The average new-vehicle transaction price in the US last year topped $40,000. That's an astronomical amount of money to spend on an asset that typically depreciates like property values at a superfund site. But owing a shiny new ride with a factory warranty and plenty of tech doesn't have to leave you a penniless pauper. The 2021 Nissan Versa, for instance, offers so much content for so little cash.
No, there's nothing joyful or exuberant about this scrappy little four-door. It's definitely a function-dictates-form kind of car, but the standard equipment and overall comfort offered are impossible to ignore. From the base Versa S to the pinnacle SR, every one comes standard with automatic emergency braking including pedestrian detection, automatic high beams, lane-departure warning and even rear automatic braking. Just a few years ago, features like these were hard to find on luxury cars and they're now standard fare on the most-affordable Nissan in America. The two higher trims can also be fitted with lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring and even adaptive cruise control. That last amenity is included in the $400 Convenience Package, which also gets you single-zone automatic temperature control and heated front seats.
The Versa's high-end tech works surprisingly well. The blind-spot monitoring system in the SR model I'm testing is attentive to surrounding traffic and the adaptive cruise control -- while not as fancy as Nissan ProPilot Assist, which includes lane centering -- is eerily observant, able to spot other vehicles around turns and gently slow down so there are no sphincter-puckering incidents on the highway. Its performance is laudable at any price, let alone in a car that's this affordable.
Other amenities include a standard 7-inch color touchscreen (which, unfortunately, is pretty washed out, even on overcast days), Bluetooth and three USB ports. Remote keyless entry and pushbutton start are standard equipment, too. Fancy SR models are also fitted with LED headlights, an easy-to-use 7-inch reconfigurable instrument cluster display and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The Versa's top two trims can also be fitted with a Nissan Connect infotainment system, which includes satellite radio plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The SR variant's standard six-speaker sound system is also unexpectedly crisp and clear.
The Versa's interior is a pleasant place to spend time. Constructed mostly of hard plastic, the dashboard and door panels nonetheless look good and there are soft surfaces sprinkled throughout. Both contrast-color stitching and seat fabric livens up what could otherwise be a pretty bleak cabin. The front bucket chairs are supple yet supportive and the backbench is upright and spacious, if a little tight on headroom. This car nails the basics, but not everything. An armrest between the front seats is not standard, leaving the driver and front passenger's elbows dangling, which could get pretty tiring on long drives. Nissan does, however, offer a center armrest with an integrated storage cubby, but it's an absurd $320 option, one this example is not fitted with. Why such a simple feature isn't standard across the board is a real head scratcher.
When it's time to haul luggage, this Nissan's trunk offers about 15 cubic feet of space and is both broad and long. For added versatility, the 60/40 split rear backrest folds down for extra capaciousness.
The Versa's only engine is a 1.6-liter inline-4. Without the aid of any forced induction, its output is modest, just 122 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. As you might imagine, it sounds a bit taxed when laboring, but otherwise feels pretty smooth for what it is. The acceleration this engine provides is adequate, but in certain situations, like when passing dawdling tractor-trailers or merging onto the highway, you'll pine for more gusto. Despite those lackluster numbers, the Versa feels feisty off the line, its throttle tip-in is tuned to be borderline jumpy, but whether you're one-third of the way into the accelerator or flat out, the Versa doesn't accelerate any quicker, plus its vigor lags at speeds beyond about 50 mph. Plan your overtaking maneuvers accordingly.
A quick-witted continuously variable transmission is standard on the midrange SV and top-shelf SR models. It responds smoothly and promptly to driver inputs, making the most of the Versa's available horses. Nissan's D-Step Logic causes the CVT to "shift" like a conventional automatic when driven in anger, which reduces droning sounds and that annoying rubber-band feeling endemic to these transmissions. Providing a welcome bit of choice, the base S grade is available with a five-speed manual gearbox. It may be more affordable up front, but this three-pedal arrangement sure eats into the Versa's fuel economy, costing you a whopping 5 miles per gallon across the board. Models fitted with the CVT are rated at 32 mpg city, 40 mpg highway and 35 mpg combined. In mixed use, I'm averaging about 38 mpg, which is pretty stellar considering how liberal I am with the gas.
Other aspects of the Versa's dynamics are mostly likable. The ride quality is taut yet forgiving, which makes the car feel a segment or two larger than it actually is. No tinniness or fragility is detectable while driving over ravaged pavement or rough dirt roads, though it does feel a bit top-heavy in corners, with a wisp of body roll when pushed. Also, wind noise is pronounced at freeway speeds, though I wouldn't consider it loud inside. Pronounced, yes. Raucous, no.
This Nissan's biggest dynamic weakness is unquestionably the steering. Light and laughably limp, it's about the most lifeless you'll find in any new car available today. There's so little feedback, it almost seems like you're driving a car in some video game rather than on real roads, which is unfortunate.
A frills-free Versa with a five-speed manual can be had for a skosh less than $16,000 including destination fees, which are $950. That total makes this Nissan sedan one of the most-affordable new cars you can buy today, yet despite the bargain buff's price tag it still comes with a surprising amount of driver aids and other creature comforts. Of course, the pinnacle SR model I'm reviewing here is a bit steeper than that, though not as much as you might expect. Including $395 for Monarch Orange Metallic paint, a Nissan signature hue, and a sprinkle of other options, it checks out for $21,155, about half of what the average new vehicle goes for these days. And even though this Versa is a few grand richer, it's more comfortable than either an entry-level Chevy Spark and roundly superior to the Mitsubishi Mirage. A Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent or Kia Rio might give this Nissan a run for its money, but that doesn't detract from the Versa's long list of virtues. It's a good little car for a great price.