The Nissan Versa offers no-frills transportation in sedan and hatchback form. Roomy inside and promising a comfortable ride, the Versa serves especially well as an urban commuter. Price of entry is often a strong selling point.
Except for a revised console with bigger cupholders, little has changed on the Versa sedan for the 2017 model year. The styling looks dated. A new Special Edition option group is available for SV models. Versa Note hatchbacks get a revised front end with swept-back headlights, plus new wheel designs.
Redesigned for 2013, Versa was lightly refreshed for 2015. One of the least expensive new cars on the market, it’s economical to drive, though a tad less thrifty than some, considering its light weight and low-power engine.
All Versas contain the same engine: a 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder, mating with either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Only the S sedan gets manual shift, and it’s markedly less fuel-efficient than Versas with the CVT.
Sedans come in four trim levels: S, S Plus, SV, and SL. Versa Note hatchbacks are offered in S Plus, SV, SL, and SR form.
Versa S sedans are sparsely-equipped, with roll-up windows and manual door locks. S Plus adds cruise control and the CVT. SV adds keyless entry as well as power windows, locks, and mirror. SL features appearance upgrades and standard navigation, but raises the price considerably.
With SV trim, a Special Edition package is available with alloy wheels, foglamps, a rearview camera, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 5.0-inch display screen, and Bluetooth streaming audio.
Nissan offers no advanced active-safety systems for the Versa, however.
Back in 2015, crash-testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Versa sedan just three stars for frontal impact, and four stars for side impact and overall. Subsequent retesting raised the score to four stars in each test. The Note hatchback got five stars for side impact but a troubling three-star result for the frontal collision. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has awarded the Versa sedan its top Good rating in all tests except tougher small-overlap frontal crash test.
The 2017 Nissan Versa S sedan ($11,990) has 5-speed manual shift, plus air conditioning and an audio system with four speakers, a CD player, and Bluetooth support for a mobile phone. (All prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.) S Plus sedan ($13,990) is CVT-only, gaining cruise control, body-color power mirrors, and a rear spoiler that improves aerodynamics.
Versa Note S Plus ($15,480) is the entry-level hatchback.
Versa SV sedan ($15,580) includes power windows and locks, keyless entry, height adjustment for the driver’s seat, upgraded cloth upholstery, and USB input for the audio system. Versa Note SV ($16,380) is the hatchback version.
Versa SL sedan ($17,140) gets its own alloy wheels, navigation, and a proximity key with keyless ignition. Versa Note SL ($18,710) includes NissanConnect with navigation and apps, a 5.8-inch touchscreen, heated front seats, Around View monitor, and SiriusXM Travel Link.
Versa Note SR hatchback ($17,980) comes with body-color side sills, foglamps, a rear spoiler, suede-like seat upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Despite visual similarities to Nissan’s larger Sentra and Altima, the Versa has a look of its own, which is less than rousing. Especially in its lowest trim level, the Versa sedan has to be called plain, if not outright dowdy. Large swept-back headlights flank the chromed grille in a sculpted front end, yet few would declare the overall look graceful.
Sharing no sheetmetal with its sedan counterpart, the Note hatchback conveys a more attractive demeanor, helped by more suitable body proportions. Even so, the sedan outsells Nissan’s hatchback.
Though functional, the Versa cabin lacks any special styling flair. The Note version, in particular, looks bigger inside than its exterior dimensions suggest.
Dashboard appearance differs little between the hatchback and the sedan. Both body styles feature a dual-cockpit design. Hard plastic surfaces are abundant. That’s no surprise in the entry-level subcompact category, but Versa’s materials tend to feel hollow and thin.
Climate control is a simple process, using three knobs, but a gritty sensation is evident when using the switches and buttons.
Back seats are surprisingly sizable, allowing two average-size adults to sit in reasonable comfort, even when sitting behind similar-size front passengers. Upper trim levels include a folding rear seatback.
Front seats are well-bolstered at the sides, but their bottom cushions are short and flat. For a subcompact sedan, trunk space is sizable.
The Note hatchback promises greater utility, helped by its 60/40-split back seat. What Nissan calls a Divide-n-Hide Adjustable Floor provides recessed storage compartments beneath the cargo floor, keeping small items out of view of passing pedestrians.
Nissan has long been known for the quality of its continuously variable transmissions, which have been improving steadily. In a Versa, however, the CVT contributes to sluggish responses from the 109-horsepower engine. Thus, Versas feel underpowered compared to likely rivals, which may restrict their ability to comfortably pass another vehicle or enter an expressway gracefully.
Acceleration from a standstill to 60 mph is indisputably leisurely, taking about 11.5 seconds. In addition to typical engine noise that accompanies CVT operation when accelerating, the Versa can emit considerable rumble even at steadier speed. Easing up on the gas pedal, it’s reasonably quiet.
Riding quite well even through rougher terrain, Versas also handle in a satisfactory manner. Steering is suitably weighted, though it feels light and often demands numerous small corrections at the wheel to remain on course, thanks in part to slim tires.
All told, a Versa qualifies as competent, but lacks any observable qualities that might signal an enjoyable, or inspiring, driving experience. For most likely buyers, who don’t expect sporty behavior but appreciate ride comfort, a Versa will satisfy.
Good build quality is a bonus, and most road and tire noises are acceptably suppressed. Front-disc/rear-drum brakes do an effective job.
With a CVT, the Versa is EPA-rated at a thrifty 31/39 mpg City/Highway, or 34 mpg Combined. The S model, with 5-speed manual shift, gets an estimate of only 27/36 mpg City/Highway, or 30 mpg Combined.
Serious budget-minded shoppers who’d rather have a new car than a used one have few to choose from. Despite drawbacks, Nissan’s roomy little Versa, at least in lower trim levels, is one worth considering. Most buyers would be wise to skip the minimally equipped, too-basic S model with its manual gearbox, in favor of an SV, especially with the Special Edition option group. Of course, some larger cars are more refined and get almost comparable gas mileage.
Driving impressions by Andrew Ganz, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.