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car review

The 2021 Nissan Versa.Photography by Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There’s not much competition for the new Nissan Versa sedan, and few drivers still want to buy cars so small. It’s considered a subcompact sedan, the smallest four-door you can find. Last year, that was the fastest-declining vehicle segment in the Canadian market, dropping in sales by almost half while passenger cars overall dropped by about a third.

Most buyers of small vehicles prefer the cargo-carrying practicality of hatchbacks and mini-SUVs like the popular Nissan Kicks. The Japanese automaker used to offer the Versa Note and the even-smaller (and cheaper) Micra subcompact hatchbacks, but those models were discontinued in Canada last year. Now, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a demand for affordable personal transportation that helps people avoid taking public transit. Nissan hopes the next generation of the Versa sedan, not sold here since 2014, will fit the bill.

According to Nissan, the Versa is intended for “a type of customer we see again and again – someone who doesn’t realize they can afford a new car but still looks for the lower interest rates, warranty and peace of mind. For this buyer, getting a bigger car would be too much; they simply don’t want anything showy or excessive.”

Nissan wasn’t originally going to bring this new generation of the Mexican-built Versa to Canada, but it changed its mind when the U.S. confirmed it would sell the little car last year as a 2020 model. As well, Canadian Nissan dealers wanted it in their showrooms, especially in Quebec, because they saw the pint-sized Kia Rio, Chevrolet Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage taking away whatever sales still remained. After all, those three models still sold more than 11,000 units among them in Canada last year.

The Versa sedan hasn't been sold in Canada since 2014.

So is the new Versa any good?

Sure it is, for what it is. There are three different trim levels, starting at $16,498 plus freight, delivery and taxes. The least-costly model has a manual transmission, but it’s a five-speed that uses more fuel than the continuously variable automatic transmission, which costs an extra $1,500.

This most basic model does include some clever software that, just a few years ago, was unthinkable at this price. Cruise control is standard, as is push-button ignition, lane-departure warning and automatic emergency braking.

Go up to the SV edition at $19,498, and you get heated front seats, steering wheel controls, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, among other features. Top out with the SR edition at $20,998, and you have LED headlights, a better six-speaker sound system, larger wheels and nicer seat fabric.

Looks

The Versa has some sharp body creases that give it an up-to-date look.

The Versa is a sharp-looking, up-to-date little car. There are a few body creases without being too wedgy, with a nicely sloped windshield and rear glass. Opt for the SR edition, and there’s even a sassy little trunk-lid spoiler. In other words, be prepared to honk the horn with the key fob a few times in the mall parking lot, because this car will blend right in.

Interior

The rear seat has decent legroom, given the vehicle's size, while the SR trim gets a flat-bottomed steering wheel.

The tester unit was the most expensive SR version, with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and integrated controls, along with a nicer fabric and console finish with contrasting stitching. It doesn’t look or feel like a cheap car, except for the now-fairly-small size of the seven-inch colour touch screen. It’s comfortable, with plenty of legroom and headroom in the front row.

Everything’s more cramped in the back seat, but it’s not too bad, given the size limits. I’m 5 feet 11 inches tall, and I had to slouch in the rear to keep my head from touching the roof liner. There was reasonable legroom, though, provided the front seats aren’t pushed way back. If you try to squeeze a third person back there, there’ll probably be arguments after not too long.

One interesting thing: The steering wheel is a sporty, flat-bottomed wheel, often found as an option on the performance trims of other cars. My wife was practical in her observation: “I thought the flat bottom was to accommodate fat drivers,” she said, and she could well be right.

Performance

There’s not much, but Versa buyers don’t want power or driving emotion – they want to go to work or to the grocery store without sharing air space on public transit. They want to be able to drive at the speed limit or perhaps a little faster without using too much fuel while doing so.

Power delivery is very smooth as the stepped continuously variable transmission (CVT) whines up to speed. If you need to get moving more quickly, just step harder on the gas, and the CVT will whine even more. You won’t actually go much faster, though. It’s not that the Versa is gutless, just that it is, let’s say, “economical.” Its engine (and platform) is shared with the popular Kicks crossover, and you don’t hear those drivers complaining about it. You won’t be embarrassed at any traffic lights because nobody expects you to prove anything, and when you reach a nice, winding stretch of country backroad, don’t worry – you’ll be through it soon enough. There are anti-roll bars at each end of the suspension that help keep everything predictable.

The car is a little lower and wider and longer than before, but it’s still a small vehicle, and in a high wind, I found myself wandering in the lane while driving on the highway. Owners will just assume this is normal, and it won’t affect their appreciation at all, though it will be more tiring if they often drive longer distances on windswept roads.

My own fuel economy was not far off the official government figures, which is impressive given that I thrashed the poor little Versa at every opportunity. It must have been the flat-bottomed steering wheel that egged me on. Driving at the speed of traffic on the main highway, I saw an average of 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres, and over all, including city and country, my average was 7.2 litres per 100 kilometres.

Technology

As mentioned, the advancement of safety software these days is remarkable. Even the most basic Versa will hit the brakes automatically if it detects something in front or behind that it thinks it might drive into, including pedestrians, and it will dip the headlights automatically when there’s other traffic on the road. There’s Bluetooth in all trims and streaming audio, with three USB ports (though two are only for charging).

Go up a grade, and the car will warn you if it thinks you’re not fully alert; go up to the top grade and you get a remote engine start. Nothing truly fancy, and at that higher price, most buyers will elect for the extra size of a Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla or Mazda3.

Cargo

The Versa's trunk is surprisingly roomy, given the car's size.

The trunk is surprisingly roomy, with 424 litres of cargo space. That’s larger than some compact cars. CVT-equipped Versas have a rear seat that drops down in a 60/40 split for carrying longer items, but this isn’t available with the manual.

The verdict

There’s no more and no less than many drivers need, but the new Versa now has plenty of up-to-date safety and connectivity features and a sleek new design. It’s one of the least expensive cars on the market, but you wouldn’t know that, even if you drive it.

Tech specs

The Versa is powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

2021 Nissan Versa
  • Base price/as tested: $16,498/$20,998, plus $1,670 freight and delivery
  • Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder
  • Transmission/drive: Five-speed manual or CVT, front-wheel drive

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