Subcompact gray sedans with engines small enough to fit in a laundry basket don’t generate great expectations.
Great mileage, maybe, but chills and thrills or smiles per gallon, not really.
Generally, I’d rather be strapped in a dentist’s chair than behind the wheel of most subcompacts -- particularly if laughing-gas was involved.
So, I didn’t exactly get happy-feet over the prospect of driving the 2020 Nissan Versa, a sedan whose main claim to automotive glory in the recent past was its bargain-basement cost, but Nissan – a Japanese brand that often builds unremarkable commodity vehicles – has been a true surprise of late.
First, the new Altima arrived with relatively crisp, clean styling and good handling and now the pleasant, well-designed new Versa, a former rent-car lot-lizard.
Although overall sedan sales in the U.S. tumbled 11 percent through the first nine months of the year, Nissan contends that lower-cost small cars such as the Versa remain relevant, especially for budget-minded buyers.
Little of Nissan’s inglorious past marred the metallic gray Versa SR I had last week, a stylish small sedan with a little more horsepower, improved handling and a much better interior.
It remains one of the few new cars with a base price of less than $20,000.
Lower, longer and wider, my Versa featured a fairly broad hood that eased down onto a signature blacked-out Nissan grille and bold contemporary headlamps.
Short overhangs front and rear complemented the Versa’s taut sides, carved lightly by a character line on top of the front fenders and a second one through the door-handles.
Even the rolling stock looked decent – 205/50 tires on multi-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels.
Not once did I feel like some aging gray-beard Boomer driving a cheapo car after his unfortunate bankruptcy and divorce from that much-younger wife.
Like the exterior, the Versa’s 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine benefited from improvements, including 13 additional horsepower for a not-so-grand total of 122.
Granted, that’s about what some motorcycles offer and a mighty modest number for movin, a 2,600-pound sedan, but the Versa’s 13 extra horses help give the little front-wheel-drive sedan a somewhat lively feel around town.
It pulled away from stops smoothly, riding a little surge of low-end power, and seemed reasonably strong to about 40 mph.
Beyond that, the engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT) struggled to build speed.
Zero to 60 mph takes 9.2 sluggish seconds, according to Car and Driver, meaning you will need to get a running start to merge with traffic on fast-moving highways. (I always hit them with a loud yahoo and the accelerator pinned to the floor.)
At least the Versa’s CVT didn’t moo too much under that acceleration and likely contributed to the sedan’s commendable 35 mpg overall fuel economy.
However, I was much more impressed with the car’s firm, sophisticated-feeling suspension and decent handling.
It felt solid, for a change, stepping over bumps with grace and eagerly flinging itself into fairly fast corners.
That semi-sporty feel was enhanced by quick, light steering. The Versa is no bargain-basement BMW by a long stretch, but it does tolerate hard corners with a fair amount of grace and average body lean.
I might even have smiled a couple of times.
Moreover, the good vibes continued inside as well.
The black interior in my Versa offered a deep, flat dashboard in reasonably good plastic that was stitched in orange at its base.
A smooth mid-dash in semi-pliable black plastic wrapped around a 7-inch color display screen that served my purposes without looming like some garish center-stack.
Even with a price of about $21,000, the Versa arrived with many of the safety features found in larger sedans, including automatic emergency-braking, lane-departure, blind-spot warnings, and cross-traffic alert.
Buttons handled the volume and tuning of the car’s stereo, while a simple panel beneath the video screen provided tabs and two knobs for controlling the climate system.
Meanwhile, the Versa’s simple black cloth seats had just enough tart and spice to be interesting, with patterned centers and a semi-psychedelic band of dark-red material on the bolsters.
As you might expect in a subcompact sedan, headroom in back was fine, but legroom was kind of limited.
My Versa contained several options, including an electronics package with map-pocket lights and illuminated kick-plates ($855); and a convenience package with heated front seats and Intelligent Cruise Control ($300).
With the new Versa and Altima, maybe embattled Nissan can begin to find its way back to the loftier ground it once occupied.
I sure hope so. We need all the good car choices we can get these days.
2020 Nissan Versa SR Review
- What I liked most: The Versa’s solid structure and commendable handling.
- What I would change: Surely, Nissan can squeeze a bit more power from its underwhelming four-banger, especially if we also have to live with a CVT “transmission”.
- MSRP: Base price, $18,240; as equipped, $21,490.
- Fuel economy: 32 miles per gallon in the city, 40 on the highway and 35 mpg combined with filler on the left
- Odometer reading when tested: 1,884 miles.
- Spare tire: Temporary compact.
- Weight: Approximately 2,600 pounds.
- Length-width-height: 177 inches long/68.5 inches wide/57.3 inches tall.
- Fuel-tank capacity: 10.8 gallons.
- Towing capacity: Not applicable.
- 2019 Nissan Versa in a few words: Better in just about every way, which is what the subcompact sedan sorely needed.
- Warranty: Three-year, 36,000-mile overall warranty and five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain protection.
- Final assembly location: Aguas, Mexico.
- Manufacturer’s website: www.nissanusa.com
- E-mail me at email@example.com
- Up next: 2020 Range Rover Evoque
Photo Credit: Nissan (2020 Nissa Versa SV)