One of the cheapest cars on the market in the United States is the Nissan Versa. While the term “econobox” has a negative connotation to it, it’s a descriptor that fits many entry-level car models, including the Versa. But this little Nissan has redefined that term. In a good way.
At a glance
- More up and comfortable than expected
- Good fuel economy and cargo capacity
- Dead fish drive quality
- Some interior details offer lower prices
The 2023 Nissan Versa is the third generation of the compact car, which has been a top seller in the segment for some time. The sub segment has generally been small but steady in terms of sales. Many of the classic cars that appeared here in the past are gone, leaving only a handful of competitors in what was once a thriving segment.
Americans, throughout most of our automotive history, have largely ignored subcompacts in favor of larger, more roomy and safer (perceptually) options. The compact segment, where the Versa gives way to the Sentra, is of interest to us. Recently, the small crossover segment, where the Rogue is Nissan’s best seller, is our main market for high-end buyers.
Yet the Nissan Versa has become a staple for many first-time buyers and travelers thanks to its ultra-low price tag and no-nonsense design. For 2023, Nissan made some styling improvements to the smaller Versa, changing the front fascia and rear deck while adding a few interior upgrade options.
The first two generations of the Versa were very plain. The styles were simple and unadorned and the style focus was on low-cost A-to-B capabilities. Today’s Versa, however, is a more modern ride with a lot more to offer than might be expected for what is still an underground price tag. Prices start at about $17,000 plus shipping. That represents the lower end of the bell curve for new car purchases, the midpoint being $30,000 more than that for US buyers in today’s market.
Where the story is told for this car, however, is inside. At six feet, three inches (1.9 meters) tall, I’m used to small cars like this being very cramped. Surprisingly, that’s not the case with the 2023 Versa. Headroom, when standing upright, is small for me, but that’s better than it was in earlier versions of the Versa and in many of its current competitors like the Kia Rio and Fiat 500. Widely, seating is also better than expected.
In short, the 2023 Versa has less seafood and more instead. I can’t stretch without hitting the front passenger and pressing my head against the headrest, but I can at least sit comfortably while driving.
The interior also tells the story of the cost and fit debates that likely took place in the boardrooms at Nissan. The overall feel is premium for a low-budget car, but there are signs of cost-cutting as well. The choice of materials is a combination of quality and affordability. Hard plastics are found throughout, but are often understated or strategically emphasized with soft options. It shows the attention to detail and designers who want to do more than just throw lipstick on the pig, and actually make the car feel more affordable and ordinary.
It is a detail that shows where the corners should have been cut. There isn’t much storage for things other than cup holders, for example. And while the fabric of the clothes has a strong and durable feel, it is not high-quality in any way and the buttocks, sooner than later, will tire of sitting in them. And details, such as stitching or fake metal stirrups for the dashboard are often missing. These things show how the budget was maintained.
Surprisingly, however, the standard features of the 2023 Nissan Versa are more than expected. Steel wheels and a small four-speaker sound system are expected low marks, but the 7-inch touchscreen (with usable infotainment), three USB ports, and a height-adjustable driver’s seat are surprises.
Numerous safety systems are also included, such as forward collision warning (with emergency braking) and lane departure warning. Options for the base Versa model are absent, except to replace the standard manual transmission (5-speed) with a continuously variable automatic. But most buyers are probably spending an extra three grand to get into the SV, which adds a few creature comforts and better-looking alloy wheels.
The powertrain in the 2023 Versa is the same as previous Versa models: an underpowered four-cylinder with an equally uninteresting CVT. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine produces 122 horsepower (89.7 kW) if you can drive the RPM high enough and produces 114 pound-feet (154.6 Nm) of torque.
In all but the most basic 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 about fuel economy and nothing more. The CVT does everything it can to keep the engine RPM at peak efficiency, added acceleration be damned.
Fuel economy in the 2023 Nissan Versa is EPA-estimated at 40 mpg on the highway and 35 mpg combined (5.9 l/100km and 6.7 l/100km). Most drivers will approach that if they are willing to pump premium-octane fuel (91 or better), and as long as the driving is not at high altitude or in wind. Since I didn’t have 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 found at the lowest price on the market. The point of the 2023 Versa is to do so without many of the expected compromises most economy box buyers would expect. And it does so very well.
Product page: 2023 Nissan Versa