SEATTLE – The Japanese Big Three in 2006 had the same great idea: “Let’s get back in the subcompact segment.”

Toyota, Honda and Nissan’s timing was perfect, as high fuel prices and a recession were just around the corner.

And while Nissan remains the perennial third-place finisher in total U.S. brand sales, it quickly rose to the top of the B-car heap with its first-generation Versa.

But with achievement sometimes comes complacency.

Nissan spent some coin on the new Versa 4-door (the hatch is coming later), developing an all-new global ‘V’ platform that is lighter and contains fewer parts than the previous ‘B’ platform.

It also upgraded the previous generation’s 1.6L 4-cyl. with dual-fuel injectors producing a wide, fine spray and added a smoother-operating continuously variable transmission.

But inside, the new Versa, on sale in August, takes a step backwards, with a penalty-box look and feel long associated with the word “subcompact.”

In part, the new model suffers some from an unfavorable comparison.

The first-generation Versa was so well-done inside, with a high degree of soft, padded materials, it went far beyond B-car expectations.

The new Versa’s interior would not be out of place in a Little Tikes showroom: Shiny, rough, hard plastic is used for the steering wheel, pillar covers, instrument panel and door inners, the latter absent a padded armrest even with the top-end SL trim.

The SL, starting at $15,560, also lacks a single interior grab bar and any damping for its glove-box door.

The few luxurious bits on the grade include small cloth door inserts, chrome-look interior handles and slightly better quality seat fabric.

On the plus side, the cabin is comfortable, with more space than expected, even though head and hip room has been clipped compared with the outgoing model.

Also credit Nissan for offering an in-dash navigation system in a subcompact, a $400 Bosch-developed unit that is part of the SL’s $700 technology package.

Driving dynamics belie the interior, but there are some drawbacks here, as well.

The silky-smooth feel of the electric power steering is a winner. So are the firm brakes, despite the money-saving choice to go with drums at the rear.

Nissan also saved some cash on the suspension, which features an independent MacPherson setup in the front, with a torsion beam solid axle in the back. Still, the ride from the passenger seat is amenable, and body roll is minimal even in the curves.

’12 Nissan Versa SL
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine 1.6L DOHC 4-cyl., aluminum block/heads
Power (SAE net) 109 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 107 lb.-ft. (145 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 78 x 83
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 102.4 ins. (260 cm)
Overall length 175.4 ins. (446 cm)
Overall width 66.7 ins. (169 cm)
Overall height 59.6 ins. (151 cm)
Curb weight 2,459 lbs. (1,115 kg)
Base price $15,560, excluding $760 destination and handling
Fuel economy 30/38 mpg (7.8-6.2 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Chevy Sonic, Kia Rio, Mazda2
Pros Cons
New powertrain Lacks HP of rivals
Comfy, spacious cabin Plastic everywhere
Nicely proportioned Bland exterior

Despite topping out at 109 hp, a peak not hit until 6,000 rpm, and 112 lb.-ft. (152 Nm) of torque, the little car has a perfectly sufficient amount of power for the type of stop-and-go city driving typical here.

Under hard acceleration there is some screaming, though, and too much vibration is transmitted through the steering wheel and accelerator pedal.

The new CVT boasts an auxiliary sub-planetary gear for a high/low range of sorts, and, as Nissan boasts, is one of the better transmissions of its type on the market. Unlike the previous generation, this CVT responds when the throttle is mashed.

However, the fuel-economy rating for the CVT-equipped Versa sedan, 30/38 mpg (7.8-6.2 L/100 km) city/highway, is not that impressive when stacked against the competition. Ward’s averaged 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) – the car’s exact combined rating – in driving both the SV and SL sedans.

The new ’12 direct-injected 1.6L Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio B-cars employ a 6-speed automatic to net 30/40 mpg (7.8-5.9 L/100 km) and also are much more powerful, making 138 hp and 123 lb.-ft. (167 Nm) of torque.

The Nissan B-car matches the combined fuel economy of the Ford Fiesta, but that car also boasts a more powerful 1.6L, making 120 hp and 112 lb.-ft. (152 Nm) of torque.

The Chevy Aveo replacement, the upcoming Sonic, can churn out 135 hp with its 1.8L 4-cyl. and 138 hp with its optional turbocharged 1.4L 4-cyl.

The dimensions of the new ’12 Versa sedan are nearly unchanged, but thanks to more efficient front-end packaging, 2.7 ins. (6.8 cm) has been shifted from front to back. This creates a longer rear overhang that erases the awkward truncated look of the previous-generation sedan, but still leaves the car lacking much pizzazz.

The revamped model ushers in a new, tall-and-wide Nissan-signature grille that gives the car more road presence, without the overintensity of a Cadillac or Ford. Its rounded corners are reminiscent of the current Toyota Yaris 4-door, though the Nissan has more interesting character lines in its profile.

The Versa sedan comes in three trim levels: S, SV and SL.

The S, not tested here, starts at $10,990 and includes air conditioning and an AM/FM/CD/Aux radio. It is the only grade to offer a manual transmission, a 5-speed. The CVT bumps the S price to $12,760.

The SV begins at $14,560 and includes power windows and cruise control. The $15,560 SL nets buyers alloy wheels, fog lights and Bluetooth hands-free phone technology.

Nissan boasts of its $3,205 advantage over a similarly equipped ’12 Accent GLS, but some shoppers debating the two won’t mind paying the extra cost to get a more powerful, fuel-efficient engine and better interior.

For buyers whose budgets aren’t capped at $10,990, both the Accent and Fiesta are better options.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com