Cars

Versa scores, roomy inside and out

Bill Griffith for the Boston Globe

Cars are like people. They all have personalities, and sometimes the outside doesn’t really reflect what’s inside.

Take today’s test car, the 2012 Nissan Versa Sedan.

Seen from the outside, it’s a small car. Its beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While the Versa looks like a scaled-down Altima, the inside space makes me think it is the Lincoln Town Car of subcompacts with lots of interior room and plenty of trunk space. However, if you don’t appreciate small cars, you’ll likely label it an EconoBox.

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We were headed to Connecticut for our daughter’s birthday celebration and Father’s Day Weekend. Mrs. G, as is her custom, wasn’t coming to the party empty-handed.

So the pile next to the Versa grew— and grew.

There was a full-sized cooler filled with food, including her signature chicken pie, the one that fills a fullsized Corning Ware baking dish. Added to that were a couple of suitcases, a computer bag, camera bag/backpack, several gift bags, and a big wrapped present about the size of a piece of luggage, which is exactly what it was.

Mrs. G was worried, not that the pile wouldn’t fit in the trunk—she figured that was impossible—but that it wouldn’t fit in both the trunk and rear seat combined.

It did fit—and it all went into the trunk. The second photo shows everything in the trunk except the camera bag.

What’s inside the Versa sedan is space, lots of useful space for both cargo and passengers. Although the Versa nominally is a five-passenger vehicle, the back seat will accommodate two full-sized adults in amazing comfort for a subcompact vehicle.

The Versa sedan was a complete redesign for 2012 using a Nissan global platform and following the contemporary trend among automakers to build world cars.

Our test Versa was the mid-level SV model with the standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a second-generation CVT (continuously variable transmission) and frontwheel- drive. While the Versa starts at an advertised $11,770 (including destination), that’s for the manual transmission version that’s only available on the base S model.

Our SV listed at $15,650 and that was it. We’d have liked the $350 convenience package that adds Bluetooth, steering wheel audio controls, a passenger-side vanity mirror, map light, and audio upgrade with iPod control.

Inside, the Versa sports nice quality fabric seats. The predominantly plastic surfaces have a quality look and feel, and gauges are a combination of analog (the tachometer and speedometer) and digital (fuel and temperature gauges). An onboard driver-information computer gives odometer, average mpg, and miles-to-empty information. It’s interesting to watch the tachometer while accelerating with a CVT. The revs will slowly increase with speed but there isn’t the usual rev-up, drop-down, doit- again as the car climbs through the gears.

Overall, however, the Versa driving experience was just fine, and we found it surprisingly thrifty. Driving around town and making the 250-mile round trip to Connecticut returned 38.8 miles per gallon, a bit shy of the 42.8 mpg the onboard computer was claiming we were averaging but exceeding the EPA’s highway number. The EPA estimates for the sedan with CVT are 30 city, 38 highway and 33 combined.

Maybe it’s because I’m something of a weather wonk, but I missed having an outside temperature gauge, along with the likes of automatic climate control, fog lights, and variable-speed intermittent wipers (there was one intermittent speed). Mrs. G, who considers a lighted vanity mirror a “must have,” was appalled at the total lack of a vanity mirror on the passenger visor.

On the road, the Nissan worked a bit at acceleration off the line but after that was surprisingly capable and cruised easily at highway speeds. At night, the low beams were fine and the high beams even better.

The downside of the driving experience was that there was a bit of road and engine noise involved. Gaining all that useful space and the good mileage figures meant cutting weight (including insulation) and power (the 109-horsepower engine). Mrs. G made note of the noise and also that the seats “weren’t all THAT comfortable” on longer rides.

On the road on a bright day, the climate control system’s dials were hard to read; at night, they were well lighted and clearly visible.

A big positive for the Versa is its identity as the small-on-the-outside but big-on-the-inside selection among small sedans. That’s important because the Versa is competing in a market segment against the likes of the Honda Fit, Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and Toyota Yaris.

Many times a subcompact is a buyer’s compromise choice, sacrificing some mid-sized space and amenities for a lower MSRP and better fuel economy. That can mean the small car gets “ridden hard and put away wet” as they termed harsh use in the horse-and-buggy era. Versa seems tough enough to take that treatment in stride.

The Versa name hints at “versatile” in the word-association corner of my mind, and should you try one on for size, you’ll find it has room for you.

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