By on August 5, 2019

2020 Nissan Versa

Nissan’s Versa was previously known for one thing – being the cheapest car you could buy.

That will no longer be the case with the 2020 Nissan Versa.

An increase in price, however modest, should, in theory, correspond with an increase in quality and/or performance. The previous generation had little to recommend it beyond its bargain-basement price. Nissan is aiming to change that – the redesigned Versa will cost you more, but there’s improvement on offer.

(Full disclosure: Nissan flew me to Nashville, fed me, housed me, and offered up some gifts – coffee, Bluetooth speaker, juice – that I left behind.)

The Versa’s packaging is simple. There’s just one engine, a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that makes 122 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. You can get a five-speed stick in the base S trim, but otherwise the 1.6 pairs with a continuously variable automatic transmission.

There are three trims available – base S, mid-grade SV, and top-line SR. Versa remains front-wheel drive.

Nissan tossed me the keys to an SV and sent me and another journalist to roam around suburban Nashville. Once on the road, the Versa’s flaws become apparent. It’s not quick (plan merges carefully), the engine is loud, and the steering has an odd disconnect just off-center. Cornering isn’t particularly fun, and there will be understeer.

2020 Nissan Versa

There are some redeeming qualities here. Off-center weirdness aside, the steering is well-weighted and offers good feedback. Ride quality is surprisingly smooth for a car of this size and price point, although I suspect that the generally good quality of the middle Tennessee roadways had something to do with that.

Versa has a plain yet handsome exterior look. It’s no head turner, but it gives off a “looks more expensive than it actually is” vibe. And of course there’s more than a passing resemblance to the brand’s larger Altima and Maxima sedans. I did notice larger than expected panel gaps along the hood.

Inside, our SV tester had a nice-looking white dash treatment, but the materials felt downmarket. The upper dash is made of hard plastic, and the headliner is of the so-called “mouse fur” genre. Not surprising, at this price point, but it’s a reminder that you’re driving basic transport with little fuss, little muss.

That doesn’t mean an absence of thought went into the controls. The infotainment screen neatly integrates into the center of the dash, the HVAC controls are easy to reach and use, and the instrument cluster is partially digitized. A D-shaped steering wheel is meant to lend a sporting feel.

2020 Nissan Versa

While some materials give away the game, the cabin is mostly pleasant – and worlds better than the vehicle it replaces. Nissan’s so-called “zero gravity” seats are plenty comfortable, and while engine noise did intrude, wind, tire, and road noise did not.

I was able to squeeze into the rear seat OK, but it will be a tight fit for long-legged adults, and entry/egress wasn’t as easy as I’d like.

Price bump aside, the content mix isn’t skimpy. Standard features include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, cruise control, rear automatic braking, lane-departure warning, high-beam assist, automatic headlights, rearview camera, push-button ignition, hill-start assist, 7-inch audio/infotainment screen, three USB ports, Bluetooth, Siri and Google voice recognition, zero-gravity front seats, 15-inch wheels, and power windows and locks. That’s $14,730 for the manual and $16,400 for the CVT (all prices exclude the $895 destination fee).

2020 Nissan Versa

Get the SV, and you add blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, driver-alert warning, rear-door alert, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite radio, steering wheel controls, body-color mirrors and door handles, and 16-inch wheels. All this for $17,640.

SR adds, among other things: remote start, automatic climate control, LED headlamps, fog lamps, black-painted heated outside mirrors, dark chrome grille, trunklid spoiler, unique interior seat trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and 17-inch wheels. Price? $18,240.

Some SV paint colors will set you back an additional $395, while a $300 Convenience Package for the SR adds heated front seats and smart cruise control.

Fuel economy is rated at 27 mpg city/35 mpg highway/30 mpg combined with the manual, and 32/40/35 for the CVT.

2020 Nissan Versa

Nissan faced a choice with the 2020 Versa – keep the cheapest car title, which undoubtedly introduced people on the lowest end of the new-car market to the brand, or improve the Versa to make it more than a little nicer while also asking a bit more in terms of asking price. The brand chose the latter.

I asked the PR team about this. After all, if shoppers who could only afford the cheapest transport possible bought the previous Versa because it was the best way to get a new car with relatively little cash outlay, wouldn’t some of these buyers perhaps choose more-expensive Nissan products as they earned more money over time? Certainly some buyers would be impressed by the brand and/or the dealer experience and become brand loyal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nissan believes that same scenario will play out even with the higher price of the 2020 Versa.

“We are focused on providing great value with standard safety equipment and features that customers want in the entry segment. This approach will lead to more satisfied customers who we will work to keep in the Nissan family for years to come,” spokesperson Brian Brockman told me.

2020 Nissan Versa

The next Versa is certainly a large improvement over what came before. Sure, the bar was a low one, but that doesn’t matter – the new Versa will provide satisfactory basic transit for those who don’t want to spend much on an automobile.

Is Versa a blast to drive? No. A subcompact sleeper? No. But the overall experience is fine. You won’t impress the in-laws, but if you need a commuter car and just want the basic at a relatively low price, you’ll do just fine with this one. It’s better on-road than the Kicks hatchback, which also uses value as its main selling point.

If you need cheap wheels, you could do worse. The Versa is now about on par with Hyundai’s Accent and Toyota’s Yaris sedan. It’s lower, longer, and wider than its predecessor, as well as better-looking. It also has a bit more power.

No one will ever call the Versa a great automobile. But for the money, and for the class, it will fit in well despite some obvious flaws.

Yes, it costs more than before. But you get what you pay for. Which, in this case, is a step up from the previous car.

Hard to ask for much more than that when discussing basic transport.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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23 Comments on “2020 Nissan Versa First Drive – A Step Up...”

  • avatar

    Time to look at the positive – I’ve ragged enough on Nissan’s behind the times tech in regards to engines/transmissions.

    My first new car just out of college (and second Nissan) was a 1996 Nissan Sentra GXE. It had a sticker price of around $15,000 before taxes, fees, destination, and aftermarket trunk mounted CD changer (remember those???) It had a 4-speed automatic, power locks/windows/mirrors, cruise, A/C, 4-speaker basic stereo with cassette, folding rear seats, two airbags, 115 hp from the running hamsters under the hood, and not much else. Oh, and a cupholder that blocked everything.

    According to the inflation calculator, that now comes to close to $24,000 today.

    Granted, this 2020 Versa doesn’t come with much more under the hood, and the CVT is reviled for feel and quality, but if you’re looking for stuff for under $18,000 – more airbags, ABS, touchscreen, better stereo, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, Blind Spot Monitoring, Auto Braking – these were sci-fi dreams in the late 1990s!

    So, there’s your choice. If you want a new car with the latest tech that the used car you’re likely trading in doesn’t have and have under $18,000 to spend, then the Versa looks better, especially if you can live with the grenade quality of the CVT and the gutless engine. Or you can trade in your old used car for an off-lease newer used car, get the same tech (or more), and get something better built and that isn’t a penalty box.

    Choose wisely.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll say it a million times, I’m the reason I would hesitate to buy used. About 1/3 of the time I trade in it’s because there’s a ghost in the machine and I ain’t paying to fix it. Assuming other people are the same way, 1/3 of the time you buy a used car you are getting someone else’s problem. Sure, maybe the ghost is nothing, I’m no mechanic, but maybe it’s a $3000 repair bill too.
      For a first car, or a car on a limited budget I don’t think this is bad at all. Certainly nicer than my Mom’s first Nissan aka Datsun 310GX. Hatch, Stick, No Air, no power nothing. But it got 40+ MPG in an era where cars usually averaged in the teens.

      • 0 avatar

        Robotdawn – I also have horror stories involving used cars, including an off-lease BMW 3-series story that will keep me away from BMW for the rest of my life. I also feel for the unknown person who ended up buying my 1996 Sentra because there was a transmission issue (staying in park was optional, even on flat surfaces) that Nissan refused to fix, so in the end, it is mandatory for the buyer to do their CarFax homework and get it on a lift.

        I also have friends and family members who have bought used (mainly 2 year old off-lease) vehicles and have gotten 100,000 trouble-free miles out of them.

        It’s going to be a crapshoot anyway you look at it.

      • 0 avatar

        A lot of dealers in my area sell used cars with a lifetime power train warranty. I bought my 2007 Accord used with 84,000 miles @4 years old and now I am at 207,000 miles. It was definitely worth it.

  • avatar

    > I was able to squeeze into the rear seat OK, but it will be a tight fit
    > for long-legged adults, and entry/egress wasn’t as easy as I’d like.

