Attractive looks, respectable drive demeanor and lots of tech create the best Versa yet.
As a car writer, I'm often asked about the worst car I've ever driven. One of the first models that inevitably comes to mind is the base $10,000 Nissan Versa that debuted back in 2009. Compared to the standard Versa of its day, this model packed a less-potent engine, smaller steel wheels (wrapped in some of the worst all-season tires I've encountered) and one of the creakiest interiors in memory.
In the decade since, the Versa has improved to the point where it can play the part of basic Point-A-to-Point-B transportation respectably well. The little Nissan's improvements haven't been enough to put it at the head of the class with the pricier and more sophisticated Honda Fit , though. Instead, the Nissan has run with the likes of the Hyundai Accent , Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris , battling it out for the title of "best of the rest."
Fortunately, that's all changed thanks to this new 2020 Nissan Versa . Packing modernized and streamlined looks, a respectable drive character and surprisingly long list of tech features, this new model is worth a closer look.
To ditch the awkward, uninspired appearance of its predecessor, the latest Versa follows that familiar automotive formula: longer, wider, lower. Nissan's V-Motion grille along with other familial design elements like a floating roof and tasteful slathering of sheet metal creases add some visual intensity. On my top-of-the-line SR tester, contrasting black exterior mirrors, a small rear spoiler and 17-inch aluminum split-spoke wheels provide a dash of added flair.
Inside, the Versa's surroundings are assembled from hard, but nicely finished plastics. The "Gliding Wing" dashboard layout isn't boring and actually possesses some style. Vinyl dash and door panel trim featuring contrasting burnt orange accent stitching on SR models actually even manages to bring something of a premium feel to the table. What doesn't feel premium, however, is the rough, cheap-feeling leather steering-wheel wrap. I thought was either rubber or pleather at first.
Other minor cabin letdowns include a front passenger seat that lacks a center armrest and the occasional loud thud transmitted inside when rolling over ruts and potholes. Outside of such quibbles, the Versa interior is solid, with sufficient space for adults in front and back, lots of cupholders and a generous 15-cubic-foot trunk that swallowed the bounty from numerous shopping expeditions during my week with the car.
Another of the Versa's strong suits is its impressive of list of available technology features. On all but base S trims, a Nissan Connect system using a responsive 7-inch touchscreen is in charge of infotainment. It boasts Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and on the SR a six-speaker audio setup.
The Versa SR's powerpoint game is also strong with a USB port and 12-volt outlet mounted the front lower stack cubby. An additional two USBs are located on the back of the center console and easily accessible to riders in both rows of seats.
On the active safety front, the Versa doesn't disappoint, either. Again, with the exception of base S models, all cars come equipped with Nissan's Safety Shield 360 suite of advanced driver assist systems. Safety Shield includes forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert with rear automatic braking, and high beam assist. For an additional $300, a Convenience Package can be equipped adding adaptive cruise control to the mix.
At best, every Versa to date has been forgettable to drive, and that remains mostly true with this new 2020 version. Calling it "less forgettable" is an accurate description thanks to serviceable drivetrain and solid chassis tuning. Setting up shop under the hood is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder churning out 122 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. In the SR, the I4 works with a continuously variable transmission that simulates gear changes, even at wide-open-throttle. This front-wheel-drive sedan is not going to blow anyone's doors off, but pulling into traffic and entering expressways are a non-issue -- this small sedan moves out at a respectable clip.
Together, the Versa's drivetrain combination returns an EPA-estimated 32 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. I managed to observe 32.5 mpg throughout a week filled with mostly surface street mileage -- impressive given my admittedly heavy right foot.
Handling in the Versa is also a nice surprise. This sedan maneuvers with ease thanks to lightly weighted but responsive steering. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension tuning veers more to the comfort end of the spectrum, as you'd expect for a vehicle of this type. This setup absorbs impacts well without being overly soft or sloppy when rounding corners, thanks in part to the SR's excellent (and surprisingly premium) Continental ContiProContact tires. While you're not going to have a ball slinging it around, the Versa is pleasant ride for milling around town.
Yes, the new Versa's driving experience may be "less forgettable," but in this case, that's a good thing — previous models stuck in one's head for all the wrong reasons.
As enticing (and as more entertaining) as opting for a $14,730 Versa S with a five-speed manual transmission might be from a driving standpoint, I'd opt for one of this model's more expansively equipped trims. Steel wheels with hubcaps, going without the more feature-rich version of Nissan Connect infotainment and missing out on modern safety features like blind spot monitoring are deal breakers for me on a daily driver.
My build would be based on a SR trim painted electric blue metallic, just like my tester. Pricing for this model begins at $18,240, not including $895 for destination. I would also mirror my tester's options list, including the $300 Convenience Package for adaptive cruise control and two-stage heated front seats, plus the $210 floor mats. The only difference on my ideal Versa will be would be the addition of the $300 center armrest compartment option — worth it to get more storage and give front passengers something to perch their left arms on. All in, my Versa SR's price tag comes out to just $19,945.
As far as small, affordable and efficient cars go, the 2020 Nissan Versa is finally a standout in terms of styling and most of all, tech. Being a comfortable and competent driver helps its case, too. The improvements come as Nissan's smallest sedan sheds the title of most affordable new car in America, which is something I don't think they should be too broken up about.
If I was shopping this segment, my choice would likely come down to the Versa and the Fit, with the Honda ultimately edging the Nissan slightly thanks to its more involving driving character. I'd absolutely understand going with a Versa instead, though. It's a top contender in its class today, and that's something I wouldn't have thought possible a decade ago -- or maybe even last year.