2021 Nissan Versa Review: First Drive

Nissan could have left things as they were in the current SUV-friendly market and not completely overhauled the Versa.

But we’re glad it did. It just gives people like us who still adore cars a ray of hope. North of the border here in Canada, all we got was the Versa Note, the hatch version of the sedan which passed on to the history books in 2012. While the entry-level baton passed on to the Micra next in 2014, the sedan spot sat empty. The 2021 Nissan Versa is the first Versa sedan ever to be sold in Canada and is the first completely new Versa in the US since 2011.

Entry-level it might be, but it certainly does not look ordinary. 

A New Suit

Now with sharper new looks, the 2021 Nissan Versa looks like a part of the Nissan family. Being the youngest and the smallest among its siblings, it is the last one to get the V-Motion overhaul. The way the V-Motion grille adorns the front fascia is more akin to the Maxima than any other sedan in the Nissan lineup. The piano black insert under the grille is reminiscent of the Maxima as well. The car itself doesn’t appear large due to the higher roofline, but at 177.0 inches (4,495 mm) long and with a 103.0-inch (2,616mm) wheelbase, it’s barely a sub-compact.

The overall design is clean and sober. Apart from a contoured hood and a strong shoulder line, there isn’t much drama to the overall design. The roofline is as you would expect from a subcompact which melts into the trunk quite seamlessly.

Our tester was the top SR trim and came with LED headlamps as standard along with the top-spec 17-inch wheels shod with 205 section all-season rubber.

Living Area

The front doors offer a large opening and ingress and egress is quite easy. Compact the cabin might be, but constricting it is not. The front seats are well contoured and the squab offers decent thigh support. While the seatback is supportive, the lumbar is dialed in too far, and there is no way to adjust it either. Speaking of adjustments, the seats are manually adjustable only even on the top SR trim that we have here. But you get sporty orange stitching on the fabric seats, steering, and the dash, which is nice.

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While electrically adjustable seats might be missing, space abounds. You get over 40 inches (1,016 mm) of legroom up front and 31.0 inches (787 mm) in the rear. It doesn’t sound like much but I was able to place myself comfortably behind my own driving position which hasn’t always been possible in sub-compact cars. You can even fit three slightly above average-sized adults in the back provided rubbing shoulders is acceptable.

The middle passenger can actually place their legs comfortably as the protrusion here is quite minimal. The trunk at 14.7 cu-ft (416 liters) is respectable, though since the rear bench is not collapsible, that is all you get. Also missing are covered cubby holes of any kind. Yes, you do get door pockets on all four doors and cup holders in the center console, but there is no place to hide your precious items away from prying eyes.

There are no adjustable headrests back here which taller passengers could miss. Headroom however is not a problem. The bench itself is quite enveloping and comfortable especially for the segment it sits in. The overall quality, though not impeccable, can’t be frowned upon. Yes, there is liberal use of hard plastic all over the cabin but the faux leather-wrapped steering wheel and the dash balance the equation out.

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The climate control knobs and all controls on the center dash feel tactile. Plus, the large buttons on the infotainment system and the physical volume knob means operating the system on the move isn’t distracting at all.

Screens and Knobs

Nissan offers the Versa with a host of standard safety features. Apart from the auto emergency braking with pedestrian detection and lane departure warning—which are quite common these days—the entry-level Nissan also gets High Beam Assist and Rear Auto Braking as standard. The blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, however, is reserved for the SV and SR trims.

The one we have here is the fully loaded SR trim. A 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system is standard across the range but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not. They are only available with the Nissan Connect system which is available on the SV and SR trims only. There are also no USB-C ports which, considering the current crop of smartphones, is quite essential.

The SR also comes with a semi-digital instrument cluster that is available in SV trim onwards. It consists of an analog speedometer and a seven-inch screen that can show a variety of driver information including the tachometer, fuel consumption, and driver assistance systems. And you can take care of everything via steering-mounted controls.

Gait and Manners

A 1.6-liter four-pot making 122 hp and 114 lb-ft of max torque might not sound like much but for a car that tips the scales at just 2,599 lb, the output is fairly adequate. Though, I will admit the CVT doesn’t feel organic at all. While it is well adapted for the city, on the highway it feels stressed and confused when you put your foot down. But forward progress is made all the same. A five-speed manual gearbox is also available but with the base S trim only.

The suspension setup is on the firmer side and it is good. It does get noisy over some bumps and undulations. But thankfully there is no judder or shake that plagues the cabin. It feels plaint and absorbent even on the roughest of surfaces.

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On the highway, the Versa feels composed and planted as well though you do feel that you’re riding a bit higher than you should and not firmly planted to the ground. It also tends to feel a tad floaty but that’s more down to its lack of mass than the suspension setup. Also, passing semis and pickups send an unsettling gust of wind your way.

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Overtaking can be tedious business especially at cruising speeds. Even though a small sport button hides behind the gear lever, it does little more than hang on to the revs for longer. The CVT takes time to build the revs to help gather speed. Plus, the little sedan has little to give past the higher cruising velocities. So if you’re looking to make an exit, it’s a better strategy to slow down rather than accelerate. Also, using the leftmost lane is not recommended because you will be flashed or (shudder) honked at.

Verdict: 2021 Nissan Versa

As an entry-level sedan, the Versa is a good little package. It offers a host of premium safety features as standard, it’s spacious, and offers a supple ride as well. Plus, the cabin now comes with much-needed quality and visual upgrades. At a starting price of just $15,855 ($18,168 CAD) it’s also good value. The SR trim that we had is priced at $19,265 ($22,668 CAD) all-inclusive. It includes LED headlamps and a set of 17-inch wheels. My only gripe with the Versa are that Android Auto and Apple CarPlay should have been standard and the five-speed manual should have been an option on the SR as well if not across the range.

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