2020 Nissan Versa first drive review: 15% more price, 100% more car

In April, I entered into a casual transaction that hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of Americans will find familiar. I bellied up to an airport rental car counter, signed some paperwork and walked out with a set of keys to a Nissan Versa. For a whole cocktail of reasons, that experience is likely to get a lot less common thanks to the sedan seen here. It's the all-new 2020 Nissan Versa, and it looks and feels utterly unlike its fleet-favorite predecessor.

This is a good thing. In truth, my early May rental experience was utterly unremarkable. The outgoing Versa was positively huge inside, it had easy-to-master controls and the car drove, turned and stopped obediently and efficiently. In a vacuum, the departing generation was a perfectly acceptable motoring proposition. Problem is, if you were a small car shopper, the Versa didn't exist in a vacuum, and just about everything else in its class was more modern, compelling and substantial-feeling, from the Hyundai Accent to the Kia Rio, Chevrolet Sonic and Honda Fit. After a day's drive in this new 2020 Nissan Versa, I'm pleased to report that's no longer the case. 

Part of the reason the old Versa was such a rental-counter staple was because of its ultra-low price. For years, Nissan ensured it was the least-expensive new car sold in America, starting at just $12,460 (plus $895 delivery fee). For 2020, however, this new generation starts at $14,730 (plus delivery), a not-insignificant price hike of just over 15%. The good news is, the new Versa feels like 100% more car.  

It all starts with a fully modern exterior. The 2020 Nissan Versa is longer (+1.6 inches), lower (-2.3 inches ) and wider (+1.8 inches) than its predecessor. Just as importantly, the new car also sits 0.8 inches lower on its wheels. (The old Versa's homeliness was partly a function of its unusually airy wheel wells.) Like one of those successful geek-to-chic reality TV makeovers, the 2020 Versa sits on the much the same underlying framework as before, yet you'd never know it, because it's a wholly convincing transformation. The new model looks far more contemporary, polished and -- dare I say it -- upscale. 

The top-trim 2020 SR ($18,240 plus delivery) that I drove for most of my testing day in and around Nashville, Tennessee, features 17-inch alloy wheels, LED lighting and a rear spoiler, along with a brace of signature Nissan design cues shared with all Versa models, including a prominent V-Motion grille and floating roofline. It's a pretty handsome car. 

If anything, the Versa can be accused of looking too familiar -- all of Nissan's recently redone four doors, from the latest Altima and facelifted Maxima to the company's forthcoming Sentra look and feel a bit homogenous, like they've taken 1980s BMW's "one sausage, three sizes" styling philosophy to heart. If that's the worst criticism that can be leveled against this design, though, so be it -- the new Versa's appearance is worlds more convincing than the awkwardly rounded, tiptoe-stanced look of the old car.

Versa is 2.3 inches lower overall and rides a useful 0.8 inches lower on its wheels than last year.

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If, like me, you were worried about how the 2020 Nissan Versa's sleek new looks might take a toll on the old car's positively cavernous interior and trunk space, fear not -- the news is mostly good. While headroom up front takes a slight 0.3-inch shave, a 2.7-inch increase in legroom to a class-leading 44.5 inches more than makes up for any shortfall, and there's considerably more hip and shoulder room, too. 

In back, rear-seat headroom is again shaved by 0.3 inches, but it's rear-seat legroom that really takes a hit, down a full 6.0 inches. That's a massive comedown, but in truth, second-row cabin space is still class competitive, it's just that the old model's gawky, upright proportions lent themselves to providing freakishly NBA-spec legroom. Even still, it's now a bit tighter back there for the long-stemmed than rivals like the Accent and Fit. Fortunately, substantial improvements in rear seat hip and shoulder area means it doesn't feel tight or claustrophobic back there. Cargo room is basically unchanged at a generous 14.7-to-15 cubic feet, depending on model trim.

What that tape-measure hairsplitting doesn't tell you is how much nicer and more modern the 2020 Nissan Versa's interior feels. It's as dramatic an overhaul as this sedan's outside. Gone is the bubbly, rounded and discount-plastic-intensive cabin of the 2019 model. In its place is a slimmer "Gliding Wing" dashboard, more substantial-feeling materials and a whole host of new features. A suite of standard items includes pushbutton start, a seven-inch reconfigurable gauge cluster screen, a racy-looking flat-bottom wheel and an updated seven-inch display audio system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on all models save the price-leading S trim. Embedded navigation is unavailable, but ergonomics are a strong suit, with simple, easy-to-decipher infotainment, HVAC and steering wheel controls. 

It's genuinely difficult to overstate how much of an improvement this cabin is over the last Versa.

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Like this automaker's other recent efforts, the Versa features "Zero Gravity" front seats, which proved to be accommodating over my hours of driving. My taller copilot did express some discomfort as our day wore on, however, so make sure that if you're shopping around, that you take time to properly assess comfort. 

