It has been said that when career criminal Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he answered with the utterance, "because, that's where the money is."
Nissan is pretty much following the same course, bringing another B-segment (that's subcompact to you and me) player into the fold, because, as they have figured out, that's where the customers are.
We checked out the new 2014 Nissan Versa Note
in San Diego as it joins the redesigned-last-year Versa sedan as the anchor of Nissan's lineup.
The hatchback of middle Tennessee
With apologies to the Hunchback, we couldn't resist the play on words. The Note is a five-door hatchback design that, frankly, doesn't look much like its sedan sibling.
Conservative but surprisingly interesting to behold, the Versa Note looks far more cohesive than the Versa four-door.
One of the main points of interest lies in the side panels with their "squash character lines." Designed to simulate the trajectory of a squash ball as it hurls towards a wall, bounces to the floor and then back to the player, a similar look is seen that does offer a change from some of the slabbier looks we find in the auto design field.
At the same time, the Versa Note's front and rear boomer lights grab inspiration from its 370Z and Juke brothers.
Both the Note and the sedan are based on the same new B-segment architecture that's fresher but designed to remain more compact that the outgoing Versa's underpinnings. There's not a lot to grab headlines - the 1.6-liter, 109 horsepower, 107 lb-ft. of torque four-cylinder makes use of continuously variable valve timing to net 31/40 mpg with the optional CVT. Base Versa Notes will include a five-speed manual gearbox.
Helping to achieve such numbers are improvements in aerodynamics, which now yield a 0.298 drag coefficient, which the brand is quick to say is lower than many sports cars. Such tricks like a radically swept-back windshield, shorter overhangs, Nissan's first active grille shutters and under-body deflectors all play a part in cheating the effects of wind on fuel consumption.
Inside, the cabin is relatively frill-free - and in this case that's good. Simplified controls and buttons adorn the hard-plastic dashboard, with the most complications coming from how to set the clock on the optional navigation screen's 5.8-inch display monitor. One feature that is usually found in higher line vehicles that still managed to find its way into the Note is the pushbutton starter.
The fabric-only seats were surprisingly comfortable and cool, until an accidental flick of the optional seat heater switch on the center console made the interior as warm as a sunny day in Death Valley. Yep, we're in an era where economy cars can be equipped with butt warmers.
Adding to the tech quotient is Nissan's Around-View monitor system, part of the uplevel SL Tech package, which uses cameras located in the front, rear and sides, to make it appear as though a bird's eye view camera is being held over the top of the car to give an almost 360-degree view on the in-dash display. One downside: The screen washes out with polarized sunglasses. You'll find the same feature in high-end Infinitis; trickle-down economics are clearly in play.
The interior space has increased 4 cubic feet over the outgoing model, checking in with what Nissan claims is best in class cargo capacity of 21.4 cubic feet and an available "divide and hide" system, which sets up what is essentially a false floor where owners can stow valuables. Moving forward, the rear seat has 38 inches of legroom, again leading the segment, and makes for a comfortable second row accommodation.
The Versa Note's 1.6-liter proved stout at slow speeds but still required extra effort to get into the groove. Although this is the world's first CVT with a sub-planetary gear, the engine managed to get past the rather tall gearing (in place for increased fuel economy) but not without letting us know it was working its behind off to do so.
In the twisties, we did feel a touch of torque steer present itself, which means you might need to keep both hands on the wheels. But with such limited power on tap, the Versa Note is easy to control.
The ride was smooth but softly sprung, which allowed it to absorb the rough roads found around fiscally-challenged Southern California. Credit the simple MacPherson strut/torsion beam suspension setup. On the other hand, we were pleasantly surprised by the relatively quiet ride that came (or didn't come) from the Note. Thanks to countermeasures including double-sealed doors, acoustic windshields and Thinsulate material throughout, the overall package managed to keep the interior relatively quiet.
We are not exactly fans of low rolling resistance tires, but combined with all the other technology found in the Note, it adds up to what Nissan claims is a 17 percent improvement in fuel economy.
Leftlane's bottom line
Nissan's Versa Note offers capabilities that are welcome to budget-conscious singles, new families and empty nesters alike. The fact that it offers good room utilization and very good fuel economy only adds to its allure.
The need to haul people and their things in a small, stylish package has always been a goal of their intended market segments. With a variety of trim levels and Nissan's market-churning aggressive pricing structure (our to-the-gills tester listed for about $19,000), the Versa Note should manage to grab itself a healthy share of the pie.
One other thing: The Nissan Versa Note is a mouthful. Why not just call it the Note?
2014 Nissan Versa Note
base price $13,990.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.