First Drive: 2021 Nissan Versa
Nissan's entry-level subcompact sedan offers surprising value.
Cheap and cheerful cars have been picked off one by one by consumers allergic to anything that’s not a crossover or doesn’t sit 5 feet off the ground. In Canada and U.S., cars like the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 have all gone the way of the Dodo bird, relegated to the annals of automotive history.
With global car platforms and the democratization of once advanced tech reserved for expensive luxury automobiles, the average crossover and SUV have become much more accessible.
But here, in the great white north, we’ve always been bigger supporters of the small car, like the recently discontinued Nissan Micra that wasn’t sold in the US. So it was perplexing when an all-new Versa sedan was released there last year and not here.
That’s changed now and the new Versa has arrived on our side of the fence for the 2021 model year, on sale at your local Nissan dealer at the time of this writing.
The Versa’s defining trait has always been a spacious and airy cabin packaged into a compact shell that makes it feel one-size larger than it really is.
If lots of space is the reason you loved the old Versa and Versa Note, then you’ll love this new one too. You’ll also be happy to hear that it doesn’t feel like the cheap beater you drove everywhere during your high school years.
The new entry-level Versa slots in perfectly within the rest of the Nissan lineup with its V-motion grille, kinked C-pillar, and floating roof similar to the new Sentra and Altima. It’s also longer, lower, and wider, with a smaller wheel gap, contributing to its mature, streamlined appearance. It’s another link in Nissan’s commitment to sedans as the brand moves forward with its Nissan Next strategy and introduces a brace of new models to the market.
With the Versa, there are three trims to choose from: S, SV, and SR. All are motivated by the same 1.6-litre port-injected 4-cylinder producing 122 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque, powering the front wheels.
A manual transmission is standard on the base S trim which starts at $16,498. You can add a CVT to it for $1500 and it comes bundled with a 60/40 split-folding rear seat that strangely isn’t available if you prefer rowing your own gears. You’ll also have to give up Apple Carplay and Android Auto if you opt for that third pedal, a packaging oddity I hope Nissan will address in the future.
There’s quite a bit of standard gear on the base trim like keyless entry with push button start, automatic headlights with high beam assist, emergency braking with pedestrian detection, a lane departure warning system, and rear emergency braking.
The SV adds the CVT, blind spot monitoring, heated front seats, a 7-inch Nissan Connect infotainment system along with an advanced gauge cluster screen, and Apple Car play/Android auto integration.
Opt for the range-topping SR at $20,998 and you get 17-inch alloy wheels, a remote engine starter, and LED headlights.
My fully loaded SR tester didn’t feel like it was lacking anything, with a level of equipment that you’d find on larger, more expensive cars. This is also the first time I’ve seen a remote starter on a car at this price point, a feature I used more than a few times.
The roomy cabin, while heavy on the use of hard plastic doesn’t feel “cheap”. There are good attempts at adding some creature comforts like the soft-touch dash panel and padded arm rests on the door cards. Well-designed buttons and knobs, including a large volume and tuning knob are easy to use and have a nice, quality feel to them.
That easy to live with theme continues with the snappy and intuitive Nissan Connect infotainment system and full featured gauge cluster screen that you can use to control the stereo, driver assistance functions, and more.
Sitting behind myself I had plenty of leg and knee room and just enough headroom to be comfortable. At 6 feet tall, I was definitely impressed with how they were able to carve out such a large space back there, which only becomes more impressive when popping open the cavernous 416-litre trunk.
I don’t usually look forward to driving sub compact cars because they can be, well, horrible to drive. Yawn-inducing, and fun killing, most don’t make good use of the their tidy footprint and relatively light chassis. But that’s not the case here as the Versa exhibits few bad habits after a week of putting it through its paces.
The SR, with it’s 17-inch wheels, orange –trimmed seats, and flat bottom-steering wheel even manages to feel somewhat sporty with sharp, direct steering and well controlled body roll.
It’s comfortable too and quiet at speed with fatigue-free seats and a good ride that leans more towards the stiffer side of things. The engine, while no powerhouse, felt peppy around town but ran out of steam north of 70 km/h. It was also well insulated, able to filter out much of the road and wind noise, even at highway speeds.
The weak link, as expected, is the CVT, which seemed to have a mind of its own, rolling through simulated gears when it wanted to and holding revs at other times. I couldn’t figure out the logic behind it, but one redeeming quality is fuel economy. The highest I saw was 8.5L/100 km, while booking it around town and it dipped as low as 6.1 on the highway.
The more I drove the Versa, the more I liked it. I started to appreciate that for under $20,000 you can get a brand new, well-engineered little car with a full factory warranty and some really cool tech. It’s also fun behind the wheel and doesn’t constantly remind you that you bought the cheap car. If you’re in the market for a new car that won’t break the bank, the Versa needs to be considered.
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.
2021 Nissan Versa SR
BODY STYLE: 4-door, 5-passenger sub-compact sedan
CONFIGURATION: Front-engine, Front-wheel drive
ENGINE: 1.6-L 4-cylinder; Power: 122 hp @6300 rpm; Torque: 114 lb-ft @4000 rpm
TRANSMISSION : CVT
CARGO CAPACITY: 416 litres
FUEL ECONOMY : (Regular Gasoline in L/100 km) 8.6 city; 6.7 highway; combined 7.7
OBSERVED FUEL ECONOMY: 8.0 L/100 km
PRICE: S – $16,498; SV – $19,498; SR – $20,998
WEBSITE: Nissan Canada