A potentially larger concern looms around the Versa's aforementioned HVAC system. Our launch event took place in the wilting late-July Tennessee heat, with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees paired with higher humidity. By the end of our drive, our 2020 Nissan Versa's air-conditioning system felt pretty well maxed out. We weren't uncomfortable, but with the automatic climate control set to its lowest degree setting, it simply didn't feel like we were getting the air temperature that readout promised. If you live in a consistently hot part of the country, this is something you'll want to test out.

We've come all this way without spending a word talking about what powers the 2020 Nissan Versa. That's mostly because the new Versa is defined more by its dramatic interior and exterior changes than it is by what's under the hood. Pop the bonnet and you'll find Nissan's new "Gen3" HR16DE engine, a 1.6-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder. Tuned here to realize 122 horsepower (+12%) and 114 pound-feet of torque (+7%), this front-wheel-drive economy car is available with either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission. The latter figures to be the far more common choice, and Nissan says its Xtronic CVT has been strengthened with reinforced belts to allow for a 12% lower gear at 25 miles per hour, along with updated shift logic that yields both smarter throttle response and better overall efficiency.

Sadly, no manual-transmission models were available for testing.

This fully loaded SR cost $20,040 delivered. Still a fair value, it's treading close to class-above models like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

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The Versa's updated driving experience feels several orders more polished than before, with the powertrain being appreciably quieter and less thrashy than last year's model. Nissan's Xtronic transmission unit obliges little of the stretched-rubber-band RPM swoon that is a common blight on the likability of CVTs. And overall noise, vibration and harshness is well controlled. 

Having said that, at least when equipped with the CVT, the Versa is still not particularly entertaining to drive, merely competent. Rivals like the Honda Fit and Mazda-sourced Toyota Yaris sedan feel more energetic and lighter on their feet, though they trade away some refinement in the bargain. On the hilly, winding roads outside of Nissan's adopted hometown of Franklin, Tennessee, it was easy to appreciate handling improvements made possible by changes to the car's steering, suspension and structure. However, even with my Versa SR's surprisingly premium 205/50R17 Continental ContiProContact all-season rubber, the Versa's chassis and throttle response still didn't feel as sprightly as Nissan's own new Kicks crossover. 

The truth is, most people will never need or want to toss something like the Versa down a country road, so it's probably smart that Nissan has instead chosen to emphasize overall ride quality and low noise levels instead of driving verve. Even still, in light of how Nissan has managed to bake-in a surprising amount of fun-to-drive DNA in its similarly powered, similarly chassis'd (and very affordable) Kicks SUV, it's a slight disappointment to find that the Versa isn't more lively behind the wheel.

Range-topping SR models are fitted with 17-inch alloy wheels.

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Fuel efficiency metrics are within a hair of the outgoing model's ratings, and that's no bad thing considering these new models weigh around 200 pounds more than their forebears thanks to the aforementioned improvements in size, equipment and robustness. EPA estimates call for 32 miles per gallon city, 40 mpg highway and 32 mpg on the combined cycle for Xtronic-equipped models. Base five-speed manual models fare significantly worse, registering ho-hum 27/35/30 ratings. You may have to pay a whopping $1,670 more to get a CVT in the base S model (all other Versa trims come standard with two pedals), but the efficiency gains should make that surcharge easier to swallow.

Entry-level cars such as the Versa are likely to be purchased for young drivers by parents or by cost-conscious seniors, so safety features are particularly important in this class. To that end, the new Versa features a ton of new advanced driver-assistance systems, including some tech that isn't available on competing models. Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection is standard, as is rear auto brake and lane-departure warning. Even automatic high-beam headlamps are standard across the line. 

A 1.6-liter four with 122 hp and 114 pound-feet of torque powers all 2020 Versa models.

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On mid-level SV trim ($17,640 plus delivery) and above, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert are added, along with a basic driver-awareness monitor and rear-door alert, an alert system designed to prevent drivers from accidentally leaving people or things in the back seats. These are rare features at this price, as is the SR's remote start capability. Adaptive cruise control is available for $300 as part of an option bundle with heated front seats.

Overall, the new 2020 Nissan Versa is hugely improved. It no longer feels like a commodity car, something entry-level shoppers and rental-fleet buyers resign themselves to simply because the old model was America's cheapest new car. This new model is at once more attractive, better to drive and more cohesive overall. Despite a not-insubstantial price hike, the 2020 Versa is still competitively priced, and most importantly, it feels like a much better value than before -- especially on midrange models that don't have bottom lines that tread closely toward class-above models like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla

Of course, this car's new, higher price tag will almost certainly mean you'll see fewer Nissans lining the lots at Hertz, Enterprise and Alamo. Like the new Versa itself, though, well... that's no bad thing.

This is far better equipped to battle Hyundai's Accent, Honda's Fit and Toyota's Yaris.

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Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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