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2020 Nissan Versa First Drive: Still Cheap But Not as Basic

Nissan thinks inexpensive subcompact sedans are not dead even as some manufacturers give up on small cars. And with the redesigned 2020 Versa, the brand is staking a claim for a bigger slice of remaining sales, as well as keeping a starter car for the brand.

Related: 2020 Nissan Versa Not the Cheapest New Car, But It’s a Helluva Better Value

The previous Versa’s claim to fame was the lowest price tag in America for a new car — and it looked and drove like it. It was basic transportation with the payment you might need but not the car you really wanted. Nissan says the 2020 Versa’s focus remains value in a car you could want. Nissan has given it desirable, even unexpected features and safety tech that get sweeter as you climb from the S through the SV and new SR trim levels. And the base price, while at the lower end of the class, is up from a used-car-like $13,355 to $15,625 with a stick shift (all prices include $895 destination charges). Realistically, most U.S. buyers will want the $1,670 automatic option, which makes the ante $17,295 (find full details on pricing here). The SV and SR have the automatic standard.

2020 Nissan Versa SR

Nissan showed off the new Versa at an event in Nashville, Tenn., with driving in the city and in the surrounding hill country. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for travel and lodging for such automaker-sponsored events.) Driving a cheap subcompact might not be on everyone’s bucket list, but I was interested to see if the Versa delivers on the promise of a decent new car for people with less than $20,000 to spend. I drove both the base Versa S and top-of-the-line SR trim level (still just under $20,000), and the short answer is that it does.

Safety Tech for the People

They aren’t the sexiest features, but standard safety tech is basic to good value, and even the Versa S includes standard front automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection (up to 37 mph), rear automatic braking (up to 9 mph), a lane departure warning system (that vibrates the wheel quietly) and automatic headlights and high beams. The SV and SR add a standard blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, a rear door alert that signals if you opened the door at the start of a drive and don’t check the backseat again after you park, a driver alertness warning and adaptive grid lines for the backup camera. A $300 option for the SR adds adaptive cruise control, which is unusual for subcompacts. You won’t find any of those on the old Versa, and rivals — including the Toyota Yaris, Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent — offer fewer such features or restrict them to fewer trim levels.

2020 Nissan Versa SR

Low tech, but also important for safety, is the Versa’s good visibility thanks to a beltline that dips low and side mirrors relocated lower on the door from their previous location higher and farther forward. The sightlines over the shoulder and to the rear also are good.

How It Drives

While driving fun is not a hallmark of subcompacts, I expected a bit more from the Versa because it shares a platform with Nissan’s Kicks, whose nimbleness is among reasons the Kicks is a favorite city car of mine. The 2020 Versa exhibits similar dynamics — not much go power, but unexpected agility.

The 2020 Versa uses the same 122-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, which puts out a mere 114 pounds-feet of torque. It’s paired with a five-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic that’s reasonably well behaved in terms of CVT drone or rubber-band feel. The powertrain is enough for the light sedan (about 2,600 to 2,700 pounds’ curb weight depending on trim level) to feel a little peppy in city traffic. Floor it, however, and it bogs for a couple of beats off the line before gathering momentum with somewhat more noise than urgency.

2020 Nissan Versa SR

More surprising is the Versa’s combination of competent handling and decent ride. Cornering brings minimal lean, and the chassis isn’t busy or floaty on the highway. If you really push it, you get more body roll along with more tire-scrubbing understeer, but why would you? Agility is noticeably better with the SR’s 17-inch alloy wheels and wider rubber than in the S with its 15-inch steel wheels and skinnier tires. Steering is light but crisp, while braking feel (discs in front, drums in the rear) is a little soft but predictable. The Versa also delivers a comfortable ride. There was some choppiness when the pavement got rough, but it was never harsh.

The EPA had not posted fuel economy ratings as of this writing, but Nissan estimates they will be 32/40/35 mpg city/highway/combined with the CVT, a mile better on each than the 2019. You’ll pay more for DIY shifting: The manual comes in at just 30 mpg combined. By comparison, the Yaris, Rio and Accent with automatics deliver up to 35, 32 and 32 mpg combined, respectively.

2020 Nissan Versa SR

Sleeker Look, Still Compact-Car Room

The formerly dowdy Versa now wears a scaled-down version of the new Altima’s lines, deep V-Motion grille and hint of a “floating roof” with a back pillar divided by black trim. But it doesn’t take advantage of it with a contrast-color roof option or some of the other color personalization options that give its Kicks cousin a dose of fun.

The Versa continues to offer almost compact-car passenger room along with more than compact-car trunk space of 14.7 cubic feet (the 2020 Toyota Corolla has 13.1 cubic feet) that’s expandable with a 60/40-split, folding rear seatback and large pass-through. The car is slightly bigger at 1.6 inches longer and 1.8 inches wider and has an adult-size backseat that gave me plenty of legroom to sit behind my 6-foot-2 self in front. But the sleeker roofline is 2.3 inches lower, which left my head brushing the ceiling in the rear. Front and rear seats were comfortable, though both test cars needed a little more padding in the seat cushions. The cloth upholstery was more interesting on the SV and SR with contrasting colors and stitching, but the base cloth had a decent feel if a duller look.

2020 Nissan Versa SR

Kicks Style and More Tech

If you like the interior design of the Kicks, you’ll like the redone Versa. It picks up the Kicks design and dashboard with a 7-inch center touchscreen on all models. The Versa’s top two trim levels also have a 7-inch configurable screen serving as the instrument panel, unusual for the class, as well as a swath of soft-touch stitched vinyl across the face of the dash. The center screen includes volume and tuning knobs along with shortcut buttons that have a quality feel. The SV and SR also add Nissan Connect with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite radio capability and steering wheel controls with voice recognition.

The Versa’s features-per-dollar peak in the new SR with standard LED headlights and daytime running lights, remote engine start, automatic climate control and a leather wrap for the D-shaped steering wheel and shift knob. Heated front seats are an option. But even the base model gets Bluetooth streaming along with remote keyless entry and push-button start. And all trim levels have USB and 12-volt ports under the dash in a generous phone cubby and two more USB ports at the rear of the center “console,” which is really a plastic tray with a couple of shallow cubbies and cupholders but no covered bin to hide your valuables.

2020 Nissan Versa S

Apart from the console, other cost-cutting was apparent inside even if features and tech offset it.  As expected in this price range, there is plenty of hard plastic used, particularly in the S. The driver’s seat gets a fold-down inboard armrest only on the SV and above. The front passenger goes without both the armrest and seat height adjustment.

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Value Delivered

The 2020 Versa hits all the right notes for value for a wide range of shoppers, though it’s light on driving fun. The sticker price is low enough to be a starter car even with the $18,535 SV that adds a lot of desirable features or the SR at less than $20,000. It has safety and space that could attract small families or make you feel OK putting a young driver in it. The footprint suits city streets and parking. The styling and interior design and tech now require no apology. Nissan says its research shows there are buyers for small sedans — particularly among millennial, Generation X and multicultural shoppers — and has put together a very credible Versa to attract them. In fact, the toughest competition might be its own Kicks cousin.

2020 Nissan Versa SR

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