It's possible to get a new car that offers a surprisingly good equipment list for less money than a lot of people pay for a used car. The 2016 Nissan Versa is that car, or one of them. It's comfortable, smooth, and remarkably large inside for its size. You will, however, sacrifice performance, driving fun, and any semblance of premium materials or controls to do so. That's a trade-off many people are willing to make.
The Versa sedan takes after its larger siblings, the Sentra, Altima, and Maxima sedans, with a strong family resemblance that was underscored by last year's front-end redesign. It's very obviously a Nissan when you look at it. While it can appear refined, with an arched roofline and sheet metal that have a few luxury Infiniti cues, the proportions don't work as smoothly at the front or rear. Up close and especially inside, the undeniably basic role of the car is immediately apparently, with trim, switches, and other controls still have a very simple, parts-bin look.
The 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter inline-4 that's the Versa's sole powerplant is underpowered against many competitors, and to get the 35-mpg combined fuel economy, you have to specify the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is sluggish. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph takes 11.5 seconds, and the powertrain will howl and boom if you press it hard.
The base Leaf S model comes standard with a 5-speed manual, and it has an optional 4-speed automatic, one of the few left in any car these days. Those are less expensive, but you pay for it in fuel efficiency, which falls to 30 mpg combined—below par for the segment.
While the Versa's steering is reasonably well-weighted, it's very light and requires far too many small corrections to stay on track at higher speeds. Add it all up and you have a car that is far from fun or sporty to drive—and isn't trying to be. What you do get is space efficiency and a comfortable ride, which both the Versa sedan and the Versa Note hatchback provide in spades. The soft suspension manages to soak up road imperfections without losing its composure, which is an impressive feat in this class.
The front seats are puzzling: well-bolstered in the backrests, but with short, flat, unsupportive bottom cushions. Four adults can fit into a Versa, though it's best if they're not among your very tallest friends. The rear seat is also a head-scratcher, with only upper trim levels getting the folding back rest that lets you double the space of the large trunk and use the Versa as a shopping hauler or moving van for flat-pack furniture. The Versa Note offers a new cargo management feature that lets you hide items in back while keeping a flat cargo floor.
With a focus on noise suppression and seemingly good build quality—no thunks or clunks—the Versa pair are reasonably quiet as long as you're not pressing the powertrain. Drive in a relaxed fashion and they'll be fine.
Safety, however, is not a strong spot. Both the Versa Sedan and the Versa Note hatchback have only the expected equipment, and their safety ratings are checkered. You get roof-mounted side airbags covering all outboard occupants, plus standard electronic stability control and front side-impact torso airbags. Federal testers give the Versa four stars out of five in all tests, and the IIHS gives it the worst rating of "Poor" on the new small-overlap front crash test.
The feature set is remarkably complete for a car base-priced under $13,000. All Versa models get air conditioning, power mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, and hands-free calling. But you'd better be comfortable winding up your own windows. Mid-level Versa SV models are a significant step above that, adding upgraded cloth seats with six-way adjustability for the driver, chrome and silver interior accents, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The Versa SL brings a driver's seat armrest, Intelligent Key, an immobilizer system, and sun-visor extensions. You can add further options, like like fog lamps, heated seats, a navigation system with NissanConnect (XM NavTraffic, app capability, and point-of-interest features), and either a rearview camera or surround-view cameras. Finally, the Tech Package adds a 5.8-inch touchscreen, points-of-interest via Google, Bluetooth streaming audio, voice recognition, a hands-free text-messaging assistant, and heated side mirrors.
The 2016 Nissan Versa sedan gets good fuel economy ratings if it's equipped with the CVT, at 31 mpg city, 40 highway, 35 combined. An ancient 4-speed automatic transmission is lower, 26/35/30 mpg—and the cheapest model, with a 5-speed manual gearbox comes 27/36/30 mpg.