Nissan Versa — A total makeover

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

For two generations the Nissan Versa was a subcompact sedan that lived at the bottom rung of the automotive ladder, and for years has had the distinction of being the "least expensive car in America." The remarkable all-new 2020 Versa changes all that.

On rare occasions a low-priced car aimed at people who want to buy new, but have a limited budget, impresses us as much as a six-figure luxury car. That's the case with the Versa, which is no longer the lowest priced car. With a complete redesign it has become a car that people want to purchase even though the price has escalated on average about $2,000. But that's good news — and here is the impressive part of the equation when comparing apples (the mainstream sub-compact segment) to oranges (the luxury segments).

Not only can the new Versa be purchased with features that in many luxury cars are still sold as optional equipment, but it's comfortable, relatively quiet, easy to drive, and with a very uncomplicated operating system. And it comes with a new stylish design that belies the bargain basement image of the past. The thing here in comparing two disparate groups of automobiles is how much $21,000 can purchase in the Versa compared to what $21,000 will buy in the luxury segment.

Yes, the Versa is still inexpensive in base trim starting at $15,625 including destination charge. But it's the Versa in its top SR guise that is truly remarkable with just a couple of inexpensive, but noteworthy options that were included on our test vehicle for $21,885 (with destination charge), that makes this little car stand out.

The Versa comes in three trim levels — S, SV and SR. The SR's list of features is long including automatic climate control, blindspot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, keyless entry and ignition, LED headlights with high beam assist, a 7-inch touchscreen with Bluetooth connectivity, full power equipment, lane departure warning, rear automatic emergency braking, frontal collision warning with automatic emergency braking, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite radio, premium fabric seats, and 17-inch alloy wheels. Add the Convenience Package for $300 and you get heated front seats and adaptive cruise control.

The exterior design advances from homely to rather handsome with a lot of the new mid-size Altima's attractive qualities. The new design features lower, wider and longer exterior dimensions — it's 1.6 inches longer, 1.8 inches wider and 2.3 inches lower than the outgoing car. The new
Versa is the latest in the makeover of Nissan's complete sedan lineup following the flagship Maxima and all-new Altima. Nissan says that "the result is an entry-level car that the designers describe as an energetic, provocative and engaging modern compact sedan."

Inside, the Versa offers a conservatively handsome dashboard wit
h easy-to-read gauges, well-placed steering wheel controls for adaptive cruise and audio, nice looking seat fabrics, and some upscale soft-touch surfaces not usually found in the this segment. The front seats proved comfortable, but lacked the sophisticated adjustments because of manual seat controls.

We found the front seating area spacious, but it seemed to us that rear legroom was not as generous as in the previous edition. And, indeed, legroom has shrunk about six inches with three inches added to the front seating area. On the upside, trunk space is a very generous 15 cubic feet, which is about the same as the outgoing model. Rear seatbacks fold down to allow for longer items.

While the Versa can be outfitted with a plethora of features, its drivetrain is what we'd call fairly ordinary for the segment, although it has been upgraded from the last generation. All Versa's come with the carryover 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, but with an increase in horsepower and torque. The four is now rated at 122 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque, up from 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet. The standard transmission is a continuously variable automatic (CVT) that has been revised for 2020 and provides fake shifts that keep things moving without a lot of noisy drama.

While this doesn't add up to racing in the streets (it has been clocked from 0-to-60 in about 9 seconds), we found the performance adequate for all driving occasions providing you don't mind mashing the pedal to the floor in some passing and merging situations. The Versa is at its best during in-town driving, easily whizzing in and out of traffic.

If you are trying the make your dollar stretch as much as possible, but desire the many safety features found in the SR, the mid-level SV trim comes at more affordable $18,535 including destination charge.

Base price: $15,625; as driven, $21,885
Engine: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 122 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 114 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches
Length: 177 inches
Curb weight: 2,657 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 15 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 10.8 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 32 city, 40 highway, 35 combined
0-60: 9 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Sonic, Kia Rio

The Good
• Loaded with safety technology
• New pleasing design
• Sizable trunk

The Bad
• Tight rear seat room

The Ugly
• Still on the slow side