A few years ago I offered a strong thumbs up to the outgoing Nissan Versa. Plenty of room. A small touch of sportiness when it came with a hatchback. Good feature content. I even gave it kudos for offering a slightly frumpish French design that went far beyond the flying wedges and amorphous blobs of the time.
Times have changed. Small cars are starting to look good again. Thank God!
The 2012 Versa has been reviewed here, there and pretty much everywhere. A lot of auto journalists hate it with a passion that was once reserved for no hit wonders like the Saturn Ion and Suzuki Forenza.
Is it really that bad? American consumers are saying, “Hell no!” with sales up a stunning 30% from April 2011. At least from the sales numbers (8,300+ units last month and climbing) it looks like a car loaded with penurious plentitude is just what Dr. Recession ordered. To help us out I have asked two completely fictional car experts, Jacque Hedonist & Stefan Frugalist, to help us figure this out.
Jacque: Are you kidding me? A Versa? What a rolling catastrophe! The engine has a nasty whining sound at anywhere above 2500 rpm’s. The CVT on it is nearly DOA. You step on the gas… and… it… thinks… about… it. The interior materials are somewhere between off-brand and Wal-Mart. How can any enthusiast recommend it with a clear conscience?
Stefan: Well I didn’t think it was that bad. Through 700 miles it got me over 40 mpg. The interior is low maintenance and easy to clean. The price is only about $15,500 MSRP which means that if I keep it for 12 years and 180k, I may be only looking at about $10 a day in long-term cost (assuming $4 a gallon gas). That to me is what counts and…
Jacque: Stop right there tightwad! If you took out all the interior materials from the Nissan Versa and put it in a big pile, you know how much all that recycled Chinese plastic would cost?
Maybe three humdred dollars! I mean for the love of all that is sacred in the car world. Since when does an automaker get away with reshaping empty oil cans and have it pass as interior door panels?
Stefan: Since GM sold Cavaliers, Sunfires and Saturns? Since Ford sold Escorts and Focii? Since the Tercel, Yaris & Echo have been sold as entry level Toyotas for 30 odd years now? The truth is entry level new car buyers simply don’t give a flip about what they don’t touch. So long as it looks ‘nice’. The seats are comfortable enough for a long trip. The stereo works as advertised, and the features are loaded enough for the era. Consumers will buy it.
Jacque: I’m not sure about that. The MSRP on a comparable Hyundai Accent GLS is only about $800 more than the mid-level Versa. You’re meaning to tell me that buyers wouldn’t be willing to pay an extra $15 a month for a car that is better by nearly every yardstick of performance?
Stefan: Absolutely, and you know why? Space. It’s not only the final frontier when it comes to luxury cars. It’s what sells small budget cars as well. The United States is a country where the roads are either predominantly straight and narrow, or packed and clogged with too much traffic. Most buyers pay lip service to performance because they almost never use it. You give buyers a choice between 25 more horsepower and a segment up in interior space, and in nearly every case they will take the space.
The Versa is the market leader because it serves what customers want. The straight and narrow folks want a soft ride where there is enough space to stretch out and enjoy the scenery a bit. That’s why trucks and SUV’s have been all gussied up from their hard riding vinyl bench seat roots. Even many of the so-called enthusiasts among us look at transportation with degrees of luxury and convenience regardless of performance and utility… which is why large cars on the inside like the Versa sell in droves.
Jacque: Sorry, but you’re completely wrong. The Versa is nothing more than a decontented legacy ride. The new Versa has more body lean around turns than anything else in it’s class by far. It has the cheapest interior this side of thick floor mats (which cost $170) and plain old thin carpets. The charcoal seat covers feel so loose that I’m sure one sharp misplaced object on it would render a nice rip that would spread like a virus. The cost containment has gone too far.
I remember a lot of cars in the past just like the Versa. The 1998 – 2002 Toyota Corolla was a cheap and miserable machine that was worse than it’s predecessor by nearly every measure. In today’s times market we have the Pilot, Civic, Sienna… all trying to make a cheaper product resemble a better one. The Versa is more of the same.
Stefan: Hmmm… well let’s say you get an entry level stickshift model for $11,000?
Jacque: Not for me.
Stefan: Which is exactly the point. The Versa is a good car for folks who are simply not into cars. They are too busy making mortgage payments, paying ever higher bills, and enjoying hobbies that don’t come with four wheels or five figures attached to them. It’s the perfect economical car for a troubled economic time.
Jacque: Nope, it’s the perfect excuse to buy a certified pre-owned Honda Fit that is around 4 years old and has 30k on it. Just like the so-called entry level Versa. Good luck finding either one these days.
Stefan: Too true. Oh well, I do think that the Versa embraces the economics of ownership quite well. Performance be damned. What do the Best & Brightest say? Would you still be willing to recommend a Versa to the masses who only look at cars as transportation? Should they opt for the sedan that sacrifices performance for fuel economy? The hatchback which packs more power. But dates all the way back to early 2006? Or go with another new or used car?
What says you?