It wasn’t that long ago that small cars like Nissan’s restyled 2020 Versa were mainstream offerings. One of America’s least expensive new models for many years, with a sticker price under $10,000 for a very long time, the Versa was almost as big as the compact Sentra sedan while satisfying the need for a thrifty commuter car, a reliable second or third car for the kids to take to college, as well as an affordable entry level car for after college.
Yet, consumer tastes have changed. Regulations and safety standards have increased. Even the smallest cars are heavier. They need to carry a specified level of safety equipment, standard. And, buyers expect more than roll-up windows, manual door locks and vinyl-covered seats for base model transportation. In summary, entry-level cars had to change or go away.
So, we have a Versa for the 21st century. Still one of the least expensive new cars on the market — Base S trim with a five-speed manual transmission starts at $14,730, undercutting the Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and several others — the Versa remains almost as large dimensionally as some compact sedans.
Almost being the definitive term here. There is almost room for five passengers; room exists for only four if you are adults — no matter how closely related you are. The new redesign, with numerous visual improvements, is almost Altima-like. And the power delivery with the revised 1.6-liter DOHC four-cylinder is almost earnest; it’s just that so many new vehicles are easier to drive quickly than the Versa. Rightfully, quickness is not the Versa’s primary goal. Fuel efficiency is, and it does just fine matching the 32/40-mpg EPA estimates despite needing to schedule your passing maneuvers.
Former entry-level small cars had rudimentary controls, non-adjustable seats and a shortage of the features and amenities that customarily made monthly car payments bearable. The Versa redefines that paradigm.
Our SR sample, $18,240, carried push-button start and keyless access. There is remote start, too, plus one-touch driver’s window up/down, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, auto-climate controls, LED lights, heated mirrors with signal lamps, plus several electronic driving aids not available on several competitors — like rear cross-traffic alert, automated rear braking assist, as well as adaptive cruise. The center dash info-screen is much easier to use than anything Honda has, however, the large A-pillar, essential now for rollover crash testing, also blocked my quarter view while pivoting left in a busy intersection, almost striking a pedestrian that I never saw.
Pedestrian-detection electronics are still reserved for more expensive high-end cars, yet the trickle-down effect from sheer quantity of production for so many safety systems means that even low-priced vehicles now gain significant safety components previously thought unthinkable at this level.
Nissan upped the Versa’s ante inside, too, evident in just the textures and plastics used, reshaping initial impressions. Add the visual excitement of the Bronze metallic paint and the Versa is distinctive.
Light and nimble, the 122-hp Versa cruises easily and only labors to pass. The CVT automatic does a good job of providing power and maximum fuel economy — 40 mpg. The cabin will feel intimate if you are plus-sized, yet the numerous cubbies, beverage slots and general content level show that extra thought was engineered into making a solid, practical car.
For two years, Nissan has been embroiled in a lot of self-generated turmoil. From arresting and firing CEO Carlos Ghon, to bitter squabbles with the French government and partner Renault, plus overly aggressive marketing plans in its largest market, North America, Nissan needs some product hits to provide more consumer interest and return the brand to prominence. This new Versa is a good start, despite consumer interest waning for this type of vehicle. It would be good to see a new Rogue, a redesigned Frontier, plus the debut of the long-rumored 400Z sports car, for starters.