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2020 Nissan Versa Test Drive Review
The new Versa is more expensive than the old one, but it justifies the price with improved infotainment, better safety tech, and a livelier ride.
When you're on a tight budget and need to replace a car, you often face a tough choice: Do you buy a new small car or something that’s pre-owned but has more space?
For many years, if you were in the market for a new car, few came as cheaply as the Nissan Versa. Not only was it marketed as the least-expensive car in the United States, but it also had a plucky, underdog appeal to it. However, the charm of the Versa started to wear off as its shortcomings became more apparent.
If you look at the “cheap” end of the market, you'll find some pretty unlovable cars, like the Mitsubishi Mirage and Chevrolet Spark. But there are also some bright spots. The Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent are both competent cars in their own ways, and the Honda Fit has always been a serious player. With the Fit, you never felt like you were seriously compromising to meet your budget.
It seems as though Nissan has caught on to the realization that racing to the bottom works for only so long. Buyers have certainly caught on to the notion that you can have a small car that’s actually kind of good (See: Fit). In response, Nissan has rolled out the all-new 2020 Versa. It’s no longer the cheapest car in America, and in fact, it costs a couple of thousand dollars more than last year's version. But does that mean it’s more car, too? Read on to find out.
Look and Feel
The previous Versa had funny “big car” styling details. The headlights were large and felt like they came from a full-size car. This was a common design trait among some cars in the early 2000s and mid-2010s. Most of the subcompact segment has moved away from that, and so has Nissan. The 2020 Versa is relatively handsome and takes after its larger siblings, the Maxima and Altima. Thankfully, the styling is evocative of those large cars but doesn’t literally borrow the same-size headlights or grille. From a styling standpoint, Nissan has certainly risen to the occasion.
Inside, the cabin looks incredibly similar to that of the Nissan Kicks, which we reviewed earlier this year. That’s because both vehicles ride on the Nissan V platform that underpins a number of the company's vehicles. This platform didn't deliver the versatility we wanted from the Kicks, but it offers plenty of interior space for a subcompact sedan.
The cabin itself is straightforward but far from boring. Our test model features a handsome two-tone theme, with dark charcoal that’s set off with a grayish cream color in the seats and dash. The seats themselves have a neat design worked into the center panels. Along with Kia, Nissan is a brand that’s been really good about livening up economy-car cabins with a bit of stylistic flair.
There are three trims for the 2020 Versa: S, SV, and SR. The S comes standard with 15-inch steel wheels and plastic hubcaps, acoustic laminated windshield glass, black plastic door handles, power-adjustable side-view mirrors, and cloth seating for five. Inside, the S gets a 6-way manual driver's seat, 4-way manual passenger seat, power windows (with one-touch control for the driver), Bluetooth connectivity, remote keyless entry, a USB connection, and push-button start. It also provides a 7-inch touchscreen.
We drove the mid-range SV trim, which upgrades the wheels to 16-inch alloys. It also adds heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals, and it replaces the black door handles with body-color ones.
Inside, the SV features upgraded cloth fabric with those unique designs. It also adds an armrest to the driver’s seat, and if that’s worth mentioning, then you know we’re talking economy cars. But the SV also adds an upgraded infotainment system. It’s still got a 7-inch touchscreen, but it provides satellite radio and added connectivity for smartphones.
The range-topping SR features 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, a unique dark-chrome grille design, and heated side-view mirrors, painted black and with integrated turn signals. The SR features its own unique upholstery pattern, automatic climate control, and an intelligent key with passive entry, allowing you to simply press the button on the door handle to lock or unlock the doors. These are all great features, but CarGurus recommends the SV trim, namely because the S trim is too bare-bones to recommend, and the SV has the best blend of price and content.
Still, there’s no avoiding the need to trim some corners when cutting costs. The new Versa's cabin includes some harsh plastics, and there's no option for power-adjustable seats. The SV and SR offer a cheap-feeling manual seat-height adjustment. On top of that, the climate controls look sharp, but when you change the fan direction, you can literally feel it moving the levels in the background to change vents. It feels cheap, for sure. But compared to the car it replaces, the new Versa has gained a lot of ground.
The 2020 Versa has the same 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine as the previous-generation car. If you know this engine, you’re likely a little wary about plunking down your hard-earned cash on this car. In the previous Versa, it made a paltry 109 horsepower and an even more anemic 107 pound-feet of torque. But Nissan has revised this engine with a bit more power, and it now makes 122 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. That might not look like much on paper, but the additional output is noticeable.
This engine sends power to the front wheels through either a 5-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The S is the only trim to come with the manual transmission, and it comes as standard equipment. The S can be upgraded to the CVT, which comes standard on both the SV and SR.
Acceleration has certainly improved, which is to say it's now decent. The Versa can finally get out of its own way. It also has a bit more jump and will take slightly less time getting up to highway speeds. The CVT in our SV trim manages power well in both low- and high-speed settings. There is a button on the back of the shifter that engages a Sport mode, which makes the CVT slightly livelier.
