How important is vehicle sticker price? How imperative is fuel economy? What about passenger room and technology?
Nissan is hoping that consumers find all four objective measurements significant, because the all-new 2014 Versa Note excels in each of those areas. Not only does the five-door deliver the most competitive pricing, but it provides best-in-class combined fuel economy and best-in-class total interior volume. And the new model offers a full range of innovative technology, including available navigation and the automaker's impressive Around-View monitor to ease parking.
But how crucial are the model's more subjective traits – qualities like driver and passenger comfort, usable cargo space and driving dynamics? Can a new subcompact remain competitive if it doesn't perform equally as well in those categories?
Nissan pulled the covers off its new Versa Note at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year. The five-door replaces the Versa Hatchback to sit side-by-side with the Versa Sedan in Nissan showrooms (deliveries started in mid-June). Compared to the Versa Sedan, the Note rides on an identical 102.4-inch wheelbase, but the new model is nearly a full foot shorter than its four-door sibling. The Note and Sedan are equal in width, but the Note is slightly taller. The curb weight of the Note, with a continuously variable transmission, is only 2,460 pounds – that's about the same as the sedan, yet some 300 pounds lighter than the discontinued hatchback.
In terms of styling, the Note is a leap forward compared to the outgoing hatchback. It has a sharply raked windshield that helps pull off its clean and aerodynamic shape (Nissan is quick to point out its "squash" character line and Juke- and 370Z-inspired tail lights). Hatchbacks aren't the slipperiest shapes when moving through the wind, but the automaker has gone to great lengths to pare down the Note's drag. The mirrors have been moved off the A-pillars and a large front splitter and tire deflector help keep air from beneath the vehicle. Even the fuel tank and rear suspension beams have been engineered flush with aerodynamics in mind. Lastly, active grill shutters close tight to limit unnecessary airflow into the engine compartment. Nissan boasts that the Note earns a drag coefficient of 0.298 on CVT models. (However, a bit of research reveals that the shape of the Versa sedan is still slightly more efficient at 0.288 in the S Plus CVT, SV and SL models.)
The curb weight of the Note is only 2,460 pounds, some 300 pounds lighter than the discontinued hatchback.
All Note models are front-wheel drive, sharing the same 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine as the Versa Sedan. The all-aluminum engine (internal code HR16DE) is rated at 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque, and it has a redline of 6,500 rpm. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual, but it is only offered in the base model, while all other trims are fitted with Nissan's next-generation Xtronic CVT.
Other mechanical specifications include an independent front suspension with a torsion beam rear axle and disc brakes up front (rear brakes are drum). Standard models are fitted with 15-inch steel wheels with plastic wheel covers (185/65HR15 tires), but more premium grades wear 16-inch alloys and slightly wider tires (195/55HR16) at all four corners. Lastly, steering is electrically assisted across the board.
The entry-level model, known as the Note S, starts at just $13,990.
Nissan will offer the Versa Note in a variety of trim levels. The entry-level model, known as the Note S, starts at just $13,990 (not including the mandatory $790 destination and handling fee) and includes the 1.6-liter engine mated to a 5-speed manual transmission and 15-inch steel wheels. Cloth upholstery, air conditioning and an AM/FM/CD/AUX audio system are also included as standard equipment. Stepping up to the $15,240 Note S Plus adds the CVT, active grille shutters and cruise control.
The SV receives upgraded cloth upholstery, power windows, power door locks, Bluetooth phone connectivity, remote keyless entry, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a six-way adjustable driver's seat with an armrest. The SV with SL package, starting at $17,690, adds 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, a pushbutton ignition, RearView Monitor and heated front seats. Lastly, the SV with SL Tech package starts at $18,490. It adds the Around View monitor, NissanConnect with navigation (8.5-inch color touchscreen monitor), hands-free text messaging and streaming Bluetooth audio.
Standard appointments across the range include front seatback map pockets, 60/40-split fold-down rear seats, front door map pockets with bottle holders, front and rear cup holders and a 12-volt power outlet, while major options include an upgrade to 15- or 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels ($700) and the Convenience package ($540), which adds SiriusXM Satellite Radio, USB connectivity, the RearView Monitor, the Divide-N-Hide adjustable floor and more.
The Note SV, expected to be the volume model, is priced at from $15,990.
My test car, as seen in the gallery, was a loaded Note SV with the SL Tech package painted Metallic Peacock over Wheat Stone cloth. This range-topping model stickers at $19,280, including destination and handling.
