06/19/2012 11:31 am ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Nissan's 2012 Versa

Nissan's Versa is a peppy, good-looking minicar that packs a lot of value.

Our tester was priced a bit more than $13,600 and was a basic car: hand-crank windows, hand-adjusted side-view mirrors, manual door locks and no tachometer. But it did come with air conditioning, a serviceable stereo, and a height-adjusted driver's seat and steering wheel.

There are a lot of cars available in this price range, and today's buyer gets a lot for their money. A sophisticated 1.6 liter dual-overhead cam 16-valve 4-cylinder engine, something found only in race cars not that many years ago, and a next-generation Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) garnered us about 29 miles per gallon city and highway combined and easily over 30 on the road. The car is EPA rated at 30 in-town and 38 highway but we drove it hard, as usual. Incidentally, Versa cruises easily at above-freeway speeds.

Versa's ride was bumpy, there was understeer to spare in the front-driver (when the car pulls to one side under acceleration) and there was more road noise than we'd like, but this is an under-$14,000 car, perfect for the kids in the family or as a second or third vehicle. And with that mileage, one would have to think hard about a hybrid or an all-electric Nissan Leaf as a purchase if you want proven, reliable service.

Nissan is a company not afraid to take chances and that has to be respected. The company was called Datsun until the name change; it has moved its US national headquarters from southern California to Nashville and it's the first company in the world with a mass-produced all-electric car. Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of both Nissan and Renault, is insightful and forward-minded. When the hybrid craze struck, Ghosn decided to use Toyota's Prius technology in the Altima, and spend his company's money on developing the all-electric Leaf.

While we would find it hard to live with Versa as a full-time family daily and weekend driver, for the businessperson or student making the run to work or school every day Versa might be a fine choice. Nissan is introducing an all-new Altima this coming season, and we'll have more on that in the next few weeks.