2020 Nissan Versa Review

Christian Wardlaw | Dec 13, 2019

Introduction

The 2020 Nissan Versa might be the most improved car of the model year. Compared to the vehicle it replaces, an entry-level sedan with a large back seat, a big trunk, and few other redeeming qualities, the redesigned 2020 Versa represents a huge leap forward for Nissan.

It remains an affordable car, priced from $15,655 with S trim and the standard manual transmission, but it no longer looks like one. Stylishly designed inside and out, the new Versa could inspire pride in an owner because it looks like something you bought because you wanted to, not because you had no other choice. Better yet, it remains roomy for the segment, retaining the previous Versa sedan’s star qualities.

Granted, the engineering is fairly rudimentary. The 2020 Versa has no more than 122 horsepower, column-mounted electric assist steering, a solid axle rear suspension, and drum rear brakes. But when equipped with the largest wheels and when a driver exercises patience, the Versa proves nimble if not quick.

2020 Nissan Versa SR Blue Front ViewIn addition to S trim, the new Versa comes in SV ($18,565) and SR ($19,165) trim levels. For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a 2020 Versa SR equipped with the Convenience Package, the Lighting Package, a center armrest with storage, and carpeted floor and trunk mats. The price came to $20,665, including the $925 destination charge.

What Owners Say…

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Nissan Versa, it is helpful to understand who bought the previous version of this small car, and what they liked most and least about their vehicles.

J.D. Power data shows that 53% of Versa owners are male, matching the overall segment. They’re also about the same age, at 50 years old for Versa and 51 for the segment. Versa owners, however, earn significantly less money with a median annual household income of $39,231 (vs. $57,732). Not surprisingly then, 41% of Versa owners identify as Price Buyers (vs. 36%).

According to J.D. Power findings, 56% of Versa owners prefer to buy a car from a domestic company (vs. 48% for the segment). Evidently, the Chevrolet Sonic and Spark, and the Ford Fiesta, did not work for Versa buyers.

Given their price sensitivity, it comes as no surprise that 54% of Versa owners disagree that they’re willing to pay extra for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (vs. 61%). At the same time, however, fewer Versa owners agree that they avoid vehicle with high maintenance costs (88% vs. 92%). Quality of workmanship is also less important to Versa owners, with 82% agreeing that it is a first consideration when choosing a new vehicle (vs. 86%).

In all other respects, Versa owner sentiments about vehicles and ownership align with those of all small car owners.

Owners say their favorite things about the previous-generation Versa were (in descending order) the fuel economy, infotainment system, visibility and safety, exterior styling, and both the interior design and storage and space (in a tie). Owners indicate their least favorite things about the old Versa were (in descending order) the driving dynamics, the climate system and seats (in a tie), and the engine/transmission.

What Our Expert Says… 

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the redesigned 2020 Nissan Versa measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2019 APEAL Study.

Exterior

Thanks to new Altima Jr. design elements, the 2020 Nissan Versa’s styling could vault to the top of the list of its owners’ favorite things. Especially in SR trim with machined-face aluminum wheels, the new Versa looks modern, upscale, and sporty. It is easily the best looking car in its class.

Interior

Inside, the new Versa features plenty of hard plastic, fabric upholstery, and a simple layout. A flat-bottom steering wheel and a strip of soft stitched vinyl on the dashboard represent successful attempts to lend the Versa SR’s cabin some class, while the optional nighttime footwell lighting and high-quality floor and trunk mats made this entry-level Nissan look and feel like anything but cheap.

Seats

Four adults fit into a 2020 Versa, and they’ll be comfortable. All trims include a manual driver’s seat height adjuster and a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, and if you add the optional center console armrest the car provides plenty of comfort and support.

The front passenger’s seat does not have a height adjuster, but the seat sits high enough off of the floor and offers enough thigh support that few people will complain.

The back seat has just enough space to accommodate someone who is six feet tall. You sit up high on a supportive cushion, and the front seatbacks are softly padded to make them comfortable to knees and shins. Taller people will need to duck a bit to clear the Versa’s rakish roofline.

Climate Control System

Air conditioning is standard in every Versa, and the SR trim level adds automatic climate control. Rear seat passengers do not get air conditioning vents, but the Versa does have dual USB charging ports for rear-seat riders.

The controls are simple to understand and use. During testing, temperate Southern California weather meant the system faced no cold snaps or heat waves, so it remains to be seen how it will perform under extreme conditions.

Cloth seat upholstery, though Charcoal in color, likely helps when it is brutally cold and intensely hot outside. In SR trim, they’re heated, too.

