The Mouse That Roars

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TESTED Nissan Versa SL

WHAT IS IT? An entry-level subcompact sedan distinguished mostly by its price: the base model is America's cheapest new car.

HOW MUCH? The base S with a manual transmission is $12,780 including the destination charge, up $1,000 from last year. The top-shelf SL starts at $17,680.

WHAT'S UNDER THE HOOD? A 1.6-liter in-line 4-cylinder that is, in the case of the tested SL, bound and gagged by a highly erratic continuously variable transmission.

IS IT THIRSTY? The E.P.A. rating is 31 miles per gallon in the city, 40 on the highway and 35 combined.

ALTERNATIVES Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Thomas Built school bus.

The directions to Long Island ought to have been easy -- drive east until you see water -- but it was the Friday before a holiday weekend and I'd gotten tangled in late afternoon traffic. As I approached an exit for the Belt Parkway, the Nissan Versa's five-inch navigation screen resembled an anatomical chart of an inflamed knee.

My G.P.S. advised me to keep right, but a twinge in my vestigial sense of direction told me to bear left. I coasted for a few seconds, tapped the brakes and decided to go with instinct. I spotted a narrow opening to my left and pressed the gas.

Suddenly the engine let out a pained roar and I felt the Versa seize up as if it had been shot from under me. The car had lost its momentum and I was stuck between lanes, with what seemed like a stampede of S.U.V.'s charging past on either side. I edged into the left lane on blind faith -- only through pure luck did the Versa not get trampled.

I hadn't felt so unsettled behind the wheel in ages, perhaps not since I was 16. Back then I was still learning to drive a stick shift, and when I'd miss a gear the same thing would happen: a howl of objection from the engine and a terrifying second or two of being completely at the mercy of my fellow drivers.

The culprit in this case was the Versa's Next Generation Xtronic continuously variable transmission, or C.V.T. In theory, a C.V.T. should do a better job of choosing the most efficient engine speed for a car's given velocity than a conventional automatic (or a gearshift-mangling teenager) would. But the Versa's C.V.T. offers gear selection so arbitrary that one imagines not so much a pair of conical pulleys as a roulette wheel.

It's not that Nissan can't build a decent C.V.T.; I found the transmissions mostly unobtrusive in the Juke and the Rogue. But time and again the Versa's engine would over-rev without any corresponding input from my right foot, at 40 m.p.h. on a flat road or accelerating from a rolling stop. Remember that terrible driver's ed feeling of shifting into second when you meant to shift to fourth? The Versa's C.V.T. makes those mistakes for you.

Perhaps this is fitting, because the Versa is every bit an entry-level vehicle. The 4-cylinder engine musters a mere 109 horsepower, which is low enough that I can actually picture the horses; after a strenuous uphill climb I was tempted to thank each of them by name. The car is tuned for beginners, with firm braking and steering that's not too sensitive. You can point it dead ahead on straightaways and take your hands off the wheel, freeing them to wave other cars past.

There's nothing wrong with entry-level if it's done right. And the Versa does have its selling points. It's fairly roomy, especially the back seat. Trunk space is more than adequate. And appearance-wise it's perhaps no worse than your typical stubby subcompact sedan. Its mileage claims were right on the money: I averaged a little over 33 m.p.g. over a weekend of combined city-highway driving in the 2012 SL. The 2013 model gets low-rolling-resistance tires and a few design tweaks that lift the combined fuel economy estimate to 35; a conventional 4-speed automatic is now offered as well, but only on the bare-bones S.

Indeed, part of the SL's problem may be that it's not entry-level enough. Its nicer touches seemed out of place -- mixed in with the cloth seats and plasticky controls were chrome door handles, brushed-steel steering wheel trim and a tech package with satellite radio and the aforementioned navigation system.

The premium touches can push the SL above $18,000. For that money you might as well buy something like a Ford Fiesta, which offers finer interior appointments, a sportier profile and a powertrain that, while modest, is at least predictable.

Still, Nissan must be doing something right. Last year, the Versa family (including the hatchback, which is being reintroduced for 2014 as the Versa Note) was the sales leader among subcompacts by a substantial margin.

And who knows -- if I were the father of a teenage driver I might consider buying him a Versa sedan. But if so, I'd call Nissan's bluff and buy the base car with the 5-speed manual.

It can't be any worse than the C.V.T., and besides, I think there's still real value in forcing a young driver to grapple with a stick shift. Give him a feel for the car before he learns to ignore it in favor of the latest app. Make him understand that driving is not a thing that happens on a computer screen -- that every merge into traffic is a make-or-break moment.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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