“So, does the Cheapest Car in America have a glove compartment?” asked my kids, with the requisite snorts and eye rolls. In disgust, they had stopped referring to the Nissan Versa 1.6 by its given name, instead preferring their new nickname for it.
At its introduction last fall, the $9,990 no-frills Nissan undercut all other new cars in the United States. (Since then, a reduction in the price of the Hyundai Accent has outdone that dubious distinction by $20.)
Despite its bargain-basement price, the Versa is surprisingly pleasant to drive and seems solidly built, suggesting that for consumers looking for the cheapest entry to new car ownership, with its attendant warranty and the reasonable expectation of trouble-free ownership, the Versa is a top choice.
Here’s the trouble though: Consumers don't just shop for reliable transportation — not even in a recession that has chilled consumer purchases like summer movie matinee air conditioning.
Consumers have a vice grip on their pennies these days, and so one might expect the Versa 1.6 to be a hot seller. Instead, like my tween-agers, consumers are aghast at the Versa’s absent gadgets. If they do buy a Versa, it’s almost certainly one of the costlier, better-equipped models whose prices fall more in line with those of other subcompact models.
Nissan sells about 85,000 Versas a year, but only about 10,000 are the affordable 1.6 sedan, reports Albert Castignetti, vice president and general manager of the Nissan division. And of those 10,000 cars, 90 percent are the $10,990 version with air conditioning, leaving just 1,000 Versas per year that sell in the $9,990 configuration.
Most shoppers conclude they really want that air conditioning and a stereo, Castignetti said. People who end up buying the low-end Versas are generally shoppers who had been looking at used cars, he said.
“People are saying, ‘This is available at a used car price with a new car warranty and reliability,’” he said.
As for whether Nissan will be able to maintain its attractive sub-$10,000 price once the federal government mandates electronic stability control for the 2012 model year, Castignetti is hopeful.
“It has been a good story for us, and we are going to maintain that story,” he said.
So if the sub-$10,000 car draws little interest among buyers, what are the prospects of the micro-priced Tata Nano, which debuted for $2,500 this year in India? For one thing, if it ever reaches U.S. shores, you can bet it will cost a lot more here.
“If they sell the Nano here, it will be more like $8,000,” predicted James Bell, editor and publisher of Intellichoice.com. “That thing as it sits right now would never pass our crash, or customer expectation, standards,” he added.
That was also the conclusion of Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of both Nissan and Renault, when asked about Nano sales in developed countries at the time of its debut. His preference, he said, was to offer stripped-down versions of existing models, which wouldn’t cost much more, but which would provide more of the space and safety such customers expect, he said.
Tiny, tinny cars like the Nano are doomed to become the punch line of jokes, much like the communist-era Fiat-knock-offs from the then-Yugoslavia. Remember the jokes about the Yugo? How do you double the value of a Yugo? Fill the gas tank.
Intellichoice.com’s Bell is already testing his material.
“To sell the Nano here, Tata would have to add some options … like a second windshield wiper,” he quipped.
The trouble is that while consumers say they would like a $2,500 car (remember, the ill-regarded Yugo cost $3,995 in 1986), what they really mean is that they would like to pay $2,500 for a new car very much like the one currently their driveway (which is not what they would get, and which is why they wouldn’t buy such cars anyway).
Take a look at the sub-$10,000 version of the Versa. It's not just that it has no radio and no air conditioning. There are no power windows. No power door locks. You’ll need my 35-inch shirt sleeve length if you want to adjust both outside mirrors from the driver’s seat, because the only way to do it is to roll down the windows using their cranks, and push on the mirrors.
And see that third pedal down in the driver’s foot well, left of the brake? That’s a clutch, because there is no automatic transmission, so you’ll need to know how to use it and that shifter between the front seats which moves both side-to-side as well as the more common fore-and-aft. Teetering in disbelief from these discoveries, my daughter collapsed in a daze when she flipped down the passenger-side sun visor to discover — the back of the sun visor. That’s because there is no vanity mirror! Oh, the humanity!
Shocking, huh? These may sound like Cro-Magnon living conditions, but any of us whose generational label falls earlier in the alphabet than ‘Y’ have owned cars that lacked these amenities, and we somehow survived them not too badly scarred. (Yes, there might have been a radio in those old heaps, but it might have only been AM, so it may as well have been non-existent.) The purpose of cars, after all, is transportation, not to serve as a rolling entertainment system or to provide the climate control capacity of a weather-manipulating James Bond villain.
No, a car’s purpose is to whisk you and, in the Versa’s case, four guests, from place to place as efficiently as practical. And consider some of the goodies you do get for your 10 grand. There’s power steering under the hood and a tachometer and tilt steering wheel on the dashboard, features for which we used to pay extra. The 14-inch wheels are small by modern standards and are mounted on steel wheels, but the Versa does enjoy full-coverage hub caps, which were also an add-on. Look in amazement at the inclusion of a rear-window defroster and intermittent windshield wipers! These were a big deal at one time. Nano buyers can only dream of such opulence (along with that elusive second windshield wiper).
And remember the front air bags, side air bags, side air curtains, pretensioning seat belts with load limiters and tire pressure monitoring system on your student-era wheels? No? Well all of those safety features are present on the Versa, and you won’t see them on any $2,500 Nanos. Another $250 breaks the Versa’s price into the five-digit range (but so does the $695 destination charge, so you’ll have to negotiate with the dealer to keep the price below $10,000), but it would be money well spent to get the optional anti-lock brake system with brake assist technology that helps shorten panic stops.
If they weren’t so spoiled with high expectations, shoppers would be clamoring to their local Nissan dealer for this entry-level Versa, amazed at how much it does include for its bargain price. If they took one for a test drive, they’d discover that its 107-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine is as zippy as the beloved Honda CRX Si, and that the clutch and shifter are paragons of thrift virtue, smooth and communicative in their function.
The cabin is so unexpectedly spacious that the government classifies the Versa as a midsized car, so forget notions of a cramped penalty box. The Versa scores 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway on the EPA’s fuel economy test.
The immense value proposition of the Versa 1.6 sedan means only one thing. Despite the talk of a new frugal ethic among American consumers, they have absolutely no interest in actually saving money by buying a practical, affordable car.
They will instead, even during uncertain economic times, spring for the heated, hand-tooled leather floormats and GPS-enabled latte locators. If this is what depressions look like in the 21st century, they sure don’t make them look like they used to, which is why we’ll sooner see $2,500 Apple iPod Nanos than $2,500 Tata Nanos.