The little Japanese car that could
The Versa nameplate, taken from the word “Versatility”, is an easy giveaway as to what the vehicle’s intentions are.
Nissan, not including Infiniti, has a somewhat interesting lineup to offer in 2013. They aim to be a full-line manufacturer – offering basic no-nonsense, frill-free transportation for the masses at one end of the market, but they also offer a hardcore (again) no-nonsense speed destroying machine that happens to put down some astonishing numbers. Between their flagship GT-R, and their smallest most inexpensive vehicle, there is a delta of nearly $100,000. Can Nissan channel the same expertise and brilliance in engineering across the whole brand, or will we see something entirely different? I decided to test-drive the 2014 Nissan Versa Note to find out.
The Versa is Nissan’s entry-level offering. Price conscious consumers looking for the most value have been attracted to its aggressive pricing and high value factor. The Versa nameplate, taken from the word “Versatility”, is an easy giveaway as to what the vehicle’s intentions are. The Versa Note, new for 2013 replaces the previous Versa Hatchback and updates the styling to current brand standards. My tester was a “Brilliant Silver” Versa Note, in SL trim.
Considering the Note’s tidy exterior dimensions, one of the first things you notice is the sheer volume of space. There’s tons of headroom, generous legroom, and even enough width to stretch out a little bit. Rear seat passengers are treated to luxury-car amounts of legroom – easily at the top of the class in this regard. Out back, the upright hatchback opens to reveal Nissan’s trademarked “Divide-N-Hide” adjustable floor (standard on the SL), which is a simple panel that either makes for a flat load floor with the rear seats folded down, or drops the load floor about three inches to help fit taller items. Another small bonus: the rear doors open to nearly 90-degrees. Nissan has clearly thought about this car’s packaging and giving people more space to put more stuff.
The Note is powered by a 1.6L four-cylinder engine, producing 109 horsepower and 104 lb-ft of torque. It is paired up with either a five-speed manual or Nissan’s Xtronic CVT, a $1,300 option, regardless of trim level. My tester was the even more simplistic five-speed model. Following a somewhat new trend, the CVT is actually more efficient than the do-it-yourself version. The five-speed model is rated at 7.4L/100km in the city, and 5.4L/100km on the highway. The CVT’s nearly infinite range of gearing helps keep revs, and also noise, down. A sixth gear would have been helpful: 100km/h pegs the engine at 3000rpm. I averaged 6.8L/100km in mixed driving.
My Versa Note SL was pretty well-equipped, with 16” aluminum wheels, fog lights, push-button start, rear-view camera, heated seats, and the Divide-N-Hide load floor. Being Nissan’s smallest and least-expensive model, it has what most people would want in a basic A-to-B car. The Note SL rides on 195-section Bridgestone Ecopia tires on 16-inch wheels. These are all-season tires of the low rolling resistance variety. Whenever I see the words “low rolling resistance”, I think of low grip. These tires help automakers achieve higher fuel efficiency ratings, but make pretty much everybody else unhappy. For most drivers, this really isn’t an issue, but I found the limits to be hilariously low. A slightly vigorous launch would see the tires loudly howl in protest. In short, this is really not a car you want to drive with any sense of urgency.
For a car that seems to focus so much on versatility, I assumed the driving experience would take a backseat (pun intended). Power, fuel efficiency, and braking, were all perfectly adequate for regular commuter A-to-B duty, but when it came to the smaller (yet still important) details, the Note was slightly disappointing. The interface that is the gear shifter and clutch were not conductive to smooth, precision driving. The shifter throws were long and notchy. The clutch, while light, offered less feedback than I’d have liked. Even after almost a week with the car, I was not able to become perfectly smooth when launching the car from a stop. My issues would be solved by opting for the CVT transmission. The fact that you get better fuel efficiency with it is icing on the cake.
After initially being impressed by the sheer volume available inside the Versa Note, I discovered an issue with the fit and finish. While one should not and cannot expect plush soft-touch materials everywhere at this sort of price point, the Note seems to take this to the next level. The armrests in the doors are hard plastic and slightly uncomfortable. The tops of the plastic door panels aren’t fully cut with 100% precision, leaving behind little plastic “hairs” from the molding process. Despite these issues, the steering wheel lifted from the Sentra is leather-wrapped and very good to use. The instrument cluster is also typical Nissan and is easy-to-read as well as functional.
The Versa Note is priced from $13,348 for the base 1.6S model all the way up to $16,698 for the well-equipped SL. This undercuts the competition by about a few hundred dollars regardless of the trim level you choose. I personally like driver controls and inputs that are a little more welcoming to the enthusiast, as well as attention to small details, so I would personally prefer sportier offerings such as the Honda Fit Sport. There are many choices out there in the subcompact segment, each with their own strong suits. The Nissan Versa Note happens to be excellent at providing the maximum amount of space for the least amount of dollar, so if that’s what you’re after, it should be at the top of your list.
2014 Nissan Versa Note SL Gallery