The Nissan Versa and Hyundai Accent compete for the entry-level shopper. Each one comes in five-door hatchback and four-door body styles; four-cylinder engines with frugal economy are included in the price of entry.
Neither is among our top-ranked subcompacts, but if you’ve narrowed down your shopping list to these two, which one should you buy?
The Versa scores a 5 out of 10 using our new standards, but we haven’t yet had an opportunity to evaluate the 2017 Accent using the same metrics. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
On the other hand, the Versa is comfortable, smooth, and remarkably large inside. You will, however, sacrifice performance, driving fun, and any semblance of premium materials or controls.
MORE: Read our latest reviews of the 2017 Nissan Versa and 2016 Hyundai Accent
The Versa sedan strongly resembles its larger siblings, the Sentra, Altima, and Maxima sedans. The arched roofline and a few Infiniti cues in the sheetmetal can appear refined, the proportions don’t work as smoothly at the front or rear, especially on the smallest wheels and tires. Inside, the Versa’s undeniably basic role is immediately apparently, with trim, switches, and other controls that have a simple, cheap, parts-bin look.
The Accent still looks good to our eyes despite being in its fifth model year. The elegant lines are based on the Fluidic Sculpture design language, and the five-door hatchback especially is attractive. The four-door sedan is less so, with a high, thick trunk and roof pillars. Interior quality is good with the usual exception of some trim bits down low.
The Versa’s 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is simply underpowered against many competitors. To the 35-mpg combined fuel economy requires the sluggish continuously variable transmission (CVT). Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph takes almost 12 seconds, and the powertrain howls and booms if you accelerate hard. At the very bottom of the Versa range, the base S model comes standard with a five-speed manual gearbox–and its optional four-speed automatic transmission is one of the few left these days. They’re cheap, but fuel efficiency falls to 30 mpg combined–subpar for the segment. While its steering is well-weighted, it’s very light and requires constant small corrections to stay on track at higher speeds. Add it all up and you have a car that is far from fun or sporty to drive.
The Hyundai Accent is more powerful, with a 137-hp 1.6-liter four that mates well with the smooth-shifting six-speed automatic. It includes a Sport mode and manual control, but acceleration is still lackluster. The six-speed manual gearbox, which has a light clutch, may be a choice, giving better acceleration performance, better fuel economy (31 mpg combined) and more enjoyable driving. The Accent accelerates, steers, and handles in an adequate, predictable way.
Where the Nissan excels is in sheer volume of space for people and cargo. The front seats are well-bolstered in the backrests, paired with short, flat, unsupportive bottom cushions. Four adults can fit into a Versa, though it’s best if they’re not among your very tallest friends. But only upper trim levels get the folding back seat that doubles the space in the large trunk and turns the Versa as a shopping cart or moving van.
The interior of the Hyundai is comfortable and spacious for passengers, one of the best in its class. Even tall passengers can get in and out of the front seats easily; inside, they have enough headroom and legroom. Back-seat space is respectable for a car this size, and there’s plenty of room for smaller items,
Safety is not a strong spot for either vehicle, partly reflecting their age. Both the Versa Sedan and the Versa Note hatchback have safety ratings that are checkered. The NHTSA gives the Versa four stars out of five in all tests, and the IIHS gave the 2015 version its worst rating of “poor” on the new small-overlap front crash test (it hasn’t scored the 2016, however). The Accent too scores four stars with the federal government, and there are extra notes about its performance in side crashes as well. In IIHS testing, the Accent also received a poor score on the small-overlap test. Neither car offers any of the latest electronic active-safety systems.
With gas prices low and buyers flocking wholesale to SUVs of all sizes, the segment for subcompact economy cars is a tough one. But even within that group, neither the Nissan Versa nor the Hyundai Accent stand out as exceptional. The Versa offers value for money, at the price of slow, noisy, and grim travel. The Accent has nicer lines, but isn’t remarkable in any way that sets it apart from the pack.
Either one will get you from A to B, but there are other choices you may find more rewarding to spend hours of driving time in. We’re particularly fond of the cheerful, uber-flexible Honda Fit hatchback, with its Magic Seat that folds up, down, and sideways to turn the Fit into a moving van, a large mobile couch, and other useful configurations.
Follow The Car Connection on Facebook and Twitter.