    So surprised to hear this. My in-laws own a first generation Versa and it is positively limo-like in the amount of room and the rear seat is cavernous. The second generation may be not quite as roomy as the first, but I once had to drive three enormous Ukrainian bikers (think 7 foot) from the Harley Davidson rental office to their hotel in San Francisco with their luggage. They commented on how surprisingly roomy the Versa is. Everything fit with room to spare.

    • 0 avatar

      I found this very odd as well.

      If nothing else, the Versa is the cheapest way to transport 4 full sized adults (or two larger adults and rearward facing child seats) and a full load of luggage in comfort… albeit not particularly rapidly.

      • 0 avatar

        I can confirm from personal experience that this is true. I also remember that word got out quickly among the wise… that has been Versa’s hat trick from the beginning.

        For Tim to state that “the one thing” Versa was known for was its cheapness – as opposed to its roominess for its size – is puzzling.

  • avatar

    It does look like a little less dorky. Hopefully this is what finally kills the floating roof fad.

  • avatar

    I would not be surprised if 75% of Versas found their way into rental car fleets.

    A two year old used car seems a better buy for non- fleet buyers.

  • avatar

    Any idea how reliable the manual is? Will Nissan build more than 7 for the US market?

    Avoiding the CVT may be the best route.

    I still think Kia/Hyundai will be the death of Nissan in the US market. There’s no way Nissan can afford to offer a warranty like K/H and Nissan is a tier or two below Toyota and Honda. Mazda is in a similar but not identical situation.

  • avatar

    Perhaps if the Versa is moving upmarket, they’ll bring in the Micra to slot below it. One can hope.

    • 0 avatar

      Nah, since it doesn’t seem like they’re going to offer a new Versa hatchback either, they’ll expect the Kicks to suffice as the cheapest “hatchback”

  • avatar

    There’s something really out of whack when it comes to US vs. Cdn pricing. At $18,240 US for the SR that works out to just over $24K Cdn… for a Versa. My wife and I just paid $23K for a new Corolla SE Hatch with the upgrade package including 18 inch wheels and a handful of dealer installed extras. Granted ours is a 6-spd manual and the trim levels are different here but still, that’s for a J VIN built compact Toyota that’s definitely a class above.

    Just for fun I went on Toyota’s US site to configure our car (or as close as possible) and it came to just under $25K US which is roughly $33K Cdn! Yikes, someone’s getting ripped off and I don’t think it’s the folks up North.

    • 0 avatar

      Prices in different countries don’t directly correspond to the exchange rate. A few years ago when Canadian dollar was strong the situation was the opposite of what you describe.

    • 0 avatar

      Cheap cars aren’t comparable across borders. Remember that the Spark starts under $10k in Canada but is $13k in the US. The current Versa Note starts under $15k in Canada, so I imagine the new sedan will start under $16k and probably top out around $20k

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    The only way I would even consider buying one of these would be with a manual regardless of it being a base model. Buying a Nissan product with a CVT is throwing money away. The car itself looks ok but the transmission is a complete deal breaker. I would rather pay the 4k to 6k upfront and get a brand with a better transmission that end up paying 4k to 6k to replace the transmission in a few years. Nissan would be at the bottom of my list along with the Ford Focus and Fiesta with their automatics.

  • avatar

    I had a 2016 (I think) Versa as a loaner one time. It had less than 1000km on it, and it was terrible. The climate and radio dials were already loose, everything felt and looked cheap, engine and tranny were loud and annoying, acceleration was proof wishes don’t come true. I didn’t have to pay for it, but it was so bad I was angry. I can’t imagine how mad someone must be who actually paid money for it!

    As for the new ones, it’s not like it has a high bar to reach, so I’d be shocked if it wasn’t better that the previous gen turd…

  • avatar

    Styling alone is a big improvement. With Accent Limiteds stickering for well over 20K and Elantra’s reaching 27K the pricing of the Versa isn’t bad at all. What is curious is if rear legroom has shrunk in the redesign with the comments that were made about it being a bit tight.

    • 0 avatar

      With regard to rear seat legroom, I read on another site that Nissan reduced it by 6 inches, giving 3 inches to the front seat passengers. That would account for this review stating that legroom was tight.

      That huge back seat was the Versa’s main attraction.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    My son, a recent high school graduate, for whatever reason, associates Nissan Versas with potheads and campus drug dealers.

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