Story & Photos by Bill Griffith, NEMPA
Nissan went to extremes in September when it brought both its new entry-level Versa sedan and its GT-R supercar to Brookline’s Larz Anderson Auto Museum to show to NEMPA.
Outside of the Nissan nameplate, the only area of the spectrum where they met was in their color: Solid Red for the GT-R, Red Brick for the Versa. Otherwise, the differences–in styling, performance, and price–were striking. The 2012 Versa, starting at $10,990 plus $760 destination charge, is all about economy; it’s rated at 38 miles per gallon highway and 33 in combined driving. It’s also spacious for an entry-level vehicle, boasting class-leading rear-seat and trunk room. We loaded in a pair of super-sized NEMPA members and found they easily fit in the rear seat with ample legroom and adequate headroom. Three models are available: the base S (now with standard A/C and stereo), an upgraded SV (Bluetooth and steering wheel-mounted controls) and the SL, with navigation and satellite radio. A hatchback version will be available soon.
Asked why the company hadn’t tried for the 40-mpg highway rating, Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning, said it was about cost. “We believe that 40 mpg still is marketing hype,” he said. “To reach that would have added $3,000 to the Versa’s cost, and assuming you drive 15,000 miles per year, at today’s gas prices you’d save $76 a year.” Instead, Nissan has introduced a new 1.6-liter engine and a second-generation CVT to position itself in a compact segment that’s expected to double in sales by 2015.
The new CVT, which Perry compared to a seven-speed conventional automatic, is actually a hybrid transmission with continuously variable drive in the lower “gears” and conventional planetary gears at higher speeds. “This allowed us to save considerable space,” he said. That space went directly into the rear seat.
As for the hyper-sophisticated GT-R, well, it’s a supercar with an unexpectedly reasonable price–just $90,000 ($100,000-plus for the all-black edition). Everything is relative, of course, and this price is roughly half what many of the GT-R’s direct competitors sell for. The driving experience ranged from surprisingly docile to exhilarating. With 530 horsepower (an increase of 45 over the prior version) underfoot, the car is ready to jump into instant action. That power comes from a 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-6 and is distributed to an all-wheel-drive system. Perry said that the six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission “is far faster at shifting than even the best of you.” (He was correct.)
The suspension has three settings: Normal, Comfort, and “R” for ultimate handling. Even in Normal, Jim MacPherson of The Hartford Courant observed, “it’s so sensitive that if you run over a coin, you can tell whether it’s a penny or a quarter.”
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the car is its very existence, which testifies to a sporting spirit within Nissan that encourages these advanced technologies–benefits that inevitably will filter down through the product line.