I refuse to believe car enthusiasts are subjected to the confines of only cars thought to be "enthusiast" cars; you know, the ones that sound great, accelerate from this to that in a certain amount of time and look this way etc etc. One key figure in particular stands out amongst the car community, a man fronting something of a cult which consists of people who appreciate motoring on much more rudimentary level. Contrary to his colleagues, he believes in the joy of driving simple and economical cars. Some refer to him as Sir James May of Top Gear fame but I prefer to just think of him as a long-haired bloke across the pond who may actually be on to something.
The Nissan Versa sedan has been America's cheapest new car for the past several years straight. Its latest base price figure comes in at a scant $11,990. Eleven thousand nine ninety. For a brand new vehicle! Yes yes you could buy this heavily depreciated BMW M car and that problematic Mercedes AMG for the same amount of stack. In fact, I bought my very own E46 M3 at a pricepoint not too distant from what Nissan commands for its new Versa. But for once, I'd like to engage in the scope of what James May sees through and well, give this is whole back-to-the-basics motoring thing a go.
My 2013 Nissan Versa was a rental car. My acquisition of the car was entirely unintentional. I had only wanted something cheap that would take me on a tour of Yankee America and get me back to my New Jersey starting point without too much hassle. Well, imagine my horror when I checked into the rental office and the clerk pulls out a set of Nissan keys.
Allow me to explain why the sight of Nissan keys at a typical American rental car office induces terror into the well versed car enthusiast renter. Three letters are held responsible here: CVT. It stands for "full retard failbox" or in more technical jargon Continuously Variable Transmission and has become something of a standard offering across most newer Nissan models. CVT transmissions provide an driving experience such that your recollection of driving a PT Cruiser becomes that much more pleasant. CVTs are the slushiest of slushy slushboxes and Nissan seems to have no indignity at gratuitously featuring the transmission in many of their cars.
I, however, decided to proceed forward and not squabble over getting an alternative. How bad can it really be? Just a few years ago, I would probably have... most likely have... definitely have asked for a different non-Nissan car when presented with a set of Nissan keys at a rental office. "Just give me a Chevy Aveo" I'd mumble to the clerk.
Initial impressions were no surprise. Seating position was awkward and felt like you were sitting upright in a classroom chair, power was severely inadequate, steering was featherweight and throttle response didn't actually exist. Additionally, the Versa makes it a point to let you know it's being pushed just a bit too hard on the highway on-ramp. The noise it produces can be described as something of an irritable goat crossed with another even more irritable one.
To top it all off, I was driving through New Jersey. What a way to start the day.
I, however, believe that silver linings can be found in every nook and cranny and to my surprise in this case it was located smack dab on the center console. It's got an auxiliary jack! Imagine my relief when I realized that not only did the Versa provide its occupants with a choice to drown out the sound it makes, but I also had with me a male-to-male aux cable. And I knew that with Spotify on my smartphone my journey to the northeast would be free of Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and radio chatterboxes who talk with weird accents.
My trip would take me out of New Jersey, through bits of New York, across Connecticut, Rhode Island and into Massachusetts where I'd arrive in Boston my first night. Driving out of New Jersey and through NYC proved to be a chore and an harrowing experience for someone from the wide open roads of Texas. Driving into Boston then, proved to be... regrettable. Top tip for someone not from Boston who plans on driving in Boston: don't.
Fortunately the Versa does manage to do some things well, namely be small and unobtrusive on densely packed Boston streets. It also provides me much more relief than being in something more expensive or my own car. "It's just a Versa! I can go and park anywhere!" I'd tell myself as I mistakenly street parked my car in Boston. I don't have to pay a parking ticket somewhere I don't live right?
One aspect of the Versa that's both laughable and appreciable is that fact it wears 185mm wide tires that can otherwise be thought of as tires slightly smaller than the reduced size spare tire in your Mini Cooper. But its narrow tires make the car lively and easier to maneuver around at low speed. Missing a turn was no big deal as U-turns didn't feel too intimidating to make. Though, I'd advise that it's a good idea to just never miss a turn in Boston.
Day two was spent navigating myself out of Boston and up north into the what I like to call the quiet states, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. I call them the quiet states because everyone I have ever met from New Hampshire, Vermont or Maine seem to be people who don't really care to converse with the likes of other humans. And this is why I had long looked forward to visiting these states.
Traffic thinned out and snowfall followed. My drive went from chaotic to obscenely serene.
It was here that I began to reflect on several things. I had driven about 400 miles now in some 36 hours or so and my oh-so-awful Versa did everything I wanted it to without any of the drama that may have come with a so-called "better" car.
You see, the Nissan Versa was easy to drive, easy on gas and easy to overlook as something of a valuable car. It didn't make any sort of statement other than its driver wanted to travel in something inexpensive and practical. It was invisible everywhere I went (and even more so that white camouflages into the snow). Its presence didn't seem to be a bother to anyone. And even when I made a mistake while driving, as I apparently often did so in Boston, it didn't have anyone thinking I was another asshole in a BMW or Escalade. I was simply a lost and terrible driver from New Jersey. Little did they know I've only visited New Jersey for less than 48 hours of my life and did not look forward to more.
In any third world country, a new Nissan Versa would be a device of absolute luxury. Even at this-is-too-cold-for-my-Texas-ass outdoor temperature, the Versa's heat kept the cabin at sauna levels the whole time and its functions never missed a beat. I was able to listen to my music the whole way through and to my surprise, never actually felt uncomfortable in any way as I was driving. Whereas previously its 185mm wide tires were amusingly upsetting, narrow tires now increased function on snowy roads. I was also able to consistently average high 30s in mpg which, combined with low gas prices, made the total cost of gas during the trip a mere tip of the change jar.
So then I asked myself, $11,990 gets you a car like this that has never had another owner and comes with a warranty? In many ways, the Nissan Versa offers you nothing. It has no real features, no luxuries or toys to sustain the modern driver. It drives fairly terribly. It has trouble moving under its own power. Its transmission, well, needs to be forgiven and empathized with. And in many other ways, the Nissan Versa offers you everything. It gets you where you need to go without drama, delivers to you convenience, ease, inexpensive operation and it never whines about it. That is of course unless you decide to nail the throttle on an highway on-ramp.
In 72 hours I completed exactly 911 miles in it, drove through all of New England during a time when it's trickiest to travel the region, spent only $74.13 on gas and learned valuable lessons along the way such as how little driving one should attempt to do while visiting Boston.
I think it's fair and appropriate to call the Nissan Versa not only America's cheapest new car, but also America's humblest little car. It delivers to you little in terms of excess, but it delivers to you everything in terms of necessity. It's motoring at its most essential, stripped of luxuries and offers to you a piece of what Sir James May has already discovered ages ago.