The Nissan Versa gets an upgrade

Popular subcompact sedan reaches a new level of refinement

2020 Nissan Versa SV: $18,745 as tested. Just floor mats as an option, $210.

  • Conventional wisdom: Consumer Reports likes the "controls, fuel economy, standard emergency braking," but not the "ride, engine noise, seat comfort."
  • Marketer's pitch: "Tech for a world that never stops."
  • Reality: The 2020 Versa is quite tolerable. And that's saying something.
  • Reluctant reviewer: I almost refused the Versa. The tiny Nissan sedan came up in a list of vehicles to test. Nissans tend not to be my favorite cars, and the last Versa I had was appalling. But it's new for 2020, so I decided to check it out.
  • Driver's Seat: When it comes to tiny econoboxes, I'm not looking for sporty handling or superb acceleration; a passable interior is a good start.

The Versa more than meets this basic requirement. The seat is comfortable and supportive, and even without lumbar adjustment, it’s not painful. Compared with my 2015 Versa review, the seat has definitely come a long way.

The controls are clear and easy, although Nissan deleted its usual snazzy chrome touches. Still, the plastics don’t feel cheap.

Fuel economy: I averaged 33 mpg in a long week of driving — highways, suburbs, country roads, and stop-and-go city traffic. Feed the Versa whatever, of course.

One unusual note — the gas tank requires the pull of a release lever to unlock it, but the filler door opened so slightly that I locked it back up … twice. The third time, I slid a key in to open it.

Up to speed: We’ll eventually have to get around to acceleration, though, which the Versa eventually does as well.

Its 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine creates 122 horsepower. Despite 12% more horses, the 0-to-60 time is still pretty dismal — 9.7 seconds, according to Motor Trend. But this shaves almost a second off the Consumer Reports 2018 time.

The engine is tuned for fast starts, so the Versa still at least feels peppy. It dies out in the 30- to 60-mph range, though, which drivers will notice when attempting a quick passing maneuver. Think long and hard before attempting. Relax. Enjoy the scenery.

Shiftless: The CVT has something to say about that slow acceleration. Without gears to control, the car will go as fast as it goes. Learn to drive a stick and you’ll thank me later — although you’ll only get a five-speed in the baby Nissan.

On the road: Still, once you get it moving, the Versa makes a nice companion on all roads. It cruises comfortably on the highways, where bumps are not painful. It handles nicely on winding roads, but no butterflies will be produced, unless you count the times one of the back wheels feels as if it’s losing contact with the road. Eeek.

Friends and stuff: It’s a small car, so allowances must be made here as well. Still, the rear seat of the Versa is not bad for a 5-10 guy like Mr. Driver’s Seat. It’s better than economy class on our last domestic flight. The seat sits up, and the back is fairly straight, though.

Cargo space is 14.3 cubic feet — more than in the Corolla.

Play some tunes: Bare-bones radios are not even so bare bones anymore. The Versa tested came with a 7-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay capabilities.

Volume and tuning are handled by knobs, while everything else goes through the touchscreen, which is not cumbersome or confusing at all.

Sound is actually an A- — clear and fairly accurate reproduction of songs.

Keeping warm and cool: This is the Versa’s real step back in time. One dial controls the blower, another the source, and a third the temperature — so no splitting temperatures in this tiny car. I wish more vehicles offered this kind of simplicity, because it worked just fine.

Keeping your speed: The Versa is probably the first car I’ve tested in quite a while in which the adaptive cruise control setting did not match the speedometer readout; the speedometer was always a few mph higher. Still, it’s a Versa with adaptive cruise control! Count your blessings, Mr. Driver’s Seat!

Also, many Nissans I’ve tested have had a problem with the cruise control raising a lowering ever so slightly, and at least the Versa doesn’t have that.

Night shift: The headlights cast their glow a little low. The interior lights, though, are far too bright and impossible to have on while driving.

Where it’s built: Aguascalientes, Mexico.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports gives the Versa a predicted reliability of 3 out of 5. There’s not much information about recent years, though.

In the end: The Versa is not a breakthrough piece of machinery in the traditional sense, but it does break new ground for small cars. For a car under $20,000, the Versa does most things quite well.

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