Nissan Versa Note — Room for a family

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Nissan introduced its new Versa sedan nearly two years ago and since then it has become the best-selling subcompact in the country. Now the hatchback version, which is now tagged around the world as the Versa Note, has the makings of becoming a best seller in North America.

The Note hatchback is a stylish five-door — perhaps the best looking small hatchback on the market depending on your taste in design — with the same extraordinary passenger space as the sedan. It’s another good example of the new trend in B-segment cars that go well beyond the small car stereotype of "basic transportation," cheaply made small vehicles that are sold as inexpensive boxes with small, sluggish engines designed to get from point A to point B as inexpensively as possible.

The Versa Note S trim can be purchased relatively stripped down for a low starting price of $14,780 including destination although you may not want to return to crank windows and manual door locks, but for a couple of grand more the Note offers a lot of good things to make driving something to look forward too. And for another couple thousand, Nissan will endow the spacious hatchback with a plethora of goodies including a feature that originally was offered only on its premium Infiniti brand.

The high end SV with SL Tech Package at around $19,000 — a very competitive price next to other loaded hatchbacks — will give you Nissan's Around View Monitor, which provides a 360-degree view around the car to make parking a snap. To prove the point, Nissan provided a car with blacked-out windows to be parked using strictly the camera. It works. Other items on the SL Tech model include keyless ignition/entry, navigation, upgraded audio with satellite radio and heated front seats.

Nissan figures that most buyers will go with the SV trim and add packages as desired. The SV brings full power accessories, remote keyless entry, an interior trim package, automatic transmission (CVT), cruise control, and a decent-sounding audio system.  Starting price is $16,780.

We found after driving on a variety of roads that the Note should appeal to the customer it is seeking. Buyers will initially be attracted to the car's good looks and its cavernous interior, and once on a test drive they will experience good ride quality, a quiet cabin, acceptable acceleration and decent handling.

On paper you might figure that acceleration would be the Note's weak spot. The hatchback is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. Measured times from 0-to-60 are around 10.5 seconds with the CVT, which we discovered was good enough in stop and go city traffic. It’s also good enough (with some engine racket under hard acceleration) to keep things moving on mountain roads and good enough for merging and passing. Nissan engineers say they
have equipped the Note with a low fixed-ratio gear that helps in launch before the CVT takes over at 10 to 15 mph.

But the most pleasing numbers for the Note customer may be 31 and 40. That's the miles-per-gallon rating for city and highway driving. These numbers are possible because of the car's low curb weight (under 2,500 pounds); and attention to aerodynamic detail helping the Note achieve a coefficient of drag (cd) of 0.298, a nine percent decrease over the 2012 Versa hatchback's 0.31.

The styling turns heads. Along with its steeply sloped front windshield and deeply sculpted doors, the Note features a dramatic character line called the "squash line" by Nissan designers. Nissan stylists say the design follows the trajectory of a squash ball hitting a wall, bouncing on the court floor and returning to the player. "This 'rebound path' projects the dynamic energy of Versa Note in both look and driving feel."

Unfortunately, the bold exterior styling was not carried into the interior. The gauges and switchgear are straight-forward and easy to use, but the overall design is basic with yards of hard plastic, particularly when compared to other vehicles in the segment. But Nissan makes up for the bland layout with numerous features not found on many of its competitors at any price.

One of the more interesting interior features is the Divide-N-Hide Adjustable Floor, a rear cargo divider allowing for smaller objects to be stored under the floor and out of view, while larger objects can be stored on top. The divider can be removed for maximum space.

Our well-equipped SV-trim test vehicle came with the SL Tech package with a price of $19,820.

Base Price: $15,780; as driven, $19,820
Engine: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 109 @ 6,000
Torque: 107 foot-pounds @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Length: 163.7 inches
Curb weight: 2,482 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 21.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 38.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 10.8 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 40 highway, 31 city
0-60: 10.4 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Hyundai Accent, Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta

The Good
• Spacious interior
• Segment-leading fuel economy
• Loaded with available features

The Bad
• No telescoping steering wheel

The Ugly
• Weak performance