Inexpensive transportation is the bread and butter of the automotive industry.
While a high-performance halo car will drive customers into the showroom, by and large, the masses will opt instead for the fuel economy or price leader, which is sometimes the same car.
Picture the Nissan Versa Note as a double-barreled shotgun. With those two targets in mind, this subcompact is firing from both chambers.
What is it?
Part of the Nissan Versa lineup, the Versa Note hatchback added the second part of its name when it was redesigned for the 2014 model year to stand on its own two, er, four wheels. Actually based on a global market Nissan, which is about a foot shorter than the Versa sedan, the hatchback shares little visible to the consumer with its four-door sibling.
Powered by a singular 1.6-liter four cylinder engine producing 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque, it is unlikely to make anybody's "supercars" list, but that's not what the Versa note is about. Using multi-point fuel injection, it boasts of two injectors per cylinder with continuously variable valve timing to squeeze every ounce of power from its loins.
Power from this front driver gets to wheels via a five-speed manual transmission, which is standard in the base level model or, as in the case of our test model, a Nissan-designed Xtronic continuously variable transmission that features an infinite number of ratios for, theoretically, better acceleration and fuel economy.
Underneath, the Versa note rides on a rather ordinary MacPherson strut front/torsion beam rear axle and the front wheels are steered via a fuel-saving electric setup. Low rolling resistance tires save fuel and, literally, round out the package.
The Versa Note is available in four trim levels ranging from S to mid-grade S Plus, more loaded SV and range-topping SL. Our tester was further ordered up with the Technology Package, which included Nissan's Around View Monitor camera that shows off a birdseye view of the car through the central navigation-equipped screen. NissanConnect infotainment provided hands-free text messaging and Google point of interest location services.
What's it up against?
The players in this segment are all small and mighty: The Honda Fit, Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent are our favorites.
How does it look?
The five-door Versa Note emphasizes utility and practicality as evidenced by its tall, almost "squat MPV" silhoutte. Particularly aerodynamic, it benefits from a swept-back windshield and automatic-deploying shutters hidden behind its grille for high-speed driving. Deflectors underneath further help cheat the wind and give the Versa Note a 0.298 coefficient of drag, which rivals some sports cars.
Speaking of grille, it is unmistakably from the Nissan design studios. An inspired character line that the brand calls a squash (resembling, apparently, the trajectory of a squash ball) adds interest to the side panels, while short overhangs front and rear help to increase the layout of usable space inside.
Our top shelf Note SV featured fog lamps in front and a rear decklid spoiler for interest, if not actual functionality at speed.
And on the inside?
Although small on the outside, the Versa Note surprised occupants with the amount of space it actually boasted inside. Behind the rear seat, shoppers will discover 21.4 cubic feet of cargo space that increases to 38.3 cubes once the second row is folded forward. Below the trunk floor sat Nissan's optional "divide and hide" storage system to keep smaller valuables out of sight.
But not all was perfect as the driver's five way adjustable seat placed us correctly according to pedal distance but not according to the steering wheel, which lacked any telescoping and tilt functions. Rear seat passengers, however, with their 38 inches of legroom, would have no problem in situating themselves for the long haul.
Geared toward a particular price point, the Versa note isn't especially upmarket inside. Plastic chosen because they're cheap and not because they're pretty or durable covered every surfaces, although niceties like a proximity key and the rather upmarket navigation system's six-inch color screen helped out. Still, rivals generally offer more flair and class inside; our loaded-up Versa Note SL felt dressed up to its price point, while, say, the base model Ford Fiesta and Kia Rio feel dressed down to their entry-level sticker.
But does it go?
Well yes, after a fashion. Buyers of the Versa Note will most likely understand that when they plunk down their hard-earned, they are not purchasing the next winner of the Daytona 500. But what they will get is transportation that seemingly sips fuel instead of gulping it in big swigs. Credit for the EPA figures of 31/41 mpg and 35 mpg average goes to the CVT and its rather tall gearing. We saw zero to 60 mph appear in an unscientific 10.6 seconds, which makes this one of the slowest new cars you can buy, but our fuel economy was about par with the government's figures. You win some, you lose some.
That same tall gearing results in less-than-stellar mid-range acceleration. A sudden jab to the accelerator finally sent the signal down the line to the engine room, letting the ponies know it was full steam ahead. At that point, the engine was telegraphing to the cabin its discomfort of having to work so hard.
Yes, Nissan has added double-sealed doors and Thinsulate insulation materials underneath in an effort to restrict road and other noise from entering the cabin, but the Versa Note is definitely loud when driven hard. We found that once the engine and proper gear ratio settle in, the extra insulation takes over to let a certain calmness reclaim the cabin and its occupants.
We felt the "tried and true" MacPherson strut/torsion bar suspension did not encourage enthusiastic driving per se, but it did perform competently during our around town and highway excursions. Smooth ride control was the norm although certain obstacles such as railroad grade crossings and irregular bumps in the road caused a bit of bounciness.
Find a twisty road and the Versa Note feels unsettled and outclassed against rivals like the Fiesta and Fit, although it is competent enough. Its suspension delivers up lots of body lean and a ride that is neither firm nor pillowy soft, instead feeling about average.
Leftlane's bottom line
Scoring mostly for its low base price - before options are added - and its robust fuel economy, the Versa Note is designed to appeal to the buyer who prioritizes numbers above all else.
While not by any means a bad car, the less-than-engaging Versa Note comes up short against similarly-priced competitors once some options are piled on. Consider the Versa Note if you must, but also seriously shop the competition.
2014 Nissan Versa Note base price, $15,990. As tested, $20,015.
Splash guards, $160; SL package, $1,700; Carpeted floor and cargo mats, $170; Rear cargo cover, $90; Rear spoiler, $310; Technology package, $800; Destination, $790.
Photos by Mark Elias.