Attempting to emulate its bigger Sentra and Altima siblings, the 2017 Nissan Versa comes up looking decidedly plain jane unless you pop for one of the higher trim levels.
Things don't get much better inside, which is why we've rated the basic Versa a 3 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
We know that other automakers can do stylish subcompacts. The Kia Rio and Chevrolet Spark, for instance, have a lot more flair.
The Versa tries to emulate its big brothers, but with fewer and less expressive swoops and flourishes—not surprising given its size. The large headlights, front-end sculpting, and full-chrome grille are cribbed from the larger Nissans, but less gracefully. The Versa sits on small wheels and has fewer highlights in the side panels, giving it a slightly dumpy look against its crisper siblings.
The Versa Note hatchback is more interesting, with proportions that aren't as homely. Curiously, it doesn't share any sheet metal with its sedan namesake, and its swoosh tail lamps evoke the brand's Juke and 370Z. Its proportions mostly avoid the low-rent appearance of the sedan, but it's the one with the trunk that sells the best.
A new Special Edition package for the SV sedan, which adds only $500 to the bottom line, brings alloy wheels to the picture, which helps. The SL has its own alloys as well, but its nearly $18,000 cost puts it in line with some compact sedans that offer more refinement.
Inside, there's more in common between the high-volume sedan and the Versa Note hatchback, both sharing a dual-cockpit theme. While hard plastic is typical in this class, the Versa has an abundance of it. A 2015 model year update made the sedan's center stack more like that of the Note, added a new and "more substantial" steering-wheel design, and switched instrument-panel lighting to white.
The effect remains undeniably basic, and it follows small-car tradition in offering a collection of cues and buttons that will be similar to those who've spent time in other smaller Nissan models. In either model, the climate controls are three simple, easy-to-use knobs. We like the dual glove boxes, but question why Nissan chose round air vents on either side of the dashboard but rectangular ones for the center stack.
The Nissan Versa is about as dowdy as a car gets, inside and out.
To be fair, Nissan doesn't market the 2017 Versa as a sporty offering, and that's accurate since it's neither particularly quick nor especially responsive.
It handles well, but it's among the slowest new cars and its engine and transmission deliver as close to a "penalty box" experience as you're likely to find today, which is why we rate it just a 3 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
Driving excitement is largely absent from the Versa, so "adequate" is probably the best adjective for what it's like to drive. It's competent, but unremarkable, with steering that is nicely weighted but too finicky, demanding many small adjustments to maintain a straight line at speed. That lightness does make the Versa easy to place in an urban environment, however. Anti-lock brakes with front discs and rear drums do a good job of slowing the Versa down.
Its 1.6-liter inline-4 is rated at just 109 horsepower, one of the lowest outputs in the class. With the continuously variable transmission (CVT), it can achieve 35 mpg combined and 40 mpg on the highway. Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph, however, takes 11.5 seconds, and the CVT is sluggish when you need to pass. Leisurely drivers will be content, but if you equate small with perky—think Mini Cooper—you should look elsewhere.
You can also get the base-model Versa S with a 5-speed manual, but there's a fuel economy penalty and that model is clearly more aimed at a rock bottom sticker price than any sporting pretensions.
Although it rides fairly well, the Versa's skinny tires and weak engine don't do it any favors.
The 2017 Nissan Versa lineup represents a pretty good value, at least in terms of room for passengers and their cargo.
Nissan paid extra close attention to the Versa's second row, endowing it with enough room for two adults to sit behind two like-sized humans in the front row. It's because of that extra space, and room for cargo, that we award the Versa 6 out of 10 points for its quality and comfort. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
The Versa sedan's trunk is extra large for a subcompact, but not all models come standard with a folding rear seat back, which limits its outright utility. If you're regularly making trips to the hardware store, the Versa Note should make more sense with its 60/40-split folding rear seat and its "Divide-n-Hide" system that has recessed storage areas under the flat cargo floor that can hold small items out of sight. Or, with the floor itself lowered, taller items will fit in the cargo hold.
