Is the Cheapest Car in America Any Good?

By 6 Min Read

Cars are too complex. What the hell do I need facial recognition or a 30-inch screen for? I’m not watching Avatar: The Way Of Water in 4K. That’s why it was so refreshing to spend time in the Nissan Versa.

The Versa is currently the cheapest car in America. You can get a base S model with a manual transmission for $17,225 with destination (in theory, if you can find one). With so many cheap cars going the way of the dodo, the Versa is a last bastion of affordability… until it too is discontinued.

Quick Specs 2024 Nissan Versa SR
Engine 1.6-Liter Four-Cylinder
Output 122 Horsepower / 114 Pound-Feet
Transmission Continuously Variable
Fuel Economy 32 City / 40 Highway / 35 Combined MPG
Base Price / As Tested $17,225 / $22,960

An argument against cheap cars is that Americans simply don’t want them. But it’s not true. In the first three months of 2024, Nissan nearly doubled Versa sales over last year. A facelift helps, but even in 2021—a historically bad year for new car sales—Nissan sold more than 60,000 Versas. People still want affordable cars, just look at the numbers.

It’s easy to see why people want the Versa. Even though it is inexpensive, it doesn’t feel cheap. The base S model has a decent 7.0-inch touchscreen, Nissan’s Safety Shield 360 suite standard (which includes automatic emergency braking, a lane-departure warning, and high-beam assist), and the most headroom and legroom of any car in the class. It’s comfy.

Even the fully loaded SR model I drove costs less than $23,000. That gets you a bigger 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, adaptive cruise control, fancy paint options (like Scarlet Ember), and cloth seats with a faux leather-trimmed dash.

Pros: Ample Standard Equipment, Comfortable Cabin, Surprisingly Flingable

The fully loaded Versa feels about as nice a mid-range Buick, which says a lot. The black-on-black, cloth-and-pleather combo looks bland, but orange stitching helps offset the visual monotony. And the overall interior design looks clean. The center touchscreen is crisp and looks modern, too, and CarPlay is a breeze to use.

The Versa was designed to get you from point A to point B without frills, so it’s not a thrill to drive. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine delivers a no-nonsense 122 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission. The base model comes with a five-speed manual. There’s just enough power to move the Versa out of its own way, but you will have to bury the go-fast pedal to reach highway speeds.

2024 Nissan Versa Review
2024 Nissan Versa Review

What’s surprising, though, is how refined the ride is. Apart from too much road noise, the Versa is compliant and comfy. Its suspension feels soft, quickly quashing bumps, and there’s not too much body roll. The steering even has good feedback. Dare I say the Versa is kinda fun to fling around?

My biggest ding against the Versa is the way it looks. The egg-shaped, grille-heavy sedan doesn’t exactly ooze appeal—not that many small cars do. At least the 17-inch directional wheels on this SR model are stylish.

Another small knock against the Versa is that you still can’t get rear-folding seats on the base S model with the manual. It is available on every other trim, though, and the 15.0 cubic feet of trunk space is the best figure in the class. There’s a genuinely impressive amount of room back there—you can fit multiple carry-ons with ease.

2024 Nissan Versa Review

Cons: Not A Looker, No Folding Rear Seat On Base Model, A Touch Sluggish

Where the Versa will really win you over (if it hasn’t already) is at the gas pump. Even though its chief competitor, the Mitsubishi Mirage, is more fuel-efficient (39 combined), the Versa still returns 32 miles per gallon in the city, 40 on the highway, and 35 combined. It’s one of the most efficient non-hybrid cars in America.

So why are small cars dying at an unprecedented rate? As we learned in my column, Cheap Cars Are Dead, automakers don’t see a reason to keep these small cars around, when they can push customers into slightly bigger sedans or SUVs for just 50 extra bucks a month. And that’s not unreasonable.

But when cars like the Nissan Versa still exist at this price, it’s hard to fathom why you’d need to jump in a Kicks or move up to a Sentra at all. The Versa has nearly everything you need at a price that makes sense for everyone. It’s a no-frills, no-bullshit, $20,000 car that, frankly, more people should be driving.

2024 Nissan Versa Review
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