Infotainment System

Equipped with a 7-inch touchscreen display with main menu shortcut buttons and knobs for volume and tuning, the Versa SR’s infotainment system is easy to understand and fairly sophisticated. Standard features include Bluetooth, hands-free text messaging, and voice assistant compatibility. With SV and SR trim, it includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and satellite radio. Six stereo speakers are standard with SR trim, and they sound decent enough.

Using this system while driving has its challenges. Because of the car’s choppy ride, stabbing the right virtual button with your fingertip is often challenging. Also, the screen was sometimes unresponsive to input. Therefore, it is best to learn how to use the voice recognition system and steering wheel controls in order to avoid irritation and distraction.

Storage and Space

Nissan provides adequate storage space in the Versa, especially if you opt for the center armrest storage console. The cup holders are small and awkwardly located, but otherwise you’ll find several places to stash small items for quick retrieval.

Equipped with a 15 cubic-foot trunk, the Versa’s luggage space is nearly the size of a typical midsize car. This, combined with the roomy back seat, means Nissan has preserved two of the most appealing things about the old Versa.

Visibility and Safety

You can’t see the hood from the driver’s seat, and the oversized door-mounted side mirrors, expansive front window glass, and thin windshield pillars guarantee an excellent view out.

Safety was not one of the old Versa’s strong suits. That changes for 2020 thanks to a standard reversing camera, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic front and rear emergency braking, lane departure warning, and automatic high-beam headlights. Upgrade to SV trim, and the Versa includes a blind spot monitoring system, rear cross-traffic alert, and a driver monitoring system. Adaptive cruise control is optional with SR trim.

If this sounds impressive for such an inexpensive car, you’re right. In use the adaptive cruise control lacks refinement, reacting to changes in traffic ahead suddenly instead of smoothly. The lane departure warning system, however, produces a subtle and effective vibration through the steering wheel. And the blind spot monitoring system was quite helpful on a foggy morning that put condensation on both the side mirrors and windows.

As long as the new Versa excels in crash testing, Nissan will have solved one of the main reasons you needed to avoid the previous version of the car: questionable safety.

Engine/Transmission<

Nissan equips the Sentra with a more powerful engine, but don’t get too excited. It’s still a slow car. The 1.6-liter 4-cylinder makes 122 horsepower and 114 lb.-ft. of torque, and in most models it is married to a new continuously variable transmission (CVT). A 5-speed manual gearbox is standard with S trim.

Because you’re constantly prodding the engine, you’ll experience plenty of noise and droning. That’s true when accelerating to merge onto a freeway, when passing slower traffic, and when trying to get a jump on traffic away from a light. The rest of the time the engine and CVT behave well.

As far as power is concerned, there’s just enough to keep the Versa from turning into a rolling traffic cone. The car will effortlessly cruise at 75 mph on the freeway, can tackle mountain grades (with some effort), and feels lively right off the line. But acceleration and responsiveness is never wholly satisfying.

Fuel Economy

After a week and several hundred miles of driving, the Versa tallied a 33.1-mpg average fuel economy result, falling short of the EPA’s rating of 35 mpg in combined driving.

Driving Dynamics

Thanks to an increase in torsional rigidity, improved suspension and steering components, and the SR test vehicle’s 17-inch aluminum wheels and 205/50 tires, the new Versa handles much better than the old Versa. But don’t mistake that to mean it is a satisfying car to drive.

The ride is somewhat stiff and rather busy, and when driving over recessed manhole covers the car still jitterbugs, all qualities commonly associated with torsion beam axle rear suspension designs. The steering is merely OK; most Versa buyers won’t complain. Nissan does a good job of calibrating the front disc/rear drum brakes, which feel completely natural underfoot.

It would be nice if Nissan provided more sophisticated hardware underneath this car, but that would add cost, the enemy of the entry-level vehicle. The good news is that the more stylish and sophisticated redesigned 2020 Nissan Sentra isn’t much more expensive, so if driving happiness is important to you, reach deeper into your pockets.

Final Impressions

Entry-level cars have never been better, and the new 2020 Nissan Versa underscores that assertion. However, several of the Versa’s direct competitors distinguish themselves in ways the Nissan can’t.

The Honda Fit, for example, is more practical. The Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio offer greater value. And the Toyota Yaris (a rebadged Mazda) is quite fun to drive. However, none of these alternatives can provide the combination of style, rear seat room, and trunk space that the Nissan does.

Choose your entry-level automobile accordingly.

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