2020 Nissan Versa First Drive: Value Proposition

The new Nissan Versa is affordable, but far from cheap

Nissan is bringing a new Versa sedan to the streets in 2020 (and ditching the hatchback). You might be thinking, “No one is buying sedans, right?” And you’re kind of right: The crossover has usurped the sedan, and small four-door cars have been struggling. That’s why some major players are bowing out. But since that market space is getting smaller, denser and more heated, it makes even more sense to replace a model quickly. So it should be a good time for Nissan to bring a solid value proposition to the table with the new Versa.

Nissan brings the Versa up to date in its third generation, with sharper styling and better standard tech. What’s different here is that the decision-makers at Nissan managed to give the Versa room to breathe. Instead of being built to its still-low entry-level price, it feels cohesive and well-thought-out.

The styling should be familiar for anyone that’s followed Nissan lately. Upfront, there’s the V-Motion grille, which is flanked by LED headlights on the top-trimmed SR variants, and halogen units on the lower-optioned models. The roof is floating, a la the Nissan Maxima. Aside from the familiar cues, the Versa is 1.6 inches longer, 1.8 inches wider and 2.3 inches lower than the model it’s replacing. The team also worked to reduce the wheel gap — the space between the fender lip and the tire — by almost an inch. Basically, it looks better and more modern.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/12The 2020 Nissan Versa made its debut ahead of the New York auto show at a music festival in Florida.Next

The Execution

Powering the new Versa is the same 1.6-liter naturally aspirated inline-four (HR16DE for Nissan fans) as before. Despite the engine architecture carrying over for 2020, the engineers at Nissan squeezed out more juice. The four is now rated at 122 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque. Those aren’t crazy figures, but that’s up from 109 hp and 107 lb-ft of torque. You can thank the new, higher compression ratio for some of that extra power. Mated to that mill is a five-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The five-speed is only available on base models, and there wasn’t one on hand to try out, but almost all Versas will roll out of the factory with a CVT anyway.

Like the engine, the CVT was revised for 2020 and offers slightly different characteristics than the outgoing model’s transmission. That translates to the new Versa giving smooth, fake shifts and keeping the 1.6-liter engine making as much power as possible. Together, the CVT and small-displacement I4 work well together. On steep grades, you can feel the engine and transmission working hard, but that just means you need to put your foot down farther. On flat city streets, the Versa happily zips around with traffic. Throttle response is good, predictable and linear, and the throttle tip-in feels natural. There’s no jerky or aggressive tuning to make it seem like a rocket ship off the line (or a slug, for that matter) — it’s just good.

Helping the Versa keep its wheels in constant contact with the pavement, Nissan opted to use an independent strut front suspension and a torsion beam out back. The suspension might be the sedan’s weakest link, and with the 17-inch wheels, SR models can feel unrefined under compression. Dynamically, the car handles well considering the limitations. This won’t be your go-to for auto crossing, but the body roll and dive make for a fun trip on twisty roads.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/7The 2020 Nissan Versa comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system but offers Apple CarPlay as an option.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/7The 2020 Nissan Versa comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system but offers Apple CarPlay as an option.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/7The 2020 Nissan Versa comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system but offers Apple CarPlay as an option.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/7The 2020 Nissan Versa comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system but offers Apple CarPlay as an option.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/7The 2020 Nissan Versa comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system but offers Apple CarPlay as an option.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/7The 2020 Nissan Versa comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system but offers Apple CarPlay as an option.Toggle FullscreenShare

1/7The 2020 Nissan Versa comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system but offers Apple CarPlay as an option.Next

Steering is electrically assisted and makes for a light feel. Like most of these systems, there’s not much road feedback heading back to your hands. The wheel itself is comfortable, with multi-function features (cruise control and audio functions) as standard.

Speaking of creature comforts, that’s where the new Versa shines. Nissan stuffed the interior with useful extras like comfortable “Zero Gravity” seats, a standard 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system and an active safety features. If you’re unfamiliar with Nissan’s seats, they’re designed to support your body in its neutral position. Sadly, you’ll still feel the effects of gravity, but they are comfy.

Sitting in these cloth-covered seats, the interior feels modern and well laid out. While there aren’t any luxury materials to be found inside the Versa, the choices still seem well-considered. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t standard on the base model but do join the SV and SR badged examples.

The active safety features, or as Nissan calls it, Safety Shield 360, work well and aren’t too invasive. Standard across the Versa lineup is a lane departure warning system, rear automatic braking, high beam assist and automatic emergency braking. You can get a blind-spot warning system and a rear cross-traffic alert system on SV and SR trimmed cars, but that will add to your monthly bill. The lane departure warning vibrates the steering wheel to let you know you’re about to leave your lane, and that can be surprising for those unfamiliar with the system. With time, it just becomes part of the driving experience. The blind-spot monitoring system works well, as does the rear cross-traffic alert. Thankfully, the automatic emergency braking systems weren’t put to the test.

The Takeaway

The Versa isn’t the cheapest subcompact, at $15,625, but most good things aren’t. It’s still a value proposition — a well-executed and well-appointed one. There’s no hatchback option, sadly, but Nissan probably assumes you’ll just swing into a Kicks if you need the extra space. And it’s probably right. But if you want something lower to the ground: Nissan has kept the Versa alive as a low-cost option.

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