By Derek Price
For years, the Nissan Versa was known primarily for one thing: being the cheapest new car you could buy in the United States.
Priced around $12,000, the outgoing Versa was no one’s idea of gorgeous or luxurious — unless you were unfortunate enough to be driving the even frumpier Mitsubishi Mirage — but did offer a lot of room for the money. That was enough to make frugal buyers happy.
With a complete redesign for 2020, though, the Versa is shifting its mission.
While it’s lost the lowest-priced title for now, with a base price hiked all the way up to $14,730 with a manual transmission, it’s gained a whole lot of content and refinement in the process.
It’s noticeably quieter, dramatically smoother riding and much better looking now, something that makes it feel like a better value than the outgoing version.
In fact, when I first saw the 2020 Versa in a parking lot, I thought it was an Altima that showed up by mistake. At a quick glance, the redesigned Versa looks like a scaled-down version of Nissan’s perennially popular midsize car, including its curvy sides, angular taillights and sleek grille.
It drives like a baby Altima, too. The outgoing Versa felt medieval by comparison, with its clunky steering and washboard suspension that seemed custom built for rental-car fleets. This new one should appeal to individual buyers for its comfy ride and more generous level of standard equipment.
A 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine makes 122 horsepower in the Versa, a meaty 12-percent increase over the outgoing model. With Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), it’s rated for an impressive 40 mpg on the highway.
Although I’ll never be a fan of CVTs, the driving experience in the new Versa is impressively pleasant. It’s a quantum leap over the ’19 version, and you can feel the rigidity engineers built into its fresh bones — including a steering column that is 30 percent stiffer than before, something you definitely notice from the driver’s seat.
You’ll also notice how much nicer the cabin is. The same overall look of the pricier Maxima and Altima sedans now extends into the entry-level Versa. It feels more mature, visually cohesive and solid than many of its competitors, with supple materials in the right places and an easy-to-use control layout.
Nissan wraps the classier cabin in equally upscale bodywork. It’s 1.6 inches longer, 1.8 inches wider and a whopping 2.3 inches lower than before, which turns the overall car into a sleeker, more sporty-looking vehicle than the utilitarian box it replaces.
Like all newly designed cars, technology takes center stage in the 2020 Versa. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are fantastic reasons to upgrade to the SV or SR grades, long with a package of safety equipment called Nissan Safety Shield 360. All those features are standard on the top two grades — including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking, lane departure warning, blind spot warning and more.
The base S grade isn’t completely stripped bare, though. It has remote keyless entry with a trunk release, cruise control, power windows with a one-touch feature for the driver and push-button start, for example. The nice content, plus the much-improve driving feel from the new chassis and suspension, make the base Versa seem like one of the better bargains in the new-car world this year.
While you can get a Versa with a manual transmission for $14,730, most people will pick the CVT automatic starting at $16,400 for the base S grade. The upper trims, SV and SR, start at $17,640 and $18,240 respectively.
At A Glance:
What was tested? 2020 Nissan Versa SR CVT ($18,240). Options: Convenience package ($300), carpeted floor and trunk mats ($210), center armrest with storage ($300), electronics package ($855), lighting package ($690). Price as tested (including $895 destination charge): $21,490
Wheelbase: 103.1 in.
Length: 177 in.
Width: 68.5 in.
Height: 57.7 in.
Engine: 1.6-liter four cylinder (122 hp, 114 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 32 city, 40 highway
Why buy it?
After a complete redesign for 2020, the new Versa is one of the best bargains in today’s automotive market. It’s looks and driving feel are dramatically better.