look bright and crisp. Knobs for the AC and heater have a rubbery feel but hey, buy a Lexus if you want silky smooth. On the other hand, the substantial door release handles feel as good as any car out there. The glovebox is large too.

Buyers shouldn t expect luxurious carpet or headliner material at this price. The steering wheel isn t covered in leather, nor does it adjust for reach but at this point I m getting a little weary of pointing out the at this price fact.

Really, Versa is about room and the Nissan folks have provided lots of it. Compared to Fiesta and Accent sedans, Versa is like an aircraft carrier and that s most obvious in the back seat.
Nissan claims there s more legroom than a BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E-Class, even a Lexus LS 460. Three friends will be fine in back. They don t get an armrest, power port, door storage but they do get one map pocket.

Versa has a trunk release on the inside but not on the remote fob. Coming at the trunk from the grocery store, you have to use the key. Its enormous space has minimal undulations making it very useful. There s even a spare, not all cars have those these days. Even hatchbacks in this price range hold only four, maybe five packs. Versa gobbles up 7. And if you need more room the SL model can give it to you with split fold down seats.

Who s Going To Buy?

Versa is the first Nissan to get their new sedan grille design. Overall the styling is pleasant enough, though my eye finds the huge trunk extends out too far for a balanced look.

Who s going to buy Versa? It s a good first car for someone coming out of college. It s toughest competition is the used car market, but there are plenty of buyers that insist on a factory a warranty and the security of knowing what their car has been through.

Nissan says a hatchback version of this new Versa will coming soon (the outgoing model will soldier on in that position for a while). And for those who think this car will steal sales from Sentra, well, that could be true but at least Nissan s keeping it in the family (plus there was a nudge and a wink from the PR people that a new Sentra is on the horizon). For those wanting basic transportation and room for five the 2012 Versa sedan is largely in a class of it s own.

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