Base Camp: 2021 Nissan Versa S
Every week, wheels.ca selects a new vehicle on sale in Canada and takes a good look at its entry-level trim. If we find it worthy of your consideration, we'll let you know. If not, we'll recommend one that earns a passing grade.
For the 2021 model year, Nissan has completely revamped its smallest car. New styling and a new interior bring the Versa in line with the rest of its offerings, a serious upgrade from what looked like a battered Beirut taxi not long ago. These days, it can be difficult to tell the Versa apart from its larger Sentra and Altima brothers at a quick glance – and that’s a good thing.
At a starting price of $16,498 we find the entry-level S model that comes with a 1.6L four-cylinder and an honest-to-real manual transmission with hill-holding capability for new or nervous drivers. A total of 122 horsepower is on par for this segment. Basic 15-inch steel wheels with hubcaps loudly advertise your penny-pinching ways, as do the black door handles and side view mirror covers.
However, those covers contain mirrors that are power adjustable, a rare luxury at this end of the food chain. Nissan also chose to keep the fog lamps from more expensive trims on this base model, sparing the ignominy of owning a vehicle with blank block-off plates in a pair of empty fog lamp buckets. Only three colours are available, all on the greyscale.
Despite its affordable sticker price, the 2021 Versa S packs several active driving aids. Intelligent emergency braking with (front and rear) is standard equipment, as are a lane departure warning system and high beam assist. With the sensors for all this tech, a bright spark at Nissan realized adding cruise control would be a simple matter.
Air conditioning is included, marking the end of days when buying a base model subcompact car meant one would be literally sweatin’ to the oldies on their way to work. Windows and locks are electric, and the push-button start means no digging for keys. The steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake. A 7-inch touchscreen handles infotainment duties and three USB ports means there are plenty of places to charge up a device.
What We’d Choose
As disciples of the manual transmission, we’d find it difficult to recommend a more expensive Versa if someone is simply looking for decently equipped basic transportation. An automatic transmission adds $1500 to the Versa S (and body-coloured mirrors, oddly) that is not an insignificant sum in this price bracket.
Note as well that the manual transmission model’s rear seat doesn’t fold down, meaning you’re outta luck if trying to bring a Kallax shelf unit home from IKEA. Nissan’s CVT automatic is also notoriously efficient, netting an extra 1L/100km, meaning the average driver will save about $200 per year on fuel compared to the manual transmission model. Still, the extra upfront cost means it’ll take over seven years to net any savings.
If you can deal with the lack of folding rear seat, and don’t skip leg day at the gym, it looks like the manual transmission wins. Again.