Versus the competiton:
Editor’s note: This review was written in September 2013 about the 2014 Nissan Versa Note. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2015, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The 2014 Nissan Versa Note merges 21st-century technology and efficiency with basic, affordable transportation. It’s not the sort of car anyone will love, but it should lure plenty of buyers nonetheless.
Nissan redesigned the Versa sedan for 2012 but let the hatchback linger another year in its prior generation. That car held its own versus rivals like the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic (compare the group here). Its successor, which takes its name from international markets — where it’s simply called Note — boasts compelling styling and some interesting technology, but like the Versa sedan, it sacrifices cabin quality and drivability.
Trim levels include the S, S Plus and SV, with an SL Package atop the SV that effectively forms a fourth, top-of-the-line trim. Click here to compare them or here to compare the Versa Note with the Versa sedan, which we cover separately. The Versa Note S comes with a five-speed manual transmission, while the S Plus, SV and SL have a continuously variable automatic transmission. (Versa sedans have the CVT or, in lesser trims, a four-speed auto. The Note’s only automatic is the CVT.) The SL has a Tech Package, which came on our test car.
The Note jettisons a lot of its sibling’s styling cues — a good thing, as the Versa sedan is as bland as the breakfast at a budget motel. Gone are the droopy headlights, replaced by creased bezels that connect to a wider grille. Chiseled bumper openings replace the sedan’s dopey yawn; a sharp, wheels-to-the-edges profile banishes the sedan’s bulky overhangs.
The Versa Note is still a small car — almost a foot shorter than the Versa sedan and an inch narrower than the Fiesta and Sonic hatchbacks — and that becomes apparent from afar. Still, standard cues like body-colored mirrors and door handles avoid the econobox look. Fifteen-inch steel wheels with plastic covers are standard; fog lights and 15- or 16-inch alloy wheels are optional.
The Note’s 1.6-liter four-cylinder requires a strong right foot to summon much acceleration, but once you do, the CVT summons enough torque to scamper past slow traffic with little delay — if noisily. Drive with a softer foot and the Versa feels pokey.
Ride quality is mixed. The Note has pitchy body motions like the Versa sedan, with soft, generic response to broken pavement. It lacks both the Fiesta’s precise ride quality and the Fit’s point-and-go fun. But the Nissan holds itself well over midcorner ruts, refusing to shimmy off-course on broken pavement. Ruts or not, avoid higher speeds on those corners; the car’s nose pushes wide early and often, and our tester’s P195/55R16 tires were to grip what a hatchet is to logging.
On the highway, the Note stays on course with few steering corrections — an improvement over its predecessor, and an area where competitors like the Hyundai Accent still struggle — but there’s plenty of road and wind noise. The brakes employ discs up front but drums in back, which is common among subcompacts. Pedal feel is linear enough given the hardware, but hard stops induce antilock intervention quickly.
Over 200-plus miles of mixed city/highway driving, we averaged around 35 mpg — right on target with the Versa Note’s EPA ratings of 31/40/35 mpg city/highway/combined. The ratings beat automatic versions of the Fiesta (32 to 34 mpg in combined ratings, depending on configuration), Fit (30 to 31 mpg), Sonic (28 to 31 mpg) and Accent (31 mpg) hatchbacks.
Like the Versa sedan, the Note has plenty of room. The front seats track far enough back for drivers in the 6-foot-plus range, with enough headroom for long torsos. A height-adjustable driver’s seat comes in the Versa SV, but the jack-style adjuster only brings the seat cushion up and forward, as opposed to lifting the entire seat. That alters thigh support and lumbar as you raise or lower the seat, which may drive some owners batty. What’s more, no trim has a telescoping steering adjustment — something the Fiesta, Fit and others offer — which limits the driving position even more.
Backseat room is plentiful, with generous legroom and plenty of headroom. The rear doors are rather narrow, however, and the seats sit a bit low to the floor, leaving adults’ knees elevated. Given the generous headroom, I wish Nissan sat it higher.
Cabin styling and materials are similar to the Versa sedan, save a fancier woven headliner (the Versa SL sedan gets it for 2014). Materials are low-budget, with plenty of hard, shiny plastics, even for an entry-level car. Perhaps the worst offenders are the door armrests, which are hard cutouts. Even the Fit throws a shred of padding there, while the Fiesta and Toyota Yaris have legit arm cushions.
Amid the quality blight are a lot of premium options. Audio systems include an available 4.3-inch display or a 5.8-inch navigation system. The latter borrows intuitive finger-flick map scrolling from smartphones, an area in which most in-car navigation systems are still behind the times. SV trims include steering-wheel audio controls and Bluetooth phone connectivity, while the SL has heated cloth seats, a backup camera and keyless access with push-button start. The SL Tech Package adds Nissan’s 360-degree Around View Monitor, a navigation system, Pandora integration and Bluetooth streaming audio. It’s a steal at $800, but it means you have to pick every option just to get Bluetooth streaming audio, which has fast become a must-have convenience. Even then, leather seats, automatic climate control and a moonroof — features available in some competitors — can’t be had in the Note.
The passenger room doesn’t translate to the cargo area, where room behind the backseat amounts to a competitive — but not outsized — 18.8 cubic feet. Nissan’s optional Divide-N-Hide adjustable floor includes a movable partition that raises the load floor for a flat, unbroken plane with hidden storage underneath if you fold the seats down. You can also collapse it into the floor for maximum cargo height. It’s a nifty contraption that moves along guided rails, but its capacity in the higher position is just 110 pounds — a rating several heavy suitcases could exceed.
Fold the seats down and maximum cargo room totals a modest 38.3 cubic feet — ahead of the Fiesta (26 cubic feet) but well short of the Accent (47.5), Sonic (47.7) and Fit (57.3).
The Versa Note has yet to be crash-tested. Click here for a full list of safety features.
Including the destination charge, the Versa Note starts under $15,000, making it a blue-light special in this class. Load it up with crowd-pleasing features like Bluetooth, power windows and locks, keyless entry and an automatic transmission, and the car still runs less than $17,000. That’s hundreds — and in some cases more than $1,000 — cheaper than most competitors with those features. The Note sacrifices a lot to get there, but for budget-conscious hatchback shoppers, the math may still work out — and the extra passenger room is gravy.