This vehicle entered my life last week in a very timely fashion, the nation (and world) is currently undergoing a period of extreme anxiety coupled with forced if perfectly understandable belt-tightening in many respects. Wants are taking a back seat to needs, and a lot of current expenditures in many if not most households are being scrutinized and debated as to their absolute necessity. Let’s take a look at one way of fulfilling a necessity for most that might be considered a very reasonable and rational way of doing so, if not now then maybe at a later date when things improve and perhaps some experience their perspectives changing a bit as to what truly is important.
Nissan’s Versa has been with us for going on fifteen years now, originally available as a sedan and hatchback, and now for this latest generation as a sedan only since sales began last August. On the face of it this seems curious as the hatch always sold fairly well but then you might recall than Nissan introduced a new mini-CUV, the Kicks, for 2019 and it pretty much fills in for the hatchback version of this car. Sure, the Kicks starts at a higher price than the hatchback did but who can blame Nissan for wanting to make a little more money, and if people are buying them, then more power to everyone.
In 2019 Nissan moved about 66,000 Versas (current and last generation combined) in the U.S., which as far as I can tell puts it in first place for sales among its direct competitors and is more than I had thought before looking it up. As recently as 2015 Nissan moved 144,000 of them but that included the hatchbacks as well. (The Kicks sold almost 60k units last year as well so overall that seems in line with recent years if one combines them)
The sedan though, while perhaps not as practical as a hatchback, could be seen as a return to basics, or a continuation of what the Japanese carmakers have excelled at for decades now, that being a fairly basic car that is roomy enough, powerful enough, economical enough, and provides enough value for the price while doing it all better than expected that one starts to question the need for “more”.
Let’s work through this then. The roominess part – The Versa is Nissan’s smallest car in the United States, but still provides plenty of room for four adults in it (and officially seats and belts five). My 6’1″ frame fit inside very well and I didn’t have to contort myself in any strange way to get in. Headroom was abundant (no sunroof), and the only concession spacewise was that perhaps your passenger sits a little closer than in larger vehicles. However, it’s not like body parts were touching as in an airliner and there were no complaints heard on that score.
The seats themselves, especially in the front, were excellent and worthy of a car with a far greater price tag. The bolstering on the back rest was perfect; like being held in a warm embrace, with perfect pressure around the upper waist and lower torso. The lumbar support, while not adjustable, had no need to be (and I always adjust the lumbar in any car I’m in), and the bottom cushion was long enough to be comfortable for hours. While manually adjustable instead of powered, adjusting everything was easy and once done I didn’t feel the need to make minute adjustments as I often do in other vehicles with powered arrangements.
Trunk space is plentiful, both back seats fold down in a 60/40 split arrangement, albeit doing so doesn’t create a completely flat floor. I was however able to fit lengths of metal tile edging measuring just over eight feet in length into the trunk, through the back seat, over the center armrest and stopping comfortable shy of puncturing the dashboard. All with the trunk lid easily closed.
But wait, there’s more! At the same time I was also transporting a full-width rear bench seat (folded) from a domestic full-size pickup truck as well as two large Rubbermaid storage bins and several soft bags in the trunk and back seat area. I still had room for a front seat passenger. I’ll posit that if this was in fact a hatchback it is entirely possible that the eight foot long item may not have fit fully inside as the trunk does add length. So Versa-tile (groan…)
Power is always a relative term. In an entry-level vehicle, it generally just needs to have “enough”. In this case, that’s pretty much what’s on hand. While the 1.6 liter DOHC 16V 4-cylinder puts out 122hp@6000rpm and 114lb-ft of torque at 4400rpm, at our 5000 feet of altitude and paired with 2600 pounds of base curb weight (likely over 3000 at this trim level and with myself and a full load of fuel), well, two decades ago I would have been thrilled with it, these days I have to remind myself that it’s still getting me there, it’s having no trouble keeping up with traffic, but when on the 75mph-limit freeway with traffic zooming along faster than that, if one wants to pull out to pass someone, one had better keep an eye on the mirrors.
That’s not to say it’s painfully or unacceptably slow. And realistically a Versa is not meant to be a “fast” car. Viewed objectively, it’s perfectly adequate in that respect and someone buying it and checking out the competition will find similar elsewhere as well.
As you may have suspected, the car I drove came equipped with a CVT – Surprise though, the most basic spec version of the Versa comes with a manual gearbox! For the ultimate in penny pinching while having some fun, that may be the way to go, however it also comes with a 5mpg fuel economy penalty so maybe the pinching of the pennies should be thought through completely first… In any case, the CVT was interesting. When I first got the car it was thoroughly warmed up due to its journey to me. I drove it and liked the fact that it has “gears” built in, i.e. it sounded mostly like a traditional automatic.
The next day when I drove it from cold I realized that as I pulled out of my driveway and down the road it was droning at a constant, steady rpm under acceleration. However, as the car warmed up this subsided and the “gears” came back. Clearly the “droning” was programmed that way to likely help the car warm up faster and get the emissions equipment working properly as quickly as possibly. Most people likely won’t notice or care, it’s barely an issue, and only so for the first few minutes when utterly cold. Of course when jumping on the accelerator the CVT will immediately cause the engine to leap to its torque peak and it will rev higher than that but within an apparent range in an effort to reduce the “drone”. I suppose it’s programmed to make the most of what it has while also trying to be less objectionable.
