2020 Nissan Versa Review: Safer, Smoother, Still-Affordable Small Sedan

The 2020 Nissan Versa has more safety features, a better ride, and 40 mpg highway fuel efficiency in the just-shipped third generation of this subcompact sedan. The Versa feels more substantial and polished. It’s adequate on the interstate. The car has been lowered, widened, and lengthened, which makes it look sleeker (think baby Altima) at the expense of rear-seat room. The trunk, however, is huge. Nissan is banking on the apparent trend of millennials away from what their parents drove, meaning SUVs, toward sedans.

The changes make the 2020 Versa a reasonable contender. It’s no longer just a car shopped on price against subcompacts from Chevrolet, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota. Only the Versa sedan continues for 2020; the hatchback Versa Note goes away. If you want a Versa hatchback / SUV, it’s called the Nissan Kicks and is about $2,500 more, comparably equipped.

On the Road With the Nissan Versa

I spent a week with the Versa recently: a day in crowded Manhattan, a weekend tailgating and foliage-watching in New York State’s Finger Lakes, and several days driving suburban New York-New Jersey. The Versa is easy to park in the big city and would be better still if it had Nissan’s highly regarded Around View system of exterior cameras with a 360-degree birds-eye view. (Maybe in a year, Nissan hints.) The car is most at home on local roads. But once you get it up to highway speed, it’s a fairly quiet ride with great seats that Nissan dubs Zero Gravity. As with any small car, the short wheelbase (103 inches on a 175-inch car) means highway expansion strips are more noticeable. The driver assists (below) make highway driving a bit more effortless.

The 1.6-liter front-drive engine and continuously variable transmission are willing but engineered to return high mpg over tire-smoking performance. I clicked off 0-60 mph times of 9-10 seconds. Stomp the throttle hard and there was a bit of turbo-lag sensation — a second or two of hesitant progress while the engine room spooled up to full power — in a car that has no turbocharger. But 18-wheelers that take 25 to 100 seconds to reach 60 mph get onto highways safely every day.

Nissan rates the “Xtronic” Versa CVT at 32 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, 35 mpg combined. Driving 300 miles of interstate and 50 miles of 55 mph rural highway, I came out very close to that 40 mpg. When I ran 10- to 20-mile legs on more-or-less flat interstate road at 60-65 mph, I got closer to 45 mpg. This is a new 1.6-liter, 16-valve engine with 122 hp (12 percent more than the old Versa) and 114 pound-feet of torque (a 7 percent increase) that doesn’t peak until 4,000 rpm, which may account for the initial slow liftoff.

Those grandly named Zero Gravity seats are comfortable. They’d be a little better with adjustable lumbar support. The driver’s left leg is pushed back a bit by the wheel arch and you notice it on longer runs.

A 7-inch LCD in the instrument panel provides infotainment, phone, trip and safety alerts. Here, it shows the car is on or near the right lane marking. The triangle adjacent lights up when there’s a car in your blind spot and you flick the turn signal.

Nissan Versa Trim Lines

The 2020 Nissan Versa has one engine, one transmission (two on the cheapest model), one body style (sedan; no hatchback), and three trim lines, or model variants. All models are front-drive only, no sunroof. Normally the cheapest trim line accounts for a small fraction of sales. Here, the top seller is the base trim, says Jordan Savage, a senior planner for Nissan. Pay attention to what you do and don’t get on the base trim line, especially if you’re buying for a newer or younger driver who would benefit from the safety assists while they’re building skills and — sadly — convinced they can text and nothing will happen.

Nissan Versa S, $17,295 including $895 shipping. Every Versa including the S gets a 7-inch center console touchscreen LCD, three USB ports, four audio speakers, Bluetooth audio, push-button start, and hill start assist. The S has 15-inch steel wheels and 185/65R15 all-season tires. There is Siri Eyes Free and Google Assistant Voice Recognition.

With the Versa S entry model (only), there’s an even less expensive five-speed manual transmission version available for just $14,730 — “look, a Versa under $15,000″— plus $895 shipping, or $15,625 – $1,670 less than the CVT equivalent model. But fuel economy is less: 27/35/30.

With either transmission, Versa S safety features include pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, rear automatic braking, and auto high beams. Lane departure warning warns but does not pull the car back if you cross a lane marker, nor does it self-center.

The 2020 Nissan Versa SV, the middle grade, with its contrasting seats. All trim lines have fabric seats.

Versa SV, $18,535.The SV adds steering wheel controls, voice recognition, NissanConnect telematics with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite radio, a driver (only) armrest, heated side mirrors, and 16-inch aluminum wheels with 205/55R16 all-season tires.

Additional safety features are blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert (Nissan calls it Safety Shield 360), a drowsy driver alert, and a rear door alert that warns you to check for kids and pets when you get out.

Versa SR 1.6 Xtronic $19,135 / $19,435 with Convenience Package. The SR adds remote engine start, automatic climate control, nicer seat fabric, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, six-speaker audio, and 17-inch alloys with 205/50R17 all-season tires. Also, the parking brake button is now chrome.

Additional SR safety features are LED low and high beam headlamps and LED fog lights. The SR Convenience Package is a must-have at $300: full-range adaptive cruise control and heated front seats. The ACC goes down to 0 mph and back to speed, but after 3-5 seconds at a traffic light, it disengages the brake beeps and creeps forward. ProPilot Assist, Nissan’s Level 2 autonomous system, is not on the Versa.

The 2020 Nissan Versa is more attractive with its lower roofline and less chunky silhouette.

Should You Buy?

The Versa has always been one of the most affordable new cars offered in recent years. Now it has a wide advantage in safety features over the key competition, especially Kia and Hyundai. The interior is much nicer than before and driving dynamics are vastly improved. Rear seat legroom drops 6 inches, from fantastic-for-a-small-car to competitive. Through three quarters of 2019, Versa sales in the US were about 57,000, best among subcompact sedans. (Two subcompact crossover/hatchback semi-competitors, Kia Soul and Honda HR-V, sold better.)

Subcompacts, those under 170 to 175 inches long, are a relatively small market because compact cars (Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra) start just a couple thousand dollars more. Some subcompacts are hatchback-only or have hatchback and sedan variants, so total US sales for subcompact sedans may be a quarter-million this year. The Toyota Yaris, a rebadged Mazda2 (that is no longer sold in the US) is the best-handling small car. The Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and Chevrolet Sonic are also good vehicles. So is the Honda Fit, late in its model life; the next-generation Fit launches soon but it may not come to the US, in part because the similar Honda HR-V small SUV outsells the Fit 2-1. Other subcompacts include the Mitsubishi Mirage, Volkswagen Beetle and Golf, Fiat 500 / 500L, and Chevrolet Spark.

If you’re buying for safety and you’re shopping the Versa, bypass the Versa S for the SV, which is $1,670 extra. And if safety is your top concern, then the right choice is the Versa SR with the adaptive cruise control package. Look at Nissan Kicks as well.  It does not look anything like the SUVs the parents drove you around in. Either Versa or Kicks is a good deal.

Now read:

  • 2018 Nissan Kicks Car Review: Affordable Subcompact SUV for 4 Adults
  • Review: Standout 2020 Toyota Corolla Adds Safety, Performance, Hybrid
  • 2020 Subaru Forester Review: The Safety-First, Can’t-Go-Wrong-Buying-One Compact SUV