While the Versa is good at hauling humans and their gear, it isn't exactly luxurious inside—even accounting for its low price point. Materials are not only hard but thin and hollow feeling, and even the switches and buttons operate with a grittiness not found in, say, the Yaris, the Fiesta, and the Spark.
One area where the Versa does perform better than we expected was in terms of its road noise. There's plenty of rumble from under the hood once you get going, but actual tire slap and wind roar are well-hushed. The Versa Note has even more sound deadening, something necessary given its tall hatchback shape that operates like a big box to bounce noise around.
Roomier inside than it looks from the outside, the Versa is packaged fairly well for a subcompact.
Small cars rarely fare as well as big cars in crash tests, and the 2017 Nissan Versa is no exception. However, there's more to the story than just the current crash test ratings, so we can't give the Versa a score until we have all the data. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
The IIHS awards the Versa Sedan its top rating of "Good" in all areas of testing except the new and tougher small-overlap front crash test. The 2017 hasn't been rated, but the 2015 received its "Poor" rating—the lowest possible. Some minor revisions for the 2016 and 2017 model years mean that the 2015 can't be directly compared to its predecessor.
The IIHS hasn't rated the Versa Note at all, however.
The NHTSA was also not especially kind to the Versa sedan, giving the current it four stars in every respect, after a retest. Back in 2015, the Versa sedan earned just three stars for frontal impact, and four stars for side impact, rollover, and overall. It's rare these days to see four stars in the federal test, let alone three.
The Versa Note hatchback also didn't perform well federal tests, with five stars for side impact but just three for frontal.
Feature-wise, the Versas have all the typical small car safety items, but they don't offer any advanced electronic active safety systems like the Toyota Yaris line now does.
We don't have full crash test data for the Versa, but what's there isn't all great news.
This year, the Versa lineup adds a new, high-value package, but we generally recommend keeping your Versa to a pretty low specification since more refined compact sedans and hatchbacks aren't that much pricier.
We rate the Versa a 5, dinging it for low specifications at the bottom end but awarding an extra point for the relatively well-equipped, good value SV with the Special Edition package. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
In the sedan, the base Versa S includes air conditioning and an audio system with four speakers, a CD player, and Bluetooth support for a mobile phone, but it's exclusively a stick shift. Step up to the S Plus, which like the rest of the lineup is CVT-only, and you'll gain cruise control, body-color power side mirrors, and a rear spoiler that's actually there to improve the sedan's aerodynamics.
The SV includes power windows and locks, keyless entry, height adjustment for the driver's seat, upgraded cloth upholstery, a USB input for the audio system, and map lights.
It's the new SV Special Edition that makes the most sense for us. Adding just $500 to the SV, it includes alloy wheels (a boon in urban areas since there are no hubcaps to be stolen), leather around the steering wheel, Bluetooth streaming audio, a 5.0-inch stereo head unit, and a rearview camera.
The SL builds on that with its own alloy wheels, navigation, and a proximity key with keyless ignition. It's borderline decadent, but at nearly $18,000, it's also an expensive Versa.
The hatchback nearly exactly follows the sedan, except it starts at S Plus and goes up to SV, SR, and SL trims.
That essentially leaves five flavors of Versa, not accounting for exterior paint color choices.
Base Versas are just that—basic, but Nissan offers some surprisingly nice features for an extra cost
The 2017 Nissan Versa, predictably, sips fuel at a fairly moderate pace. But to a certain extent it's limited by its weak power output, which means the engine needs to be driven hard in order to maintain highway speeds.
At 34 mpg combined using the EPA's updated-for-2017 standards, the CVT-equipped Versa scores an 8 out of 10 on our scale. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
Overall, the far more popular Versa automatic checks in at 31 mpg city, 39 highway, 34 combined. It's worth noting that Nissan's own Altima, a much larger mid-size sedan, is rated at the same 39 mpg highway. The difference is that the Altima has a much better power-to-weight ratio and isn't forced to work as hard.
Opt for the base Versa manual and you'll see 26/35/30 mpg, says the EPA, which is hardly something to write home about.
There's a big penalty for picking the stick shift versa, but the CVT is pretty thrifty.