Late last year, we reviewed Nissan’s new Sentra. As small sedans go, it was attractive and affordable, if a bit uninspiring to drive. As it turns out, if you’re looking for an inexpensive new car, Nissan actually has a better option for you—one that’s even cheaper. It’s the third-generation Versa, and this subcompact starts at a mere $14,730. Even a fully loaded Versa SR like the one we drove for a week will squeeze in under the $20,000 barrier, which makes it remarkably good value in 2020.
I must confess that, at first, I struggled to understand why Nissan would spend the money to develop both the Versa and the Sentra. At first glance, the two sedans look very similar and share a lot of design details, like the V-motion grille and a floating C-pillar. But this is Nissan’s entry-level car, which means it’s also the smallest one in its range. The vehicle has grown compared to the previous Versa; at 177 inches (4,496mm) long and 68.5 inches (1,740mm) wide, it’s slightly longer and wider, and it has a three-inch shorter wheelbase (103.1 inches/2,619mm).
But it is less tall than the last Versa. The exact height depends on the trim level—at 57.7 inches (1,466mm) the SR stands slightly taller than the 57.3 inches (1,455mm) of the S and SV trims, which is a little more than two inches (51mm) less than the previous model, which gives it much better proportions. As always, styling is a subjective thing, but to this observer, it’s not a bad-looking car, with some sharp-looking creases on the body panels. Certainly, Nissan has managed to make its sedan lineup look like a cohesive family, which is something not every OEM can say.
You don’t expect a fire-breathing engine from an entry-level car, and the Versa does not offer one. It’s a 1.6L naturally aspirated four-cylinder that generates 122hp (91kW) and 114lb-ft (155Nm), with four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves. That engine drives the front wheels either through a continuously variable transmission (D-step Xtronic in Nissan-speak) or a good old five-speed manual if you opt for the cheapest Versa S. The CVT is pretty frugal, too, offering a combined 35mpg (6.7L/100km), with 32mpg (7.4L/100km) in the city and 40mpg (5.9L/100km) on the highway. If you choose to row your own gears, that drops to 30mpg (7.8L/100km) combined, 27mpg (8.7L/100km) city, and 35mpg on the highway. Over the course of a week with the car, those CVT numbers matched our experience.
You don’t expect too much in the way of bells and whistles on a new car under $20,000, but Nissan actually hasn’t been too parsimonious when equipping the Versa. There are no motors to adjust the seats, just old-fashioned mechanical movements, and they’re covered in cloth, not leather. But they are comfortable. The ergonomics are fine, although the steering wheel only adjusts for tilt, not reach. Regardless of trim, all Versas come with a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system, although Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Sirius XM satellite radio (as well as Nissan’s connected services) are only available on the SV and SR models (as standard).
Automatic emergency braking is standard across the range, as is a rear automatic braking feature, which was sensitive enough to trigger just about every time I backed out of my parking space. All Versas also get lane-departure warning and high-beam assist, which dips your headlights if there is oncoming traffic at night. The SV and SR offer a better complement of safety aids, which Nissan calls Safety Shield 360. This adds AEB with pedestrian detection, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warnings, and a driver-monitoring system that will warn you if it thinks you’re drowsy (based off steering wheel inputs, not gaze-tracking). All Versas get cruise control, but adaptive cruise control is only an option on the SR.
On the road, the Versa is an easy enough car to live with. Front and rear visibility is good, and the car responds to control inputs well, although I never felt the need to take it to an autocross despite our test car being the sportier SR version. The rear seats aren’t much smaller than the more expensive Sentra, and the trunk has a useful 15 cubic feet (424L) of cargo volume.
I won’t lie—the Versa isn’t the most exciting car we’ve reviewed this year. I didn’t wake up early in the morning aching to take it for a long drive, and I wouldn’t have taken it to cars and coffee, had COVID-19 not canceled that kind of thing. But as an entry-level car, I found it cheap and cheerful, particularly compared to its slightly more expensive sibling.
Listing image by Nissan