We are now in an automotive world of high tech and high expectations (for comfort and convenience). The basic economy car, therefore, is dead.
As Exhibit A, I offer the once-lowly Nissan Versa.
At a starting price of $16,498, which translates to monthly payments of $231 when various fees are added, this small sedan is stuffed with technology – from a Bluetooth hands-free phone system, to a seven-inch touchscreen, Google Assistant voice recognition, three USB ports, a four-speaker sound system and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
Air conditioning? Yes, Power windows, door locks and mirrors? Yes. Airbags all around? Of course. Anti-theft immobilizer? Naturally. Cruise control, various collision and lane departure warnings, high-beam assist and stability/traction control? Yes, yes, yes and yes.
The only obvious concessions to economy: cloth upholstery stretched across seats with so-so comfort and an anachronistic five-speed manual gearbox. The 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine is not exactly a work of genius or strength, but comes with modern electronic controls, continuous variable valve timing and enough power for everyday chores, perhaps even a longer drive into the country (122 hp/114 lb-ft of torque and very respectable fuel economy rated at 6.7 litres/100 km combined).
Almost no one will buy this particular version of the Versa, with its bland charcoal seat coverings and such. It exists to give Nissan dealers an attractive entry price point.
Given that interest rates are at near zero, and even Nissan offers 2.9 per cent financing, I would expect many, many shoppers would be inclined to jump into, say, a Versa SR with the CVT gearbox ($20,998 as tested). It has better wheels and tires, a somewhat pretentious rear spoiler, remote engine start and sportier cloth seating with some very nice red trimmings. The monthly payment here jumps to $290, which is a relatively small price to pay for a handful of upgrades that make the Versa seem quite luxurious and tiny bit sporty – if you overlook the rather pedestrian handling characteristics of this front driver.
The thing is, if you’re shopping a Versa you almost certainly do not care that it has a torsion beam rear suspension – a layout as basic as they come. The independent front struts are of no consequence, either. Again, I was replacing the front struts on my ’64 Peugeot 404 as a teenager in my dad’s garage. Not much new there, but as long as you don’t demand pinpoint handling, you’ll be fine.
If you drive relatively sedately, you will be perfectly satisfied with the Versa. It’s efficient, it’s cheap to own and operate, it’s safe and as long as you keep your runs to 90 minutes at a crack or less, you’ll be perfectly comfortable.
My test drive was a pleasant run up the Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler and back. I took my time, sipping a Starbucks and listening to a BBC podcast about a diver who survived a horrific deep-sea accident in the North Sea. That’s what I remember about the Versa. Some guy named Chris who should have died at the bottom of the ocean.
The Versa itself, as far as I can remembers, proved to be inoffensive, completely functional, and powerful enough to pass and out-corner the slowpokes in tippy pickups and SUVs. It’s also bigger than you might think; I never felt cramped.
Nissan and its dealers, I am sure, earn almost nothing from selling the Versa. Expect the salesperson to try to up-sell you to a Sentra or a Kicks crossover. The reality, however, is that the Versa has everything we would have expected in a luxury car from a generation ago, at least as far as comfort, convenience and safety are concerned.