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Published: 07/03/2013 - by Mark Takahashi, Automotive Editor
By the numbers, the 2014 Nissan Versa Note has the potential to rule the entry-level car segment. By Nissan's reckoning, this new hatchback lays claim to best-in-class fuel economy, passenger room and cargo space. The Versa Note further entices shoppers with one of the lowest sticker prices in the hatchback class, along with a few exclusive features.
But numbers don't always tell the whole story, so we got behind the wheel of the Versa Note in San Diego to see how this new hatchback stacks up.
Considering the modest $13,990 price tag for the no-frills base model, our expectations were decidedly low, and the Note easily met and sometimes exceeded them. In other areas, though, and especially compared to its competition, the little Nissan came up a little short.
High and Low Notes
In terms of styling, the 2014 Nissan Versa Note exhibits significantly more visual interest than the unimaginative Versa sedan. The designers incorporated some Nissan styling cues like headlights from the 2013 Nissan Leaf and taillights from the Z sports car, along with a strong character line on the side to break up the expansive door panels. Among competing hatchbacks, the Note's exterior design holds up well.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Note's interior, which is nearly identical to the sedan. It's the most basic of layouts, with plenty of hard plastics. Compared to competing hatchbacks, this Versa's cabin is uninteresting and dated-looking. That said, most systems and controls in our range-topping SV trim with SL Tech package test car were easy to operate and functioned as intended. Perhaps there's something to be said for simplicity, but it still doesn't need to be plain.
To the Note's credit, there is an abundance of space inside. This is especially true for the rear seats, which can comfortably accommodate full-size adults thanks to its class-leading 38.3 inches of legroom and generous headroom. Up front, there's ample space as well, but we took issue with the seats themselves.
We found the shoulder sections of the seatbacks too narrow for our 5-foot-10 frame. Had we been 3 inches shorter, it may not have been an issue. Regardless of height, we're confident that front passengers would find the hard plastic door armrests objectionable. Using both elbow perches simultaneously will make you feel as if you have scoliosis.
When it comes to cargo capacity, the Note beats the competition, with 21.4 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats. The rear seats fold flat for bigger items and there's also a built-in cargo divider to keep smaller items out of view below, while allowing larger parcels to be transported on top.
There's nothing inspiring about the way the 2014 Nissan Versa Note drives. And in this class that comes as no surprise. This isn't a car made to slice through canyons or beat other cars away from stoplights. No, the Note is just an honest and inexpensive way to get around.
The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine makes a satisfactory 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. The base S trim comes only with a five-speed manual, while the vast majority sold will feature a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Nissan has a reputation for producing decent CVTs, but drivers unfamiliar with shiftless driving may have to adjust to the Versa.
And shiftless is a somewhat appropriate description of this drivetrain feel. Accelerating up to highway speeds requires a firmly planted accelerator. The revs climb lazily, then remain there while the engine emits a very loud and strained mooing noise. There's little sensation that you're really making any headway until you look down at the speedometer. Once you let off the pedal, though, the bovine drone stops immediately and revs drop below the 2,000-rpm mark for quiet cruising.
Passing slower traffic or tackling steep grades takes some planning, as the CVT is mostly unresponsive until you floor the pedal once again. Then you wait for the underhood cow to awaken to pull past. When it comes to power, the Note goes no further than adequate.
We were pleasantly surprised, however, by how calm the cabin remains on the interstates. Road and wind noise are kept in check as well or better than other economical hatchbacks. With the engine revving low, long stretches behind the wheel are agreeably fatigue-free.
In the handling department, the Versa Note is also solid, as it manages to track through corners without any drama. According to Eric Vaughen, the Versa team manager, the engineers weren't shooting for sporty, instead opting for just a whiff of fun. Admittedly, catching that whiff takes some concentration.
We did pick up a lack of compliance over moderate-to-large dips and bumps, though. Small cracks and ruts were well absorbed by the tire sidewalls, but anything larger resulted in unsettlingly large reactions followed by residual rebounds. It's not unlike a rough landing in a commercial jet.
Of all the figures the new 2014 Nissan Versa Note is touting, its EPA fuel economy ratings are its most impressive. Fuel economy sees a healthy improvement for the CVT, with a 31 city/40 highway and 35 mpg combined estimate. That's up from 28/34/30 mpg from its hatchback predecessor.
Nissan accomplished this through an aggressive weight loss campaign. The engineers managed to slim down the compact hatchback by a whopping 300 pounds. Then they took it a step further by adding improved aerodynamic elements that include an active shutter grille that opens and closes according to vehicle speed.
Then there are the Versa Note's bells and whistles that may serve as further enticement. Items like heated front seats, a Google-enhanced navigation system, voice recognition, Pandora and hands-free text messaging either meet or beat rival offerings. There's also a class-exclusive around-view camera system that makes parallel parking a no-brainer.
These perks do kick up the price, of course. The range-topping SV trim with option packages stickers at $19,280.
The 2014 Nissan Versa Note's low price of admission will certainly have an undeniable appeal for tight budgets. The Note undercuts the perennial favorite 2013 Honda Fit by $1,435, a sizable savings for a car in this class. On the other hand, the 2013 Kia Rio hatchback beats the Versa by $190 so it's not the least expensive choice in the class.
More likely than not, deciding on the Versa Note will come down to the bottom line at both the dealer and the gas pump. In that regard, sensibility will keep it humming along just fine.
Yes, you can do better when it comes to interior design and ride refinement, but it'll cost you. The new Note delivers on the basics: great fuel economy, a spacious interior and predictable handling. Nothing exciting, nothing surprising, just straightforward utility and efficiency in a cleanly styled package.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.