Review: 2023 Nissan Versa revamps the econobox idea
One of the lowest-priced vehicles on the market in the US is the Nissan Versa. Though the term "econobox" has negative connotations to it, it’s a descriptor that fits lot of entry-level vehicle models, including the Versa. But this little Nissan has redefined the term. In a good way.
At a glance
- More upscale and comfortable than expected
- Good fuel economy and cargo capacity
- Dead fish drive quality
- Some interior details give away the low price point
The 2023 Nissan Versa is the third generation of the subcompact car, that has been a high-seller in the segment for some time. The subcompact segment in general has been a small but steady one in terms of sales. Most of the traditional cars appearing here in the past are gone, leaving just a handful of contenders in what was once a thriving segment.
Americans have, in most of our automotive history, largely ignored subcompacts in favor of larger, roomier, and safer (by perception) options. The compact segment, where the Versa gives way to the Sentra, is more to our liking. More recently, the compact crossover segment, where the Rogue is a Nissan best-seller, is our top market for entry-level buyers.
Yet the Nissan Versa has been a staple for many first-time buyers and commuters thanks to its extremely low price tag and no-nonsense design. For 2023, Nissan made some styling upgrades to the little Versa, changing the front fascia and rear deck while adding a few upgrade options inside.
The first two generations of the Versa were pretty plain. Styling was simple and relatively unadorned with the focus of the model being on low-cost A-to-B capability. Today’s Versa, however, is a more sophisticated ride with a lot more on offer than might be expected for what is still a bargain basement price tag. Pricing starts at just about US$17,000 plus delivery. That represents the low end of the bell curve for new car buying, the midpoint being $30,000 more than that for US buyers in today’s market.
Where the tale is really told for this car, however, is inside. At six feet, three inches (1.9 meters) in height, I’m used to small cars like this being a tight squeeze. Surprisingly, that’s not the case with the 2023 Versa. Granted headroom, with the seat upright, is minimal for me, but that’s a much better situation than was the case in previous versions of the Versa and in most of its current competitors like the Kia Rio and the Fiat 500. Width-wise, the seating is also better than expected.
In short, the 2023 Versa is less sardine can and more tuna instead. I can’t stretch without buffeting the front passenger and pressing my head into the headliner, but I can at least sit comfortably while driving.
The interior also tells the tale of the cost and fitment arguments that likely happened in the meeting rooms at Nissan. The overall feeling is relatively upscale for a subcompact budget car, but there are signs of cost-cutting as well. Materials choices are a mix of quality and cheap. Hard plastics are found throughout, but they’re often layered under or strategically deemphasized by softer choices. It shows attention to detail by designers wishing to do more than just throw lipstick onto a pig, and really make the car feel less cheap and more mainstream.
It’s the details that show where corners had to be cut. There isn’t much storage for things beyond cup holders, for example. And while the cloth seating is robust and durable-feeling, it’s not high-end in any way and butts will, sooner than later, get tired sitting in them. And detail, like stitching or faux metal inserts for the dashboard are mostly missing. These things show how the budget was kept.
Surprisingly, however, the standard features of the 2023 Nissan Versa are more plentiful than might be expected. Steel wheels and a tinny four-speaker audio system are expected low points, but a 7-inch touchscreen (with usable infotainment), three USB ports, and a height-adjustable driver’s seat are surprising upsides.
A lot of safety systems are also included, such as forward collision warning (with emergency braking) and lane departure warning. Options for the base model Versa are non-existent, other than replacing the standard manual transmission (5 speed) with a continuously variable automatic. But most buyers are probably spending the extra three thousand to get into the SV, which adds a few creature comforts and better-looking alloy wheels.
The powertrain in the 2023 Versa is similar to models of the Versa’s past: a barely-adequate four-cylinder coupled to an equally disinterested CVT. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine outputs 122 horsepower (89.7 kW) if you manage to run the RPM high enough and produces 114 pound-feet (154.6 Nm) of torque.
In all but the most base model, that goes through a continuously variable transmission to the front wheels. Nothing in all of that could be described as "sporty" or "engaging" or even "confident." It’s all aimed towards fuel economy and nothing more. The CVT does everything in its power to keep engine RPM at peak efficiency, added thrust for speed be damned.
Fuel economy in the 2023 Nissan Versa is EPA-rated at 40 mpg on the highway and 35 mpg combined (5.9 l/100km and 6.7 l/100km). Most drivers will get pretty close to that if willing to pump premium-octane fuel (91 or better), and provided driving is not taking place at high altitude or in the wind. Since I had none of those in my favor during testing, I managed 37.5 mpg (6.3 l/100km) on the highway instead.
The point of the Versa, and many of its competitors, is to be available at the lowest possible price for the market. The point of the 2023 Versa is to do that without the host of expected compromises most buyers of an econobox would expect. And it does that very well.
Product page: 2023 Nissan Versa