Any modern vehicle manufacturer can produce a good automobile if price is no object. The trick is to build a decent, affordable small car like the 2020 Nissan Versa.
The Versa has been around for more than a dozen years as Nissan’s entry-level economy car. Marketed as a subcompact but usually with the interior room of a larger car, it was offered as a four-door sedan and a hatchback, recently called the Versa Note.
It has been consistently popular and in 2018 was the best seller against the Hyundai Accent, Honda Fit, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Sonic and Spark, and Ford Fiesta.
For 2020, it may have a tougher uphill route because Nissan has axed the Note in favor of shunting shoppers toward its subcompact Kicks crossover sport utility vehicle, which some argue is more of a hatchback anyway because it does not offer all-wheel drive.
The 2020 Versa sedan is all-new, longer, lower and wider than its frumpy predecessor, with more of a family resemblance to the midsize Altima. It even mimics European luxury brands by offering extra-cost exterior paint jobs.
One was the focus of this review, a top-line SR model done up in “Scarlett Ember,” one of eight colors. It cost an additional $395. Even at that, however, the test car had a bottom-line sticker of $20,040, about 15 grand less than the current average price of a new car.
But if you have a tighter budget, you can order an entry-level Versa S with a base price of $15,625, including the destination charge. That’s with a five-speed manual gearbox. Add Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and the price jumps to $17,295.
That price covers full basic safety equipment plus automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking, lane departure warning, rear-view camera (without line markers) and high-beam headlight assist. It also includes Siri eyes-free Google assistant with voice recognition. All Versa models come with pushbutton starting.
The cool thing about the S is that, like cars everywhere, it is equipped with the basics anybody would need, including the 122-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 114 lb-ft of torque that delivers a government city/highway/combined fuel economy rating of 32/40/35 mpg with the CVT.
That doesn’t sound like a hot car on paper and it is not. But the S and its sibling SV and SR trim levels are quite comfortable in any driving situation anyone is likely to encounter on American’s increasingly clogged streets and freeways.
You won’t win many stoplight drag races, but acceleration is strong enough for urban traffic, freeway merging and passing on two-lane roads as long as you allow enough space. The CVT transmission, which ordinarily has no shift points, is one of the better units of its kind, and Nissan incorporates a system called D-Step that adds a kick-down shift for more responsive passing power.
Surprisingly, the base S model rides comfortably and is nearly as quiet a highway cruiser as the SR test car, perhaps benefitting from smaller 15-inch steel wheels with plastic wheel covers and fatter tires than the 17-inch alloy wheels with skinnier sidewalls on the SR trim. There was little mechanical and wind noise, and the main intrusion — as on the top-line SR — came from the tires on the variety of irregular pavements found everywhere.
The tested top-line SR adds blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert, as well as automatic climate control, SXM satellite radio, remote starting, leather-wrapped steering wheel and LED headlights.
It also came with Nissan’s back-seat warning system, which could save the life of a child or pet left in a closed car on a hot summer day. The system activates when you open a rear door to place a child or something else in back. Later, when you shut down the engine and leave the car, visual and audio warnings are activated to remind you to check.
With 89 cubic feet of space for passengers, the Versa SR delivered supportive and comfortable so-called “zero gravity” seats up front, with upgraded cloth upholstery, and adequate head and knee room in the outboard back seats for average-sized humans. However, as in most cars, the center-rear passenger gets an uncomfortable perch with a floor hump and intrusion of the center console.
The trunk is uncommonly large for a compact car, at 15 cubic feet, and the rear seatbacks fold for additional cargo. However, the trunk lid’s C-hinges are not protected and could damage luggage and other contents.
- Model: 2020 Nissan Versa SR four-door sedan.
- Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder; 122 hp, 114 lb-ft torque.
- Transmission: D-Step Xtronic continuously-variable automatic with front-wheel drive.
- Overall length: 14 feet 9 inches.
- EPA passenger/trunk volume: 89/15 cubic feet.
- Weight: 2,729 pounds.
- EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 32/40/35 mpg.
- Base price, including destination charge: $19,135.
- Price as tested: $20,040.
Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.
Photos (c) Nissan