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Car Report

2012 Nissan Versa Sedan

Nissan

Interested in buying a supercar? The Lamborghini Aventador is just the ticket.

Luxury coupe? Look no further than the Bentley Continental GT.

Boutique retro off-road military machine? The Icon CJ3B should satisfy your appetite for destruction.

OK, now that I’ve gotten rid of that pesky top one percent of Americans, here’s something the rest of of you might be interested in, the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan.

The appeal of the Versa is simple. It’s the cheapest, or to be polite, lowest-priced car sold in America. For $11,750 it undercuts everything on the road today by a wide margin.

Even the microscopic Smart Fortwo starts at $13,240. That means you’re paying $6620 per passenger compared to $2350 for the five-seat Versa. Are people who ride around in Smarts really worth nearly three times as the rest of us?! All in favor, do something with your hands, we’ll figure out what it means later.

On the surface, it’s hard to understand how Nissan does this. The Versa isn’t much to look at, sure, and high style is expensive to execute, but the car offers so much hugeness for the money there has to be a catch.

The Versa has more rear leg room than a Nissan Maxima, a bigger trunk, too. That’s a $33G flagship sedan with a name that’s kind of sad in this context. And, again, it’s almost 3x the price per passenger. Hey, mid-level executive, you're not that special!

The base Versa even comes with air conditioning and a radio…with two speakers. Want two more? You have to shell out $350 for cruise control. Nothing odd about that combination, unless you are one of those people wedded to “the system.”

The not-so-little Nissan does have its own social classes, however, offering three trim levels (S, SV and SL) with an increasing level of standard equipment and each unlocking additional features on the options list. Bluetooth and red paint can’t be had on the S, for instance, and if you want a stereo with navigation – priced at a relatively reasonable $700 – you have to start by ordering the top of the line SL. Load one to the max and it’ll just crack the $17,000 barrier, more or less what a stripped Sentra costs.

But all that good stuff is just window dressing. In the spirit of egalitarianism, every Versa sedan is powered by the same 109 hp 1.6-liter four cylinder engine, connected to either a five-speed manual or CVT automatic transmission. Paired with the CVT, it’s good for 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, slightly less with the stick.

On the highway, the “gearless” automatic keeps the revs low and the noise level down, but floor the accelerator and you’ll wonder who turned on the leaf blower. The Versa is not a fan of changing speeds.

Changing direction, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. At this price level it’s a shock to learn that the Versa has variable-assist power steering. It’s responsive, and weights up nicely with speed, but is also one finger light in parking lots. On the other hand, the suspension is quite plush all the time, and combined with equally cushy seats, just the thing for soaking up the third world-quality road surfaces found in and around places like Wall Street, but not carving them up like an investment bank’s year-end bonus pool.

Fun to drive the Versa is not, but it can be amusing to push to its limits in a Keystone Cops versus bank robber chase scene sort of way. Go beyond them and there are six airbags to help ensure that you can sign the insurance claim. Crash test ratings are yet to come but last year’s model had fair to middling scores, so here’s hoping that evolution has improved the breed.

Strategic spending of the engineering budget is apparent throughout the Versa, and a close examination of the details is where corner cutting becomes apparent.

The “handshake” points of contact, like the door handles, steering wheel and gear selector, all feel good to the touch. Even the turn signal stalk operates in a well-oiled fashion. But look around and you realize that while the dashboard, center console and door panels have a pleasing design, they are constructed of hard glossy plastic with nary a square inch of soft material to squish your fingernails into when you get bored. The headliner deserves a descriptor less flattering than “mouse fur,” and if you open the front doors you can see the Styrofoam sound-deadening material (?) that fills the wide gap in the door jam.

For a vehicle with only 3000 miles on the odometer, my test car also had an unfortunate amount of loose trim, and the white grease on the front seat rails was spread thickly with what looked like something less than care. A peek under the trunk carpet while looking for the spare – there is one, by the way - revealed similarly unaesthetic welds and wires heading off in various directions.

Not that it necessarily matters, but the Versa is built in Mexico. Those darn global capital markets have made the Yen way too expensive to export something like this from Japan, or even build in the United States. It took the strong arm of a government bailout to get the UAW to agree to a 50 percent wage cut for many of the workers at the Lake Orion, Michigan plant that produces the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic in order to get the price down on that to $14,495 -- the lowest of any car made in USA.

While the Versa likely won’t inspire anyone to try to become a professional racecar driver -- something Nissan is actually in the business of doing these days -- it is about as sensible shoes as cars get. The automaker sold 99,000 of the old version last year, and is on track to blow that number away in 2011, so it’s clearly found a segment of the population underserved by its competitors.

As of this writing you can lease a Versa Sedan for as little as $174 per month over 39 months with $374 down, or finance it for $209 per month over five years. If you’re a recent college graduate, there’s an extra $500 on the hood. The government might not pay for your education, but Nissan is apparently happy to chip in. For those of you wondering, this is what capitalism looks like.

No one said it had to be pretty.

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2012 Nissan Versa Sedan SV

Base Price: $15,320

As Tested: $15,840

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan

Engine: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder

Power: 109 hp, 107 lb-ft torque

Transmission: CVT automatic

MPG: 30 city/38 hwy