Bare bones cars are a rarity today as even the low-cost sedans that serve as entry-level vehicles for most car makes are far from what we would have called “basic transportation” just a decade or two ago when cars still had crank windows.
Take this week’s dandy little Nissan Versa SR for example. With a starting price of just $19,135, including delivery, you’d think this spiffy Electric Blue sedan would be about as bare bones as car makers go to satisfy the needs of the low-budget shopper. But you’d be wrong and the metallic blue paint job is only example one.
In days of old when paint tended to dull within a year or two of purchase, this sparkling clear-coat paint job would have cost you extra. (Still would on some luxury makes that consider black and white the only standard colors.) Previously most entry-level sedans were tan, white or some off shade of blue or red that already looked faded.
But the new 2020 Versa is redesigned to look more like its upscale (to varying degrees) brethren, the Sentra, Altima and Maxima. Neither the Versa’s design, nor its paint job look low rent.
In fact, the SR sits atop the Versa line. An S model lists at $15,655 including delivery and the SV starts at $18,565.
Thankfully they all come with much of the same mechanicals, the engine being a fine, if less than muscular, 1.6-liter I4 that delivers 122 horsepower. The S starts with an old-school 5-speed manual, while the others use Nissan’s fine automatic CVT (continuously variable transmission). For the record, it seems Nissan and Subaru are best so far at building CVTs.
This engine is no arm stretcher, but it will hustle the Versa up to highway speeds fairly smoothly, with just a little extra engine noise as you hustle it up. But it’s sufficient and the SR’s handling is actually quite nice. Steering effort is light (heck, the car weighs just 2,729 lbs.) and the Versa handles well. It turns into corners with go-kart type precision and there’s not a lot of body sway.
Ride is all small car, well controlled, but you feel the road’s deviations more than in a car with a longer wheelbase. This one’s is 103 inches and better ride usually starts at about 106 inches. Still, the SR adds 17-inch tires while the base S has 15-inchers and the SV ups that to 16-inchers. I never felt the ride here approached punishing, and several passengers said they felt the ride was fine for a small car.
Performance isn’t low-end and neither are Versa’s safety offerings. Nope, The Nissan comes standard with items you’d have paid extra for just a couple years ago. For instance, there’s blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and a rearview screen, along with a lane departure warning. Nissan even includes emergency braking with pedestrian detection. In years past we were excited to get a Day/Night rearview mirror.
Inside, the test car featured black cloth seats with pleasant orange patterns down the seat edges while the black dash and door trim incorporated orange stitching for a spiff. Trim on the air vents, dash and door buttons was satin chrome with a gloss black trim by the shifter. Again, all this looks more upscale than you’d expect at this price.
SR also comes standard with an automatic air conditioning system, keyless entry, remote start, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, 6 stereo speakers, Sirius XM radio, fog lights, LED headlights, a rear spoiler and aluminum alloy wheels to set it apart from its lower line Versa cousins. There’s even a racy-looking flat-bottomed steering wheel in the SR, definitely not bare bones.
Functionally the interior works well and is roomy enough for four adults too, assuming none are gargantuan. Headroom is good and I liked the dash layout.
Versa’s touchscreen is a 7-incher and easy to use, plus Nissan provides both volume and tuning knobs next to the screen. Climate controls are operated via two large knobs too, much simpler than hunting around on a touchscreen while driving.
Seats are firm but supportive and manually adjusted, including a pump handle to raise or lower the driver’s seat. Rear seat passengers vouched for its comfort too and the trunk is absolutely mammoth at 14.9 cu.ft. Another plus, side sightlines are good with viewing space between the A-pillars and side mirrors via a fake vent window. Nicely done!
Upgrades here are small and value-conscious too. Key is the convenience package for $300 that adds two-level heated front seats and a smart cruise control system. That’s a bargain. And if you live in a sketchy area, or just feel safer with some better exterior lighting the $600 lighting package with external ground lighting and ambient floor lighting is probably worth it. Many folks still expect the dealer to kick in carpeted floor and trunk mats, but that’s unlikely on a low-cost car, so those add $210.
There are two options I’d opt against. First, the odd-shaped and tiny armrest/storage box between the front seats. It’s too high so you hit your elbow on it a lot and there’s virtually no storage room inside it. Save the $300. Also, an electronics package for $855 delivers a map pocket light, illuminated kick plates, and a frameless automatic dimming mirror with universal remote.
Even with those adds-ons the Versa SR hit just $21,490. So there’s pricing room to play with the features you really want, or need.
Know too that you’re going to be getting fine gas mileage with the svelte Versa. EPA rates it at 32 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. I got 29.5 mpg in about 75% city driving and often with two or three people aboard.
Bottom line? You can go lower on the Versa food chain if you finances dictate and still have a fine car. But the Versa SR provides an entry-level sedan without the bargain basement look of a cheap econobox.
It’s a good handler that delivers high gas mileage, solid interior comfort and looks, plus many features you’d expect to pay more for on a starter car. High-value with good performance at this price is pretty impressive. It’s just possible that Versa may lure some cost-conscious folks back to cars from those bigger, pricier crossovers and small SUVs.
Hits: Low price high-value entry-level sedan that gets good gas mileage, is comfortable and offers good handling too. Despite its low price this had heated front seats, smart cruise control, blind-spot warning, rear backup camera with cross-traffic sensors, lower body exterior lights and ambient interior lighting, easy-to-use radio, good dash layout, racy flat-bottom steering wheel.
Misses: Firm ride, odd tall armrest/storage that offers little of either.
Made in: Mexico
Engine: 1.6-liter I4, 122 hp
Transmission: CVT automatic
Weight: 2,729 lbs.
Wheelbase: 103.1 in.
Length: 177.0 in.
Cargo: 14.9 cu.ft. (rear seats down)
MPG: 29.5 (tested)
Base Price: $19,135 (includes delivery)
Convenience package (heated front seats, smart cruise control), $300
Carpeted floor and trunk mats, $210
Center armrest w/storage, $300
Electronics package (map pocket light, illuminated kick plates, frameless automatic dimming mirror w/universal remote), $855
Lighting package (external ground lighting, interior ambient lighting), $600
Test vehicle: $21,490
Sources: Nissan, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage