A decade ago, Nissan stripped the features out of its entry-level Versa sedan to make it the least expensive car sold in America at $9,990. At this price, it had a manual transmission, crank windows and not even a radio or air conditioner, but the 2009 Versa offered a spacious interior at a ridiculously low price.
Roominess and value were hallmarks of the second-generation Versa, too, which was available from 2012 through the 2019 model years. This subcompact Versa sedan looked and felt like a cheap car, with sad, droopy styling; rudimentary cabin trim; an insubstantial feel on the road; and a paucity of standard equipment. But it continued to offer stellar interior space at excellent prices.
For the Versa’s third generation, Nissan has chosen a different approach. Gone is the idea that Nissan’s cheapest car should look like a cheap car. The old Versa’s elongated-blob design is gone; the new model is a crisply styled, artfully proportioned car that looks like a scaled-down version of the best-selling Nissan Altima midsize sedan. It is probably the best-looking subcompact sedan on the market. (The Versa Note five-door hatchback is also gone, replaced by the Kicks crossover.)
Nissan also backed off the idea that anyone wants a stripped-down car. It loads up even the cheapest 2020 Versa with advanced safety features that were not available at any price last year, including a forward collision warning, front and rear automatic emergency braking, and a lane-departure warning. All models also include a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system; Bluetooth connectivity; and power windows, locks and mirrors.
The result is that Nissan has a cheap car that doesn’t look as much like a cheap car. However, the car is not all that cheap.
Prices for the 2020 Versa start at $15,655 with a manual transmission and $17,325 with an automatic. True, last year’s model had already edged well past $9,990, starting at $13,255, and that was without advanced safety technology or power windows and locks. But even if you’re willing to stick to the basics to get a lower price, Nissan is no longer giving you that option.
What’s more, the new Versa’s sleek new body cuts sharply into the car’s interior room. This sedan has grown longer than before, but it loses a whopping 6 inches of rear legroom — the difference between stretch-out space and rubbing your knees against the front seatbacks. The trunk remains unusually spacious, at least; with 15 cubic feet, it matches a midsize Toyota Camry.
In total, these changes mean Nissan has given up what made the Versa special (huge interior, extra-low price) and instead made it more like competing for subcompact sedans: the Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris.
Like all of these models, the 2020 Versa can fit adults comfortably in the front seat and passably in the rear. Like all of these, it gets excellent EPA fuel economy scores of around 35 mpg in mixed driving. And like all of these, it has decent handling agility but a bumpy, fidgety ride, while its engine delivers less-than-lively acceleration. (Horsepower jumped from 109 horsepower to 122, but the new Versa also weighs more than the old one.)
That’s great news if you wanted a car very much like other subcompact sedans but with spiffier styling or more standard safety equipment (which you do pay for with a higher price, for what it’s worth). But all of these four sedans — the Versa, Accent, Rio and Yaris — still represent a clear step down from the next size class of vehicles, without offering a considerable price advantage like the Versa once did.
Take a look at one of our favorite budget-priced compact sedans, the Hyundai Elantra. It is roomier, quieter, more powerful and smoother-riding than any of these four subcompact models. Yet its sticker price is a mere $2,000 more than a comparably equipped Versa’s — and even that small price advantage nearly disappears when you factor in bigger discounts available on the Hyundai. The old Versa was cruder and homelier than the new one, but there was a more apparent reason to buy it: It had more room than the Elantra for a lot less money. The new one is more similar to the Elantra in sophistication, style and price. It’s just not as good.
We expect a similar dynamic when the redesigned 2020 Nissan Sentra hits dealerships within the next few months. While the Sentra’s pricing has not yet been announced, it will likely trump the Versa in every substantive way for not much more money (and also mount a strong challenge against the Elantra, Toyota Corolla and Kia Forte as a pleasant yet relatively affordable sedan).
Buyers still interested in dirt-cheap new cars have a few remaining options. The Chevrolet Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage hatchbacks, among the smallest cars sold in the U.S., are cramped and basic, but they keep their prices in check. The Mirage G4 sedan offers some of the old Versa’s cheap roominess, but it’s neither quite as cheap nor quite as roomy.
Lastly, the Chevrolet Sonic — a Versa competitor that is a size larger than the Spark — has steep discounts that can make it a killer deal, especially considering its smooth, quiet ride and peppy turbocharged engine. But its mere 29 mpg in mixed driving (compared to 35 mpg on the Versa) eats up some of your savings over the long term.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.