Standard safety and improved style make the affordable new Versa more appealing.

The 2020 Nissan Versa’s mission hasn't changed. It's still the modest, inexpensive subcompact American buyers have grown to appreciate. But knowing modern consumers want more, Nissan made entry-level more appealing for the new model year.

No, the Versa is no longer the most affordable car in the U.S. (the $13,220 Chevrolet Spark LS gets that nod). But starting at just $14,370, the 2020 model offers things once limited to more expensive vehicles: automatic rear emergency braking, push-button start, and upscale styling cues included, not to mention the selection of advanced tech and driver assistance features you won't find on some of the Versa's competitors.

2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive
2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive

Affordable, Not Cheap

Thank the 2020 Versa's more generous dimensions (in part) for its newly minted look. This Versa sits 2.3 inches lower and extends 1.8 inches wider and 1.6 inches longer than its predecessor. The extra width and length help smooth out most of the previous model's overly bulbous edges, and the lower ride height gives it a more assertive stance. That said, the 2020 Versa's profile retains some of the egg-like qualities synonymous with subcompact cars. It's a little frumpy.

Either way, the new Versa looks good and nicely incorporates Nissan's trademark design cues. The V-Motion grille, sloping headlights (standard LEDs on the SR trim), floating roofline, and sharply styled taillights carry over virtually unchanged from other Nissans like the Altima. Think of the Versa as Verne Troyer’s Mini-Me, and the Altima as Dr. Evil – you'll never confuse the two. The 17-inch wheels on the range-topping SR trim help set it apart (15- and 16-inch options come on lower trim levels), and the optional $395 paint – Monarch Orange, Scarlet Ember, and your author's personal favorite, Electric Blue – look pretty.

The new Versa looks good and nicely incorporates Nissan's trademark design cues

The cabin sports some of those same premium cues. Not only does the central 7.0-inch touchscreen look good (and lives within the dash, thankfully, rather than atop it), it's clearly laid out, easy to use, and responds quickly to inputs, akin to an iPhone. The 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster (available on SV and above) looks upscale, too. It displays information like real-time miles per gallon and radio stations clearly and is customizable using the steering-wheel-mounted buttons.

Leather isn't an option atop the comfy Zero Gravity seats, but the SR model gets upgraded custom cloth. Faux stitched cowhide does cover the dash and door panels (in SR), though, and it’s nearly as good as the real stuff. It's soft, smooth, and feels more premium than some other leather imposters. Sure, there's still a lot of hard synthetic plastic on the door panels and higher up on the dash, but that's expected for the segment.

What the Nissan Versa does best, anyways, is front legroom. The 44.5 inches of available space up front is best in class, and noticeably roomier for your six-foot author than some competitors. The rear legroom doesn’t grow any for 2020 (it shrinks, in fact), but the lower seating position of the rear bench keeps things roomy enough.

2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive
2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive
2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive
2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive
2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive

Versa-tile

The Nissan Versa's 122 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque are adequate, especially for dawdling around cities like Nashville, as we did, and when remembering competitors like the Toyota Yaris iA only have 106 hp and 103 lb-ft. But Nissan's “Gen3" 1.6-liter four-cylinder lacks oomph, and its “Xtronic” continuously variable transmission (same as the Kicks), even with a reinforced belt, doesn’t have an adequate ratio to promote off-the-line torque. In our experience, crossing in front of oncoming traffic takes more consideration, and gunning it from a stoplight yields an offensive whine that's uncharacteristic of a CVT.

Highway speeds are the Versa's strong suit. In this case, the CVT's 20-percent wider ratio helps maintain a steady power band, which makes for easy passing and enjoyable cruising. That, paired with fuel economy ratings of 32 miles per gallon in the city, 40 highway, and 35 combined, help us forgive the Versa's slow off-the-line speed and obnoxious sound.

Highway speeds are the Versa's strong suit.

Even though the 2020 Versa rides on the same platform as its predecessor, the new car’s underpinnings are hugely improved. The Versa has a surprising amount of poise for a subcompact. A 15-percent reduction in body roll is noticeable and effective, and the Versa remains moderately flat in corners. Steering feel is superb for the segment, too. We’re able to fling the four-door around with some purpose, dodging electric scooters and darting around construction zones in the process. Sporty the Versa is not, but at least it's satisfying.

2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive

Safety Is Thrifty

Safety is what should sell the 2020 Nissan Versa en masse. It's the only subcompact with rear automatic emergency braking (not standard rear cross-traffic alert, though) out of the box. It also offers standard safety fare like automatic front emergency braking, lane-departure warning, rear-seat detection, and automatic high-beam headlights. None of those features come standard on competitors like the Hyundai Accent or Kia Rio.

The SV and SR grades get the better-equipped Nissan Safety Shield 360. That includes add-ons like blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, while the $300 SR Convenience package adds full-speed adaptive cruise control. The adaptive cruise control works wonderfully, too, as it keeps the Versa a good distance from the car ahead without slamming on the brakes at a stop. It's a once-premium feature made affordable and offered here for the first time on a subcompact. Nissan is ahead of the game.

2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive
2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive

Worth The Price Of Admission

As mentioned, a measly $14,730 will get you into the base Versa S with a manual transmission (the Versa S with the CVT asks $16,400). It's no longer the cheapest car in America, but the Versa is probably the best-equipped option in the class. Up from there, the Versa SV with the CVT costs $17,640, and the range-topping SR model with the same transmission asks $18,240 (before $895 for destination). And neither of the two available options – fancy paint ($395) and the SR Convenience package ($300) – should break the bank.

The 2020 Nissan Versa packs a lot of likability in a tiny package. It's the safest in the segment thanks to features like standard front and rear automatic emergency braking, and surprisingly sharp-looking with styling borrowed from the larger Altima. While the Versa’s powertrain keeps it out of the “fun-to-drive” conversation, a retuned chassis and improved steering produce an enjoyable, smooth experience on most roads. It's a bargain sedan that won't leave you dissatisfied.

2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive

2020 Nissan Versa

Engine 1.6-Liter Four-Cylinder
Output 122 Horsepower / 114 Pound-Feet
Transmission Continuously Variable Transmission
Drive Type Front-Wheel Drive
Weight 2,729 Pounds
Fuel Economy 32 City / 40 Highway / 35 Combined
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 15.0 Cubic Feet
Base Price $14,730
As-Tested Price $19,500

Gallery: 2020 Nissan Versa: First Drive