Generally, we use Buy This, Not That to compare two models that share a common platform and decide which one wears it best. But this week, we’re going to make an exception. Because for the past few years, Nissan has become the fastest growing automotive brand in America thanks to its expansive lineup. But what really makes it shine is its number of compacts — compact trucks, compact crossovers, compact cars — you name it. If it’s compact, Nissan probably builds one.
And as far as compact sedans go, Nissan fields two strong sellers: the Versa and the Sentra. On the surface, these two cars look startlingly similar: Both are around 15 feet long (with the Versa being a little smaller), both have four doors, a trunk, can seat five, and can mostly be had in the low-to-mid $10K range. The Versa definitely slots below the Sentra in Nissan’s pecking order, but both cars can be well-optioned, and with end-of-year dealer incentives, we’d be shocked if some budget-minded buyers weren’t cross-shopping the two at around $16K.
So which one is better at that price point: Nissan’s long-running compact, the Sentra, or its newer, more compact compact, the Versa? There’s plenty of daylight between these two cars, and that’s what we’re interested in looking at this week as we go off the script to explore two of the most popular small sedans in America.
Tale of the tape:
The long-running Sentra has always been a stalwart for Nissan. Built on the venerable B platform, the current model can actually trace its roots back to the 1992 model. Hell, Nissan still has that car in production in Mexico, where it’s one of the most popular cars on the road! But despite its dated underpinnings, Nissan has been game in updating the U.S. spec car consistently, so it no longer looks, drives, or crashes like something that was built during George H.W. Bush’s administration.
2015 was a banner year for the Sentra, as Nissan sold over 200,000 of them for the first time this century. It looks like it’s on track to beat that number in 2016. And it makes sense; starting at just under $17K, the Sentra has a good-looking (if inoffensive) design that recalls the bigger Altima and Maxima. In base S trim, the car’s 1.8 liter inline-four is backed by a six-speed manual transmission — so score one for the purists. Even though you’re rowing your own, 137 horsepower means a sluggish 9.5 second zero to 60 time, so be careful on those onramps. If you want an automatic, you’ll have to pony up nearly 19 large for the SV model, and then you’ll be dealing with Nissan’s, ahem, polarizing, Continuously Variable Transmission.
Being a little smaller, the Versa also puts out a little less power. But it’s also a little newer; the Versa is built on the V platform, and has been around (with various updates) since 2011. It’s not quite as popular as the Sentra, but over 144,000 found buyers last year, and it’s on track to match or beat that number this year. A 1.6 liter four is good for a buzzy 109 horsepower, but in top trim — that’s the $17K SL — that also means it’s mated to the CVT. If you’re seriously budget-minded, the 1.6 is available with either a five-speed stick or honest-to-god four-speed auto in lower trims.
For 17 large, SL buyers get 16 inch alloys, fog lights, push-button start, a backup camera, and NissanConnect with a 5.8-inch touchscreen. The base Sentra may be bigger and a little more comfortable, but if you want what the loaded Versa’s got (plus a bit more), you’ll be in danger of dropping over $20K on your small Nissan.
Remember: These are entry-level compact cars, so if you’re looking for luxury or performance, you’re best to look used. These cars are slow, they don’t handle well, and they don’t exactly offer an engaging driving experience. But that’s OK — they’re not for enthusiasts. If you want a new, affordable, reliable car, the Versa and Sentra are both good bets — and clearly the American public thinks so too. Despite recent facelifts (2015 for the Versa, ’16 for the Sentra), the Versa looks older. Its slab-sides, oversize lights, and tiny wheels give it away for what it is: a budget car. The Sentra looks better, there’s a lot more room for options at the top, and its interior is nicer, too. But if it were our money, we’d embrace the compact and go for the big-budget Versa SL over the entry level Sentra S.