The third-generation Versa brings a helping of safety to an affordable segment.
No one has ever waxed lyrical about the Nissan Versa. It has never been immortalized in song lyrics and it is rarely mentioned among car enthusiasts unless someone just rented one. We've only driven the outgoing second-generation Versa as a rental and, admittedly, couldn't wait to give back the keys. But Nissan has now released an all-new Versa for the 2020 model year with all-new styling reminiscent of the Altima, a radically different interior, tons of standard and available safety technology, and thankfully, more power.
The second-generation Versa was the least expensive car available in the United States but that distinction now falls to the Mitsubishi Mirage. Nissan no longer wants to compete solely on price and it clearly shows with the 2020 Versa. Unlike the last Versa, subcompact no longer means subpar and Nissan is clearly ready to change people's opinions about what a cheap car can be. Nissan flew us out to Nashville, Tennessee to drive the new Versa and see just how much better it is than the outgoing car.
The Versa rides on Nissan's V platform, the same structure found underneath the Kicks, meaning this is essentially a Kicks with a lower ride height and Nissan isn't ashamed to admit it, given the success that vehicle has seen in the subcompact SUV segment. The exterior gives off a 'Honey, I Shrunk the Altima' vibe, which is not a bad comparison because the current Altima is very handsome. We think the design looks more at home on the larger Altima because the Versa's diminutive proportions cause some of the lines to feel cut short (but that's just nitpicking).
Overall, the styling is a complete win over the outgoing car, which looked dismal even by rental lot standards. Nissan says this new Versa is lower, wider, and longer than the car it replaces and abides by the company's "Emotional Geometry" design language, which includes the V-motion grille, boomerang-shaped lights, kick-up C-pillars, and floating roof. Eight colors will be available including three exciting hues called Electric Blue, Scarlet Ember, and Monarch Orange (all-pictured below) and five less vibrant shades of white, grey, silver, and black. 15-inch steel wheels come standard but the blue car we drove featured 17-inch alloys.
Only one engine option is available on the 2020 Sentra, a 1.6-liter four-cylinder producing 122 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. These are not heart-pounding numbers but with a roughly 2,600-pound curb weight, the Versa's power is adequate for purpose. It is worth noting that this engine provides a 12% increase in power and a 7% increase in torque compared to the last generation car, which is a welcomed bump. Power is routed to the front wheels only through a five-speed manual transmission on the base trim or an optional Xtronic CVT that comes standard on all other trims. Don't moan about the CVT, it's calibrated very well.
Acceleration wasn't the name of the game with the new Versa but Nissan clearly paid attention to fuel economy. This same engine provides fuel economy ratings of 31/36/33 mpg city/highway/combined in the taller Kicks but in the Versa it delivers 32/40/35 mpg, hitting that magic 40 number on the highway. It is worth noting if you opt for the manual, fuel economy decreases significantly to 27/35/30 mpg city/highway/combined. There were no manual examples available for testing but we doubt the ability to row your own gears would have added much to the overall driving experience.
If you've sat in a Nissan Kicks, the Versa will seem eerily familiar. At this price point, it isn't uncommon to find an abundance of hard plastics and flimsy trim pieces but the Versa feels absurdly premium for the segment. The dashboard on upper trim levels is covered with stitched leather and the top SR trim has orange accents to jazz up the cabin space. Nissan boasts best-in-class front legroom of 44.5 inches and the Zero Gravity front seats feel comfortable despite lacking lumbar adjustment.
All Versa trims include a seven-inch touch display with Android Auto and Apple Car Play on all except the base S trim. The system is simple to use and we quickly mastered it in our limited time with the car. Upper trims add a seven-inch driver-assist display in the gauge cluster, which can show various information screens or a basic tachometer.
Our major complaint with the interior was a lack of storage space up front, limited to an area in front of the shifter and a shallow storage area near the handbrake. Nissan will sell a dealer-installed center armrest with storage for an additional $300 if you need it. Rear seat occupants won't feel cramped in the back seat, which offers 31 inches of legroom (although a folding armrest would be nice).
Cargo capacity has increased over the previous generation with 14.7-15 cubic feet of storage depending on trim level. For reference on how massive that is for a sub-compact, it's the same capacity as the mid-size Toyota Camry. The seats have a 60-40 split, allowing for up to 103 cubic feet of space.
At this point it's worth noting that Nissan will no longer offer the Versa Note hatchback for 2020, which we feel would have been the more practical option and a more suitable rival to one of our favorite cars in the subcompact class, the Honda Fit. When asked about the Note's return, Nissan didn't rule out the idea but said it had not made any announcements about a replacement.
Being so similar to the Kicks, we weren't surprised to discover the two cars drive alike. But whereas the Kicks failed to inspire confidence when pushed hard, the Versa felt more at home through the bendy roads outside of Nashville. We attribute this to the Versa's lower ride height, which limited body roll through the corners. But much like the Kicks, the steering feels light and disconnected despite a 30% increase in steering shaft rigidity over the previous generation. Mashing the throttle does produce an immediate response from the engine, but the lack of power results in a dull groaning noise without an accompanying increase in speed.
Slamming on the brake pedal is equally disappointing as the front disc brakes and rear drums fail to provide much confidence in the car's stopping ability. However, when factoring in the Versa's price, it is easy to ignore some of the obvious weak points that are also found in most of its rivals. Crucially, it rides well over rough pavement and feels well insulated so you won't have to raise your voice in conversation at highway speeds. Then, there's the safety tech.
It would be crazy to expect Nissan's excellent ProPILOT Assist technology at this price range but the Versa is still shockingly well-equipped. Standard safety features include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking, lane departure warning, high beam assist, automatic headlights, and a rearview monitor. SV trims and above include Nissan's Safety Shield 360 with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert while the SR trim is also available with adaptive cruise control. This is a staggering amount of technology on a car with such a low price tag.
The Nissan Versa is no longer the cheapest car in America but with the loss of the title comes massive improvement more than justifying the price increase. The base S trim starts at $14,730 with the five-speed manual, jumping to $16,400 with the optional Xtronic CVT. If you plan to get an automatic, we recommend opting for the SV trim for $17,640, which adds Apple Car Play and Android Auto functionality, 16-inch alloy wheels, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.
We drove a loaded SR trim, which starts at $18,240 that still undercuts the base Kicks. The SR trim adds 17-inch wheels, a spoiler, black exterior accents, orange interior accents, automatic climate control, six-speaker audio system, and smart keyless entry. For just $300 more, the SR Convenience Package adds adaptive cruise control plus heated front seats. There are a number of additional dealer-installed options but most Versa models will arrive at dealerships with a price under $20,000, even with an $895 destination and handling fee.
Let's not mince words, the last Nissan Versa was a soulless car, destined to spend its life in a fleet or a rental car parking lot. We wouldn't have recommended it to our worst enemy but this 2020 model is a completely different story. Nissan has taken a Magic Eraser to the old Versa and injected the new car with DNA from the Kicks and the handsome Altima. It still won't light your world on fire from behind the wheel but it no longer feels like a hindrance when merging onto the freeway or trying to scoot through a yellow light before it goes red. Nissan has worked wonders with the new Versa which is now a strong contender against rivals like the Kia Rio, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, and Toyota Yaris.