2018 Nissan Versa- The McDaddy of Small Cars

Someone at Nissan must’ve been paying attention to Ray Kroc’s business playbook for McDonald’s; sell ’em in big volume, sell’ em cheap, and- oh, yeah- sell ’em in big portions. For the better part of this decade, the Nissan Versa has tenaciously defended its title as America’s most affordable car. Against a dwindling legion of subcompacts, such as the Chevrolet Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage, the Versa has stubbornly undercut the price of admission by several hundred dollars year-after-year. Compared to the competition, the Versa has always boasted more interior room, a larger engine, and, for American tastes, a more formal sedan instead of a chintzy, poverty-spec hatchback. The tactic worked, and the Versa is handily the best selling subcompact in the country. Since the debut of this second generation in 2012, Nissan has moved over 660,000 Versas. Impressive for a category that is often the butt-of-late night jokes. So I was thrilled to inherit the keys to a Versa sedan and see what makes the country’s cheapest car, about a third of the cost of the average new car, tick.

As an upfront disclaimer, and before you hightail it to the nearest Nissan dealer, the red Versa that you see in these photos is not the $12,110 base model. There’s a few cachets involved. The lowest trim (the S) is manual transmission only. This being America, this rental is an automatic, requiring a step up to the next higher trim. The base S trim also comes with manual windows and door locks, missing in this rental as well. But before you claim that you’ve been hoodwinked, the essentials between this car and the lowliest Versa are indistinguishable. All Versas have the same 1.6 litre engine, and aside from the transmission, drive similarly, and the sedan bodystyle is identical between trims. More on the pricing and value proposition later in the review, as that is a big deciding factor on whether the Versa is right for you.

Aside from price, the Versa’s other big drawcard is roominess and size. At 175.4 inches long, the sedan stretches two feet further from stern-to-stern than the dainty Spark or Mirage, and almost catapults itself into compact territory. The Versa is several inches shy in exterior dimensions to the pricier Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, or Hyundai Elantra.

There is a smaller hatchback version, hailed the Versa Note, that shares the sedan’s powertrain and platform. But contrary to typical logic, the larger sedan rings in cheaper than the Note. Sometimes it just makes sense to supersize.

Big portions are where the Versa really throws its weight and the interior is gargantuan for this price range. With 37 inches of rear legroom, Nissan will happily point out that the Versa has more back seat volume than the larger Hyundai Elantra or Chevrolet Cruze, and even a Mercedes E-Class or BMW 5-series. We all love a lot of bang for the back and Versa doesn’t disappoint.

True to its promises, the Versa’s rear seat is not the typical subcompact torture chamber. There’s enough space to stretch out in midsize-car fashion and even with a 6’4” frame, the ability to cross my legs. The seats themselves are nicely contoured and comfortable. Reflective of the price, amenities are few. There’s no armrest, cupholders, or air vents back there. Thanks to the sloping roofline, headroom is lacking for taller passengers. The rear doors are wide and getting in and out is a breeze, although that slanted roofline requires some head ducking. But bottom line; two full size adults, whether they be friends out on a night on the town or Uber rideshare passengers, will be content back there. That’s a claim that can’t be taken for granted in this segment. It’s easy to understand why these are popular as taxi’s in other countries.

The massive, for this segment, trunk does not disappoint for hauling duties either. At 14.9 cubic feet, the sedan’s trunk is larger than the next–size-up Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra, and yet again, the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class. It’s not only the size that is an advantage, but the shape of the trunk has a wide, usable shape. The trunk opening has a low liftover and, given the price, the cargo area is nicely finished with durable materials. The rear seats do fold down 60/40 for added versatility, but do not lay completely flat. Their execution is sloppy as they rest at a skyward angle, hampering taller items from pushed into the cabin. But hey, the fact that there’s split folding seats is a novelty. Under the cargo floor is a compact spare tyre.

The Texas-scale accommodations continue to the front row. Both seats are appropriately sized for corn-fed Americans and there’s no shortage of leg or headroom. The driver’s seat had plenty of cushioning, but I did find that the lumbar support aggressively dug into the lower back during longer drives. There’s no adjustment for the seatback, but a height adjustable seat bottom and folding armrest help find a comfortable driving position. No telescoping steering wheel is offered on any trim. One oddity regarding packaging is the power outlet that’s mounted on the lower dash. Despite the acres of open, barren space within the dashboard, Nissan decided to plop the outlet on a wart-like bulge that eats into knee room for the front passenger. It’s impossible to ignore and seems like a haphazard afterthought.

Like the larger Altima and Maxima, the Versa conceals a massive glove box. Only in Nissans do I get excited over a glove box, but they somehow have a knack for carving enough volume out of the dash to swallow my entire arm and seemingly reach for the headlights from the passenger seat. They even went to the trouble to include an iPad holder and a shelf for special papers. The rest of the interior has the standard storage cubbies in the door and console. Kind of a letdown, after the excitement over the glove box.