Under hard acceleration, the CVT will keep the engine bouncing just below the redline, encouraging hard acceleration. It makes a ton of noise, but I’d much rather have it be loud and able to get out of its own way than quiet and slow. Besides, an economy car with a screaming engine is certainly one way to tell fellow commuters not to mess with you.
As for the rest of the driving experience, it certainly supports the old adage, “It’s more fun to go fast in a slow car than slow in a fast car.” Steering is responsive and offers pretty quick turn-in. The body leans at higher speeds and as you start a turn, but with the proper touch, you can get the Versa to almost immediately settle into an equilibrium position, allowing you to execute the rest of the turn with precision.
With the manual transmission, the Versa returns fuel economy of 27 mpg city, 35 highway, 30 combined. Those numbers are decent but not great for the class. With the CVT, the Versa returns 32/40/35. In a week of city and highway driving, we observed fuel economy of 34.7 miles per gallon… and that was with the accelerator pedal pinned half the time.
Form and Function
The previous-generation Versa had a few things going for it. It had a large backseat and trunk, and it offered a hatchback model called the Versa Note. The Note wasn’t a particularly great car, but it was nice to have the option of a hatchback to shop against a Honda Fit.
The new Versa retains the old version's trunk size. At 15 cubic feet in my SV-trim test car, The Versa has one of the larger trunks in the class, and it has a large opening for your gear. Unfortunately, the 2020 Versa loses backseat space. In fact, it loses 6 inches of rear legroom, which is significant. If you plan to carpool with the Versa (or use it as a rideshare vehicle), the smaller backseat space will be noticeable. A full-size adult can fit in the rear in a pinch, but it’s not ideal for anything longer than a cross-town drive. As for the hatchback body style, one can’t rule out its return in the near future.
Backseat legroom is down, but the front seats have tons of legroom. Even as a 6-foot-3-inch driver, I didn’t have to slide my seat back all the way. For a personal commuter car, the Versa will not disappoint.
The Versa has stepped up its game in the cabin. Even the base Versa comes standard with a 7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, Siri Eyes Free, and a hands-free text-messaging assistant.
The Versa also comes with three USB ports; one up front and two in the center console so passengers can plug-in from the rear seats. One of the reasons CarGurus recommends the mid-level SV trim is because it comes with the upgraded NissanConnect system, which features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The other upside to the SV trim is its upgraded instrument panel, the majority of which is made up of a helpful digital screen. So instead of the conventional tachometer and trip computer, you get a large color screen with a digital tachometer as its standard function. With the press of the directional pad on the steering wheel, you can also cycle through safety alerts, Bluetooth streaming audio, and fuel-economy stats. There are a whole host of menus and displays you can access through this screen. It offers much of the same functionality as a system like Audi’s Virtual Cockpit (minus navigation), and yet it doesn’t require a full instrument panel replacement. In fact, because the conventional speedometer is still on the right side of the panel, it all feels very familiar.
In short, these two systems are extremely helpful and integrate technology seamlessly, much like the way tech has become integral to our daily lives.
For 2020, the new Versa adds a host of standard driver-assistance features, including automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, and automatic high beams. This is the latest in a trend of automakers rushing to put driver-assistance systems into every single car and every single trim. In many ways, this movement is great, making potentially life-saving technologies available to all.
The democratization of these features is commendable, but there’s a downside to it, as multiple insurance companies have stated that these systems actually raise rates, which makes sense. What was once a $250 or $500 plastic bumper is now loaded with sensors that drive up its pricetag. Suddenly, a 5-mph fender-bender can cost thousands to repair. And if you’re shopping for an economy car, these potential expenses matter.
Other standard safety features include a reversing camera, a full array of front- and side-impact airbags, and Nissan's Easy Fill Tire Alert, which will honk the horn when your tire is properly inflated.
Base MSRP for the 2020 Nissan Versa is $14,730. That's two grand higher than the old Versa's starting price. But, despite this price hike, it’s still one of the least expensive cars on the market. Vehicles that come in under the Versa's price include the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Spark, and Mitsubishi Mirage. Unfortunately, the Fiesta is being phased out in the next year. As for the Spark and Mirage, I’m not about to recommend either vehicle anytime soon.
The SV trim starts at $17,640, but with premium paint, floor mats, and the destination fee, it clocked in at $19,140. The range-topping SR starts at $18,240 before options and destination.
For the price of an SV or SR, you could get into a base model Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Even in base form, those options are much better cars than pretty much every contender in the subcompact segment. At that price, you could also get into a lightly used Honda Accord, which would be the most comfortable option of them all. But the Versa will have the full warranty of a new car, while it’s hit or miss as to whether the used car will have a proper extended warranty.
While the old Versa was made for shoppers concerned about only the price tag, the new Versa is for shoppers who want to know what they are getting for their money. And when it comes to understanding “value,” the latter approach needs to be understood and respected. Sure, the new Versa costs more, but you get so much more for your money. With all its new tech and the livelier driving experience, it’s a better car, and it justifies its price.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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