Economy was superb, both in usage as well as value. As far as fuel mileage goes, in my employ the car returned a stated average of 36.4mpg over a week and about 300 miles of which just over half was logged in a single 160 mile freeway roundtrip with multiple waypoint stops. The balance was all city mileage spread over six other days. Note that this car does not employ a stop/start system and is not hybridized in any way, that 36.4 average mpg figure is outstanding and a big part of what I liked about it. The EPA numbers are 32city/40hwy with a 35average so that all seemed accurate and achievable in the real world.
As far as value goes, the least expensive way to get into a new Versa is to opt for the base “S” model which lists at $14,730. This does include the manual transmission but also includes air conditioning and power locks and windows as well as a large suite of safety assistance features, keyless entry, a 7″ touchscreen with voice commands for audio, Bluetooth and oodles more.
However, as is the case with most test cars, they are rolling feature laboratories for the likes of me to check out most everything that is available. As such, mine was the top of the line SR trim (there’s a mid-pack SV trim also). Surprisingly the base price for this is still perfectly reasonable at $18,240, at least compared to some other vehicles I’ve driven this year. As far as standard features are concerned, mine added (to the base model) the CVT, 17″ alloys with Continental tires, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Automatic Climate Control, Leather Wheel and Shift Knob (these actually featured texture and felt quite good), a fancier seat fabric that didn’t feel horribly cheap, LED headlights, remote start and many more items.
I don’t generally get into discussing styling all too much, the newer Nissan sedans all seem to be going for a very similar look these days to the point where a Versa and a Sentra are starting to look alike to me until I see the label on the rear and the Altima and Maxima are clearly from the same studio as the smaller ones as well, however they all have significantly more presence and “style” than their predecessor versions did.
As far as options go, here’s the list on this particular car: the Monarch Orange “Premium Paint” at $395 – I really fell for this color on this car, I found it gorgeous and even though this is a very low priced car, the additional cost for the color may well be worth it, if you like the shade, it makes the whole thing just seem like so much more…
Then the convenience package consisting of heated front seats (that remain in the last setting during a re-start, yay!) and intelligent (i.e. adaptive) cruise control for $300 total (yes, sign me up for that package), floor mats and trunk mat for $210 seemed a hair pricey but okay, and the fixed center armrest with small storage cubby inside for $300 I wasn’t sure about at first but found myself resting my elbow on it continuously as it was at the perfect height for me.
The options I personally would not take included the Electronics Package (Map pocket light, illuminated kick plates, and frameless auto-dimming mirror with universal remote) which at $855 seemed like too much a percentage of the total price for that and the Lighting Package (External Ground Lighting and Interior Ambient Lighting) at $690.
The exterior ground lights were basically a full length very bright LED strip under the chassis that bathed the whole road in light when the door was opened and the interior lighting could toggle through about half a dozen hues but seemed too dim to tell a difference really. Oh, and the destination charge is $895 to lug this car up here from the plant in Aguascaliente, Mexico where it is built.
You know what was standard though? That same little feature that I’ve liked and used on most older Japanese cars, that being the manually operated trunk opener lever on the floor next to the driver’s seat. Don’t ever change that, Nissan, it’s perfect right where it is and how it works, although there is also a button on the keyfob and a soft-touch button above the license plate under the lip of the trunk edge.
The overall impression driving it was not penalty box or bottom of the line-up, but rather well-screwed-together smaller car that plays much bigger than it is. What I appreciated (well, beyond the paint that I already mentioned how much I liked) was the anonymity it offered. I kind of like being Mr. Regular Jim and sometimes driving some of these test cars (and even some of the cars I’ve owned myself) I’ve felt somewhat self-conscious at times. That’s obviously a personal feeling, but it’s real, not everyone wants to be “out there”, plenty of people are perfectly happy in their own little bubble and couldn’t care a whit about everyone else.
But back to the car’s attributes, while it wasn’t tomb-silent it wasn’t difficult at all to have a Bluetooth telephone conversation at freeway speeds, sharp bumps were dealt with as a solid thump but smooth movement over them, and the handling, while lacking in steering feedback as in so many cars these days, did its job and did it well, i.e. it’s light enough that it feels tossable and enjoyable going around corners.
Again, it’s no GTI but that’s not its competition, for someone who just wants a smaller sedan for running around the city and the occasional trip or someone who’d be excited just to have a modern car (such as a college student away at school) this completely fits the bill. The ride is great, or certainly good enough that it did not stand out as objectionable in any way. I like my cars to drive a little on the firm side and this did that very well, not crashy at all but not pillowy soft.
It’s not pretentious, it has some excellent standard and available features for its class, it’s likely to be economical to keep and service, and if you don’t go nuts on the options there is a lot of value there. While Nissan has some well publicized current issues (in our car-freak corner of the world anyway, I doubt the average person or buyer has much of a clue), they also seem to be finally remaking their lineup and adjusting their sales processes and goals. It likely won’t be easy but I certainly wouldn’t count them out at all in the long run.