Nissan Versa: Polite Entry-Level Sedan

By Frank A. Aukofer, November 15th, 2014

The 2015 Nissan Versa is proof that even people of modest means can buy a brand-new, decent family sedan for less money than many used cars.

It starts at just $12,800, likely one reason it has been the best-selling entry-level car in the U.S. for the last four years. Versa is marketed as a subcompact, though its interior classifies it solidly in the compact class, and the knee room in back is even better than that of its midsize sibling, the Nissan Altima.

The Versa should not be confused its with its garage mate, the Versa Note four-door hatchback, which is about a foot shorter but offers more cargo space, and costs a couple of thousand dollars more.

Labeled the S, the $12,800 base model of the 2015 Versa four-door sedan arrives with a full complement of safety equipment, including tire pressure monitoring, as well as air conditioning, Bluetooth telephone connectivity, AM-FM-CD audio system, and a five-speed manual gearbox. That's progress, because when Nissan first introduced the Versa sedan it did not even come with a radio.

If you want a four-speed conventional automatic transmission, add in an additional $1,500. If you can afford to spend or finance a bit more, then there are the SV and the tested SL trim levels, which come with Nissan's new and more efficient Xtronic automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT). Its fuel economy rating of 31/40/35 mpg on the EPA's city/highway/combined cycles is better than that of both the five-speed manual gearbox and the four-speed automatic transmission.

The Xtronic has computer software that simulates the shift pauses of a conventional automatic transmission. Ordinarily a CVT, which uses a system of belts and pulleys to vary the engine's power to the drive wheels, operates without perceptible shift points. But Nissan believes that may be off-putting to some drivers used to conventional automatics.

With a starting price of $17,700, the tested Versa SL arrives with the Xtronic transmission, as well as alloy wheels, pushbutton starting, cruise control, a premium audio system with CD player, the Nissan Connect system with mobile apps, and power outside mirrors with turn signal indicators. Our test car also had an $800 technology package that included satellite radio and a navigation system. In short, it's about everything most customers look for in a modern automobile.

With 90 cubic feet of passenger space, the Versa SL is a roomy car. Although the front seats are a tad small, they provide decent support and comfort. In back, there's a surprising amount of knee and head room for 6-foot passengers. The center-rear position is almost habitable but is marred by intrusive front cupholders and a small floor hump.

The upholstery is a sturdy and comfortable cloth, and the instruments and controls are simply designed and intuitive to use. Most of the interior surfaces are made of hard plastic. But, remember, this is an economy car and the hard plastic is nicely done and assembled to prevent obvious creaks or squeaks.

The driver sits rather high for a compact sedan. There's no center console for storage but the Nissan designers thoughtfully provided a fold-down right elbow armrest for the driver. Unfortunately, the steering wheel tilts but does not telescope, so some drivers may have trouble getting their feet and arm space correctly matched.

Out back, the trunk has nearly 15 cu.-ft. of space -- more than in some midsize sedans. However, the C-hinges for the trunk lid are exposed and could damage vulnerable stuff stashed back there.

All Versa sedans are equipped with a 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that is adequate for most driving situations. But don't expect to win many drag races or stoplight sprints, unless you're up against something on the order of a Scion iQ or a Smart car.

On the other hand, the Versa's CVT delivers at least the impression of sprightly acceleration. It gets a good jump off the line and the transmission shifts smartly for passing and freeway merging. Cruising, if not as serene as in a high-end luxury car, is pleasant. There's little mechanical or wind noise, and road noise is mostly muted, except where the surfaces are choppy and rough.

Specifications

Base price $17,700 (as tested: $18,500)
Curb weight 2,498 lbs.
Displacement 1.6-liter
Engine type 16-valve 4-cyl. w/SMFI
Epa mileage rating 31 mpg city, 40 mpg highway
Fuel capacity 10.8 gal.
Horsepower (net) 109 at 6000 rpm
Overall length 175.4 in.
Torque (lb.-ft.) 107 at 4400 rpm
Transmission CVT
Vehicle type 5-passenger FWD compact sedan
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