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2012 Nissan Versa

The versatile Versa has hit its stride as the kind of car that even big and tall folks can ride in without having to be bent, folded or pretzeled.

It’s an approach that in the past five years has garnered a devoted following for Nissan’s little runabout and should continue when the next-generation model makes its debut this summer.

Small cars are currently the hot ticket to ride, due mainly to ever-pricier trips to the fuel pump. But just because the package is small doesn’t mean your entourage/car-pool compatriots has to endure tortuously cramped quarters. Small-car buyers these days have big expectations and automakers such as Nissan aim to deliver.

The all-new Versa sedan (a hatchback edition will likely arrive by the end of the year) maintains similar proportions to the 2011 model. That translates into nearly the same amount of passenger space including, Nissan claims, more rear legroom than a BMW 5-series or a Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan. In addition there’s now about one extra cubic foot of trunk space, giving the Versa the edge over the next-size-up Sentra in the stowage department.

Obviously maintaining the Versa’s small-car/big-room approach is important, only now there’s plenty of style added to the mix. Although less practical than the hatchback, the outgoing sedan was not particularly attractive. The new version’s more integrated shape cures that ill and the fresh sheetmetal is more in step with the generally rounded appearance of the rest of Nissan’s sedans.

The new Versa’s all-new platform weighs about 150 pounds less than the previous architecture. That should drop the overall weight below the 2,500-pound threshold, although the automaker hasn’t yet divulged the final number.

What has been established is that the Versa will bring fuel economy to the forefront with a brand new 109-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. The powerplant replaces both the previous 107-horsepower 1.6, as well as the 122-horsepower 1.8-liter I4.

A five-speed manual gearbox carries over as before, while a continuously variable transmission (CVT) replaces the antiquated four-speed automatic that was offered on the previous 1.6- and 1.8-liter Versa. A CVT was optional on the 1.8, but the latest version generates less friction and weighs a bit less. The CVT is unique in that it includes an auxiliary set of gears that, Nissan states, will enhance its efficiency.

The technology must be doing something right since Nissan reports that fuel economy with CVT is 30 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway. And while the highway value is a bit shy of the 40-mpg benchmark number earned by competing small cars, it represents the best figure from any Versa to date, by a long shot.

Nissan also likes to brag about the Versa S starting price of $11,750 (including destination charges). That makes it one of the least expensive cars on the road. Even the tiny Smart fortwo model lists at more than $1,000 above the Versa.

The S actually includes air conditioning and an adjustable steering wheel, however you’ll have to use window cranks — remember those? — for raising and lowering the side glass and to unlock the front doors you’re stuck with a key.

The next-up SV adds, along with the CVT, cruise control, power-adjustable side mirrors and up-level instrumentation and seat covers.

The top-level SL adds alloy wheels, fog lights, upgraded audio system and Bluetooth short-range wireless networking. Satellite radio and a navigation system are extra-cost SL options.

Certainly other small cars can boast more cost-is-no-object features and add-ons. But where price is the whole point, the Versa is one of the more sensible and practical automobiles you can buy, along with being the most accommodating for both a wide and tall variety of passengers.

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