The 2020 Nissan Versa tests the limits of content in a value-driven segment

August 16, 2019

The average transaction price for a new car is now more than $37,000. For those with access to low-interest, long-term loans, that's not too difficult to stomach.

In the real world, not everybody is in that position. Some need new-car reliability and the peace of mind brought about by the accompanying warranty, and they need to do it for less—much less, in many cases. 

How much car can you afford if your budget is only half of the national average? The 2020 Nissan Versa is the answer to that very question. 

Our main gripe with Nissan's subcompact sedan traditionally has been that it exists to be the cheapest game in town. A low price may be attractive, but the Versa has never really had anything more than that going for it. 

While that level of honestly might sometimes be charming in an inexpensive car (the phrase "cheap and cheerful" comes to mind), the Versa has never been the kind of car to make many shoppers smile. As inexpensive appliances go, it has always been thoroughly adequate, at best. 

With that in mind, we traveled to Franklin, Tennessee, to take the 2020 Versa for a spin. 

At its base price of $15,625 (including an $895 destination charge), the Nissan Versa is still the segment price leader for the 2020 model year, coming in cheaper than the Toyota Yaris or Hyundai Accent. There's a catch, though: At that price point, you get a 5-speed manual transmission (Toyota and Hyundai offer 6-speeds) and very little in the way of creature comforts. For those who can't drive stick, you're looking at a base price of $17,295.

2020 Nissan Versa First Drive

2020 Nissan Versa First Drive

That's still cheap, and Nissan is confident that the Versa's packaging gives it further real-world cost advantages. For example, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are available on the Versa's SV trim and above. The Versa can be equipped with rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitors, which neither Toyota nor Hyundai offer on their subcompacts, and Nissan also includes automatic emergency braking and keyless ignition in the standard equipment list for Versa; Accent buyers will have to spend thousands more for those features.

We took the SV grade, which costs $18,535, for a spin. This is one of Versa's two higher-volume trims; the $19,135 range-topping SR is the other. This is the best value proposition of the bunch. You get the aforementioned smartphone integration features, 16-inch wheels with Continental all-season tires, and almost all of the available driver aids, with the notable exception of adaptive cruise control, which is part of a $300 package on the SR.

All Versa models are motivated by a 122-horsepower, 1.6-liter inline-4 that produces 114 lb-ft of torque. Paired with the standard 5-speed manual, this is good for EPA fuel economy ratings of 27 mpg city, 35 highway, 30 combined. With Nissan's continuously variable transmission (CVT), those figures jump to 32/40/35 mpg. These figures fall short of both the Hyundai's and Toyota's, especially when comparing manual-transmission models; the Versa's antiquated 5-speed is likely to blame.

The meager engine output and CVT combine for less-than-lively acceleration. I found myself planning ahead when entering busy roadways and merging onto highways. While there are no truly quick cars in this segment, the Versa's powertrain is still the least inspiring in the bunch.

2020 Nissan Versa First Drive

2020 Nissan Versa First Drive

Let's set aside the small sedan competition for a moment and look at the bigger picture. Can a subcompact sedan compete in a market where customers are willing to pay a little extra if it means having a better view of the road ahead and an easier time entering and exiting their vehicles? Nissan's own Kicks, for example, is essentially a Versa hatchback with a little extra ground clearance. How can small sedans attract buyers?

Nissan is banking on space. The 2020 Nissan Versa has almost as much interior room as the company's larger Sentra. While rear-seat leg room in the Versa was sacrificed to create more room up front, in the real world, there's essentially no difference between the two sedans. In fact, the Versa's interior space makes us question the Sentra's value proposition.

While it may be as spacious as some larger sedans, the Versa still suffers in the comfort department thanks to its short wheelbase and built-to-a-price body construction which allows quite a bit of noise to enter the cabin, both from the engine compartment and the outside world. 

The roomier 2020 Nissan Versa benefits from a cabin that feels far more modern and welcoming than the outgoing model's, but it merely brings the bargain leader more in line with the competition. The Versa is still a bargain, but it doesn't do much to stand out from the pack.

Nissan provided travel and lodging to Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand review.

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