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2020 Nissan Versa

At the beginning of February 2020 my 2017 Chevy SS was the victim of the automotive equivalent of an unwarranted ass slap by a Rent-A-Center van. The damage was superficial but did require that Angus go into the shop for a week to have the damage corrected. While he was getting his derriere repaired, I rented a car from Enterprise. I asked them to give me the smallest, least powerful car they had on hand and they did not disappoint. I got a 2020 Nissan Versa SV sedan that was 1) definately smaller than the SS; and 2) way less powerful. I'd had a Nissan Versa (Note) in 2014 as a rental so this review is a sort of follow-up of sorts. With apologies to Doug Demuro...

Thiiiiis is the 2020 Nissan Versa SV. It is the smallest car Nissan now sells in North America and comes in one body style, a four door sedan. And given the meh result of the 2019 makeover this car got, I doubt it will be around much longer in this market. While attractive in an unassuming way and completely practical and useful in every way, it is also infinitely dull and boring with some questionable design decisions that really make you wonder if Nissans engineers had their heart in it when they were designing this thing.

The particular Versa I rented was a Super Black SV trim level version with just over 2,000 miles on the odometer. Based on the Nissan web site, this car was ordered by Enterprise with no additional options. Thus it came equipped with only the standard features for this trim line which include the following:

Over all, the car was pretty well equipped for the roughly $18,500 sticker price. But equipment doesn't make an outstanding car. There's also the comfort, performance, handling and styling factors that must be added into the mix.

The styling is...safe. It's nice enough, having all the modern curves and creases with just the right amount of chrome touches to offset the otherwise monochromatic paint. But it pushes no boundaries, doing nothing to set itself apart from the rest of the (admittedly shrinking) small car field. It's attractive but in that plain sort of way. While no one will ever look at it like it was a styling exercise in ugly, you won't see anyone looking over there shoulder as they walk away from it either. And on the subject of styling, I'm not a fan of the small window on the front doors that serves no purpose but is all the rage these days. You know, that piece of glass in front of the main door window that doesn't open and provides no added visibility when looking out of it from the inside. The one located where the door mirror should be but instead displaces the mirrot to the door panel so it looks disjointed and out of place.

That design philosophy carries over into the interior. Again, the styling is adequate but it lacks any touches or theme that makes the interior stand out. In fact, if there is a theme it is that it's thrown together from bits of other themes. For example, take a look at this view of the dash area. The outer driver and passenger vents are circular, but the center dash vents are in an angular rectangle shape. The upper part of the front door panels flow nicely into the dash, but the arm rest is a big flat slab with no real flow at all. The infotainment screen is a square shape but the ventilation controls are rounded. Altogether, it makes for a rather disjointed aesthetic. Don't get me wrong, it's not something that is so bad that you wouldn't buy the car. Somehow this mismatch in styling escapes notice until you really look at it. But once you do see it, you can't unsee it. One of the first places you will see it is in the gauge cluster. The left half is digital and can be handily set to display several different bits of information such as engine temperature, engine RPMs, fuel mileage and so on. The right half is an analog speedometer. So why didn't Nissan just make the whole thing digital? Who knows.

This sort of mish-mash approach to design kind of explains the engine and transmission combination. The engine itself is nice little mill. Peppy, free revving, with some low end grunt that at first makes you think this car might be up for some spirited fun. Then you try to engage in that spirited fun, say some quick jump offs at a stop sign or a zippy launch down the freeway onramp, and the Xtronic CVT quickly tells you, "Not so fast, Racer X". The CVT, while great for boosting fuel economy, sucks the life out of the engine. A full throttle start from take off yields a 0-60 run in barely under 10 seconds but makes a ferocious din while doing it. While the engine revs to 6,000 and 7,000 rpms with no problem, the CVT makes sure that as little of that as possible translates to power at the wheels. And it can get a bit confused about what it needs to be doing sometimes. On three separate occasions I lifted off the throttle at around the 4,000 rpm mark for a split second then got back into it. The engine revs stayed roughly the same but the car went from normal acceleration to barely accelerating at all. Literally, it felt like it was accelerating at the speed of someone pushing. Each time I had to lift from the throttle, wait for the engine revs to wind down to about idle then ease back into the throttle to get normal acceleration back. Luckily this was not in traffic.

The lack of power is probably a good thing since the steering and suspension suffer from the same half-and-half approach. The steering is light at parking lot speed making navigating said lots, driveways and other slow speed manuever jobs an easy task. As speed increases, steering tightens up nicely, providing quick and accurate direction changes with minimal movement of the wheel. But don't try to take corners too fast. The body has noticeable roll and the car pushes quickly making any sort of fast pasted cornering or emergency actions dicey at best. While this could probably be compensated by more aggressive tires and wheels along with a set of stiffer shocks and springs, this would certainly mess with the smooth, jitter free ride the Versa has. And be way more of an expenditure someone buying an $18k car can probably afford.

In all other respects the Versa is a satisfactory car to drive. The seats are comfortable and a good driving position is easy to find for the driver (although only the driver gets an armrest unless you spring for the extra cost option for a full center console version). Wind and road noise are kept to a minimum even on rougher pavement. Vision is good from all angles. Stopping is quick and smooth. It was February in Colorado so I didn't get a chance to test the A/C; but the heating worked quickly, warming the car up evenly. The trunk has ample space in all directions and is trimmed nicely with no body structure showing. And unlike the 2014 Versa Note I had, this one didn't suffer from rattles and buzzing.

In summary, the Versa seems like the result of Nissan not really caring about this segment of the market. It's like they knew they had to revise the previous version but decided to just let some college interns handle the job. In the end, the Versa feels like just enough was good enough. While a nice car, it's not a very well executed package that will, as time goes on, make you look forward to trading it in for something better. For a little more money (or no more money depending on your haggling skills) you can have a much more satisfying car from Mazda, VW, Toyota, Hyundai, etc.