The interior ambience is basic and, honestly, drab. It’s obviously built to a price, and that does translate into simple operation. Passengers are greeted to a black interior cloaked in hard, shiny plastic. A little bit of pseudo-silver matte finish around the controls tries its best to break up the monotony, and the SV trim does have upgraded cloth. But it’s hard to escape the Versa’s frugal intentions.

Ventilation is operated by three straightforward rotary knobs as well as an old-fashioned slider for outside air, and the radio is an example of utter modesty. Unlike almost every other modern car, there’s no personalisation menus, no high resolution screen, and no backup camera. The radio is a throwback to Nissan’s of yore, but there was something refreshing about having just physical knobs for tuning and volume, a pixelated display, and a few logical buttons. Setting up Bluetooth is done by voice command and proved to be as easy as using the radio. It’s important to mention that our Versa was an early 2018 model, and that Nissan did replace the standard radio with a new touchscreen operated system mid-year to accommodate the federally-mandated backup camera.

On a downside, the four-speaker quality on the Versa is just atrocious. Rarely do I give mention to sound systems, but the Versa’s deserves special recognition for the wrong reasons. The speakers can’t handle any bass and rattle and vibrate in their housings. The radio must be played at lower volume to avoid the buzziness and cheapness of the sound quality.

The humble theme continues to all of the other controls. The basic white faced gauges lack any imagination, yet are easy to read at a glance. The driver’s information screen is limited to one piece of info at a time, and the menus can only be toggled by the odometer’s reset knob. The urethane steering wheel feels equally chintzy but the cruise control and radio buttons fall right at hand and aren’t tricky to master. The Versa may not thrill anyone with its barebones interior, though it won’t confuse them either.

Visibility from the driver’s seat is excellent, even without a rearview camera. Thin roof pillars and unusually large windows make the cabin feel airy and easy to see out of. Large sideview mirrors also help tackle the daily Uber grind

Taking the Versa out on the road isn’t the daunting experience of small cars in the past. However, neither is it pleasurable. All Versa sedans since 2012 have had the same 1,598cc four-cylinder motor that was codeveloped by Renault. Peak output is an unassertive 109 horsepower, which is average for this class. As with the exterior dimensions, those numbers don’t quite match the next-up compact segment but still best the Mirage and Spark. In motion, the Versa’s engine is purely adequate in day-to-day driving. For its intended purpose, the 1.6 actually feels eager and willing around town, but its weakness is the CVT transmission that it is teamed with.

Nissan is insistent on equipping all of its automatic laden cars with a continuously variable transmission. The singular gear unit does its best to make simulated gear changes, but falls short under hard acceleration. Full throttle starts hold the engine back and the powerplant whines loudly near the redline without any physical gears to upshift to. Driven sanely around town, the CVT does a decent job of replicating gear changes The artificial downshifts are convincing and responsive on the highway for passing or uphill grades, although the engine wail makes itself known. Freeway merges are met with the same CVT whininess but once at cruising speed, the Versa will happily keep pace. The car had no trouble maintaining some of Texas’ incredibly high speed limits over long, flat expanses and didn’t feel strained.

Handling is an Achille’s heal for the Versa. On the road, there is a dead-on centre feel with no feedback from the front wheels. Minor steering adjustments are needed to ensure that the car stays in lane, as it has a habit of wandering like a drunken sailor. A tall, slab-sided exterior and skinny tyres give the car an unsteady, wobbly feel. With its high profile and stubby dimensions, the Versa has the wind resistance of Tom Hanks’ Porter Potty door raft in “Castaway” and is influenced by crosswinds and passing trucks.

Pushing the Versa brings no joy either. Roadholding on the few corners I could find in the Great Plains brought on body lean, early understeer and the rear was eager to lose traction. The sensation of being on ice skates on all four wheels came to mind. Between the vague steering feel and slippery grip, this car was no fun on a twisty road. Granted, most owners would rarely drive this way, but the Versa’s decently-sized 15” tyres even squealed in agony during normal, low speed parking lots maneuvers. In case there was an issue that wasn’t the Versa’s fault, I checked the cheapie, original factory tyres for lack of tread, but they were fine. It’s just easy to reach this car’s limits. Versa owners may want to invest in an upgraded set of tyres to help with these issues. At least in a parking lot, the Versa did have a tight turning circle and was easy to squeeze into small spaces.

The ride is very supple and compliant. Part of this is contributed to the suspension being tuned for the numerous third world countries where the Versa is sold in large volumes and where road conditions are less than ideal. The four-wheel independent suspension does a commendable job of soaking up road imperfections and rides like a larger car. At higher speeds, there is a tendency for the car to bobble for a few moments, much like the big American luxury barges from decades ago. It’s unusual and disconcerting in a car with the Versa’s light weight.

Similarly, interior noise levels are comparable to larger cars and not what’s expected in a vehicle whose main mission is low price. Aside from the engine drone under hard acceleration, the firewall does an impressive job of blocking out any other clamour. Road and engine noise are pleasantly subdued on the highway. Wind noise around the mirrors and windows does become an ongoing nuisance above 60mpg, thanks again to the Versa’s blocky, tall profile.

My, what big eyes you have! The Versa has….well……no real sense of style. Whereas most cheap and cheerful cars embrace their mission and flaunt a cute demeanour, the Versa was styled by a committee. Sharing the same 102.4” wheelbase as the Note hatchback, but being over a foot longer in length, results in pronounced, ungainly overhangs. Massive gaps in the wheelarches under that tall, disproportioned body make the tyres look smaller than they are and creates the illusion that the Versa is resting on stilts. Oversized headlights that eat into most of the front fenders just add to the dorkiness. The overall look is not offensive, but neither is it exciting, attractive, or, in the case of its competitors, perky.

The EPA rates the Versa sedan with a CVT at 31mpg in the city and 39mpg on the highway. The manual, against common logic, scores 3mpg less than those numbers and highlights the efficiency of a CVT. Our automatic Versa bested those numbers after about 400 miles of driving; scoring an average of 38mpg and up to 44mpg during a 150 mile freeway run.

The Versa may lack plushness and personality, but it does feel solidly built. My tester had been doing rough rental duty for over a year and 31k miles, and was tightly assembled in Mexico. There were no rattles, mechanical issues or electrical gremlins. Both the interior and exterior showed no signs of wear thanks to durable, stark materials. The only issue was that some of the carpeting around the trunk liftover was coming lose. Otherwise, the Versa felt robust and the utter simplicity of the car avoids any aggravating issues.

Now comes pricing, and this is the biggest factor to whether the Versa is right for you. The base Versa rings in at that promised $12,110 Despite being the cheapest new car in the market, it still comes decently equipped with 15-inch steel wheels, five-speed manual transmission, air conditioning, power mirrors, manual locks and crank windows, Bluetooth phone connectivity, and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack. Moving up to the SV trim, like our rental, quickly bumps the price to $15,940. The SV adds upgraded cloth upholstery, the height-adjustable driver seat and driver-seat armrest, a 60/40-split folding back seat, power locks and windows, keyless entry, a USB port, and a media player interface for the sound system. By the time we threw in the floor and trunk mat package (complete with fancy Versa insignias) and the destination charge, the total price of this Cayenne red Versa added up to $17,030.

For that price, the appeal to the Versa fades. It’s in the same league as more refined and modern offerings like the Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent, or Kia Rio. True, none of those cars match the Versa’s interior volume and if room to stretch out is a priority, the Versa still offers good bang for the buck. But the Versa can’t avoid its penny-pinched engineering and lacks any soul. Speaking of soul, the very competent Kia Soul isn’t much more, and with its SUV-like profile, bests the Versa’s generous interior volume. In this neighbourhood, the Versa is simply outclassed.

The Versa shines in its truest form; as a base model. It’s barebones, but compared to previous cars with the adverse title of being America’s cheapest car (think Yugo, Hyundai Excel, or first gen Kia Rio), the Versa may as well be a Maybach by offering more equipment, more safety, comfort, power, and represents how much the automotive world has evolved. Plus it doesn’t feel like it’s ready to fall apart. For a third of the price of an average new car, the base Versa can comfortably seat four better than some luxury brands, keep them air conditioned, and does not feel like a bug waiting to be splattered on American interstates. But once the modern day frills and an automatic transmission are added, the Versa loses its price lead, and ultimately, its primary advantage. Maybe Ray Koch was right about keeping ’em cheap, after all. A solid 2.5/5.0 boomerangs

With it’s long (for the segment) overall length, but identical wheelbase to the smaller Note, the Versa sedan has massive overhangs
Being America’s Cheapest Car doesn’t add to the classiness of this backdrop
The tiny spoiler does its best to add a flair of sportiness
Fuel economy is great in the Versa; with an observed 44mpg on the highway
It’s basic, but sure beats riding the train
The low price makes these irresistible and they’re common sites in the Heartland
The 15” tyres look puny under the tall, lanky body
At least this generation of Versa sedan has more style than the original.
The headlights, refreshed and enlarged, during midcycle refresh in 2015
The large trunk is hampered by the folding seats that refuse to fold all the way down
Not one, but two, dome lights on this economy model. Very generous, Nissan!
Nissan went to the trouble to include not one, but two, dome lights. And the second one is not a reading light.
The power outlet protrudes like a random wart from the dash and eats into passenger kneeroom.
Nissan has been insistent on CVT’s for more than a decade

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