By Brian Wong for Cars.com
Nissan redesigned the Versa sedan in 2012 as one of the most affordable cars you could buy even if it wasn't the best performer on the road. That didn't stop it from becoming one of the best-selling entry-level cars in the country.
The hatchback version, called the Versa Note, took a few more years to reach the market, and it too focuses on value in a crowded segment. The new Versa Note shaved $680 dollars off the predecessor's base price and now features class-leading fuel economy.
But could it offer a better driving experience than the sedan?
More for the Money
We tested a fully optioned Versa Note (SV with the SL Tech Package) around San Diego to find out. The test car came with several class-exclusive features, including Nissan's Around View Monitor and active grille shutters to improve fuel economy. Also included were premium features like heated front seats, the NissanConnect infotainment system with a 5.8-inch touch-screen and push-button start. This is not likely the version of the Note most shoppers will opt for, but it illustrates what can be had even in this class. A base model with a continuously variable transmission starts at $16,030, including destination, while the test car will go for $19,280.
The Around View Monitor is a favorite feature, using cameras placed in the front/rear and under each side mirror to display a bird's eye view of the Versa Note on the 5.8-inch touch-screen. Pressing the "Camera" button toggles the view between the bird's eye view and a curb view for easier parallel parking.
The NissanConnect system was easy to use; Bluetooth smartphone pairing was quick and painless, and the Google points of interest search worked as advertised. A quick Google search for restaurants in the area returned a list of nearby eateries.
In addition to the active grille shutters, about 300 pounds has been shaved off the curb weight giving the Versa Note improved fuel economy. The CVT-equipped Versa Note models, like our tester, are rated at 31/40/35 mpg city/highway/combined. The city/combined figures are best-in-class, while the highway figure is tied with several others for the segment lead.
On the Road
I was not expecting world-record-beating speed from the Versa Note, but it was a letdown nonetheless. Merging and passing maneuvers, especially on inclines, require advanced planning. When you put your foot down, the Xtronic CVT is surprisingly reactive, shifting into the upper rpm range quickly, but the engine just doesn't have the legs to translate that to ample forward motion. This generated a few scares when trying to hop onto the freeway quickly or trying to maneuver out of trouble spots on busy roads.
The Versa Note's ride and steering are much improved though. The shortened overhang (it is about a foot shorter than the sedan) makes turn-in seem quicker, and the electric power steering has been retuned to eliminate some of the vagueness older models had at highway speeds. Once you do get going, the weight loss and accurate steering makes the Versa Note a little fun to toss into corners. Over stretches of broken pavement, the suspension did well with the bumps, and it was compliant enough to make longer drives comfortable.
One feature that I appreciated around town was the Versa's visibility, thanks to big windows on all sides. The beltline does not ride up high, which means rear passengers won't feel claustrophobic, and the hatchback has a tall back window, which offers great rear visibility, something that cannot be said about other cars in the segment like the Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent.
Small Car, Big Room
The Versa Note's most impressive quality was its roomy interior, with a plethora of headroom and legroom for both front and backseat passengers. Shoulder room will get tight if you try to fit five passengers inside, but with up to four passengers, there's plenty of room.
Cargo room is also a strength: A class-leading 21.4 cubic feet is found behind the second row, which expands to 38.3 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. The Honda Fit has 20.6 cubic feet and 57.3 cubic feet respectively with the Accent's numbers at 21.2 and 47.5 cubic feet.
Nissan added a unique Divide-N-Hide adjustable load floor that has a panel that acts as a second flat floor or a raised shelf. This doubles as a cargo cover to hide valuable as well as a place to lay light cargo like dry cleaning.
Nissan engineers confirmed that the load floor, when raised, is only rated up to 100 pounds.
The 2014 Versa Note checks all the right boxes and hits almost all the right, forgive me, notes. It is roomy, fuel-efficient, affordable and technology-laden, but is let down by an engine that tries hard but simply can't keep up.
However, if history tells us anything, car shoppers may overlook the car's lack of driving prowess because of its value promises.
Photos by Brian Wong for Cars.com