The Nissan Versa is affordably priced and offers excellent value. The Nissan Versa sedan and the Versa Note hatchback deliver no-frills transportation with vast interior space for a subcompact and big seats.
Versa scores well in ride comfort and smooth operation, not as well in performance and crash-test scores. Externally, the Versa models resemble other Nissan sedans but on a smaller scale.
These are good cars for tall drivers. However, the cabin is basic, with all the charm of a bare-bones rental car. Interior trim, controls and switches are basic, and they look and feel as if they were snatched from a spare-parts bin.
After a mild styling update for 2015, the Versa continues largely unchanged for the 2016 model year. Body-colored power mirrors are now standard; the 2016 Versa S model adds a rear speaker; and the 2016 Versa SL gains a leather-wrapped steering wheel. This second-generation Versa was introduced as a 2012 model.
Nissan Versa’s 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is underpowered compared to many rival subcompacts. All are front-wheel drive.
Versa is EPA-rated at 31/40 mpg City/Highway with the continuously variable transmission, or 35 mpg Combined. The CVT is efficient but sluggish.
The base Versa S model comes with a 5-speed manual gearbox or optional 4-speed automatic transmission. Pricing with the manual is rock-bottom, but fuel economy sinks to an EPA-estimated 30 mpg Combined, and performance does not improve.
Safety is not a Versa strength, and crash-test ratings are poor. Even as an option, Nissan does not offer any of the advanced electronic active-safety systems that have been turning up in economical cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives the Versa sedan a meager three-star rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety declared it Poor on their stringent small-overlap test, but Good in other testing. The Versa Note fared better, but still falls short of competitive models.
The 2016 Nissan Versa comes in four trim levels. All come with the 1.6-liter engine. Versa S ($11,990) has a 5-speed manual transmission, air conditioning, power mirrors, cloth upholstery, Bluetooth connectivity, hands-free calling, and 15-inch wheels, but lacks power windows and a folding rear seat. Four-speed automatic ($1,500) is optional. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Versa S Plus ($13,990) gets the CVT, a rear spoiler, steering-wheel controls, and cruise control. Versa SV ($15,530) gets upgraded cloth seats, power windows and locks, 60/40-split folding rear seat, upgraded trim. An SV Technology Package includes a 5.8-inch touchscreen, navigation, voice recognition, real-time traffic, and rearview camera. Versa SL ($17,090) adds Intelligent Key, an immobilizer system, rearview camera, foglamps, and 16-inch wheels.
Attractively shaped, the Versa strives to emulate the larger Nissan cars but has fewer and less expressive lines.
Large headlights, a chromed grille, and front-end sculpting, part of the 2015 freshening, mimic the larger Nissans. Because it rides on small wheels and has fewer highlights in its side panels, the Versa sedan winds up looking dowdy.
We find the Versa Note hatchback more interesting. Its proportions are less homely. The Note’s hatchback body shares no sheetmetal with its sedan counterpart. Sedans sell much better than hatchbacks, but the latter’s overall proportions avoid the low-rent look exemplified by the Versa sedan.
Passenger space is Versa’s primary virtue, even though the interior is undeniably no-frills. It’s one of the few subcompacts that can carry four adults in actual comfort, as opposed to the theoretical kind. That said, particularly tall riders might feel limited. Front backrests are well-bolstered, but bottom cushions are short, flat, and insufficiently supportive, so actual is a relative term.
Leg space is bountiful in the rear, compared to many subcompacts, but only upper trim levels get the handy folding back rest. Outboard seating positions are nicely contoured, but the center seat is not.
Trunk space is huge for a car of this size.
Quietness is a virtue. Clunks and thunks should be rarities, in view of Nissan’s emphasis on noise suppression. Only the powertrain is likely to get noisy, when pushed. In short, the Versa is quite pleasant for tooling around on beat up neighborhood streets.
While hard plastic is typical in this class, the Versa has it in abundance. As a result, the cabin comes across as undeniably economy-class. Climate controls consist of three simple, easy-to-use knobs. Otherwise, switchgear quality is among the worst that we’ve tested.
Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in a CVT-equipped Versa takes a leisurely 11.5 seconds, the very definition of sluggish, and the powertrain will howl if pushed hard. Making only 109 horsepower, the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine has one of the lowest outputs in the class. The Versa is far from sporty, but it is not trying to be.
On the road, the Versa is competent enough, if unremarkable. Steering is reasonably well-weighted but quite light, requiring small corrections to stay on course at higher speeds. On the plus side, light steering helps make the Versa easy to drive and park on tight city streets. When driven in a relaxed fashion, the CVT works quite well, and Nissan has been a leader with this technology.
Versa excels in ride comfort, even on potholed streets and choppy expressways. A soft, perhaps even sloppy, suspension manages to soak up most road bumps and flaws without losing composure. That’s quite a feat in the subcompact class.
We don’t recommend the base-model Versa S, with either a manual gearbox or the ancient 4-speed automatic. Both can feel even more sluggish than a CVT-fitted Versa. The Versa S model, with manual or automatic, manages only an EPA-estimated 30 mpg Combined.
CVT models score well in fuel economy, but don’t top the rankings. With CVT, Versa is EPA-rated at 31/40 mpg City/Highway, 35 mpg Combined.
The Nissan Versa offers big interior space and big value in a small package. The price to be paid for so much value includes uninspired performance, disappointing safety scores and average fuel economy.
Driving impressions by John Voelcker, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.