I traveled to San Diego to put the Note through its paces in a mix of city and highway driving, and while I didn't cover enough miles to accurately capture fuel economy figures, five hours inside its compact cabin was plenty of time to find things to praise, and to become annoyed with some others.
Buyers in this segment are well aware that they are purchasing an entry-level subcompact, so nobody should expect a luxurious cabin with plush upscale appointments. The Note's controls are simple, but easy to use. Primary instrumentation consists of two large analog dials, with digital fuel and coolant temperature readings between them. The climate controls are in the center stack, with intuitive dials and a simple, illuminated button to activate the air conditioning compressor. Ergonomically, all of the controls come across as very functional.
The most premium part of the Note's cabin is the leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel.
Nearly every inch of the instrument panel and door panels is molded in hard plastic. The textures are not completely consistent (faux grain on some surfaces, while others are smooth), but the fit and finish of the Mexican-made vehicle seemed up to class standards. The most premium part of the Note's cabin, the one part lifted right from the Nissan Sentra, is the leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel. It is configured with audio source, channel, volume, Bluetooth and cruise control features, and its thick spokes have a nice raised portion of the grip for a good feel. Unfortunately, the wheel is only adjustable for rake – it does not telescope – so my six-foot, two-inch frame was forced to sit with arms outstretched as if I was posed in a constant forward reach, which was not comfortable.
The lack of a telescoping wheel was not the only problem I found with the driving position. The lower seat cushions are short; meaning they only supported about 60 percent of my thighs. While this didn't cause discomfort for some of the short routes, my legs began to ache by early afternoon (when a bottom cushion is too short, body weight is uncomfortably distributed across a smaller portion of the thighs and buttocks). Compounding the problem, my rearward seating position (to gain necessary legroom) meant that all of the controls, including the shifter, required me to lean forward. By day's end, I had decided that the Versa Note, a car that has been on sale in Japan since last September, was apparently not designed for a driver who is much over six-feet tall.
Surprisingly enough, passengers in the second row will find very little to complain about. There is plenty of room for tall adults, and legroom is not compromised one bit. In fact, this Nissan boasts best-in-class rear legroom, beating the competition by several inches in most cases (I didn't move the front seat forward for the picture of the second row – that is the actual legroom behind a six-foot, two-inch driver). Improving on the positive, the lower cushions in the back seats are supportive and tilted slightly rearward to increase comfort.
Nissan boasts best-in-class rear legroom, beating the competition by several inches in most cases.
With the second row occupied, cargo space behind the seats was very good at 21.4 cubic feet. I put a large backpack in the area and it fit well with room to spare (we could probably fit about six of them back there and still keep them out of the driver's line of sight). Nissan is proud of its Divide-N-Hide adjustable floor, which is just a false carpeted floor hiding additional storage. It provides a small area to stash valuables, but the backpack would not fit, as the space isn't very tall. After messing around with it for a few minutes, repeatedly folding it back and forth, it seemed gimmicky. I expect most will leave it home, sitting against the wall inside the garage. I should mention that the second row of seats folds to improve cargo capacity to 38.3 cu-ft, but the center shoulder belt needs to be disconnected to allow the larger of the two seatbacks to drop forward smoothly.
Moving on to the mechanical bits, the 1.6-liter engine sprung to life and settled down to a nearly inaudible idle after pressing the starter button. Nissan has made no discernable attempt at tuning an exhaust note. Come to think of it, one has to squat down low to even find the single exhaust outlet, which is tucked out of sight under the right side of the rear valance. After moving the traditional transmission lever (PRNDL) into Drive, I set off across San Diego.
Nissan has embraced the CVT, saying the Note is fitted with its next-generation transmission providing wider gear ratios, lower friction and a lightweight and more compact package, but the technology still isn't a perfect fit for this engine. From a standstill, the Versa Note takes off with a spirited gait. However, it quickly loses steam by 30 mph. The run to 60 mph takes more than 11 seconds, according to my informal testing, as the CVT oddly refuses to allow the engine to visit right side of the tachometer where it makes the most horsepower. Adding passengers and cargo only makes matters worse. Lethargic acceleration on the onramp means owners will have to get used to waving people by, as I did often. I tried earnestly to get behind the wheel of the standard five-speed model, as it would have been nice to manually row the gears into the engine's power curve. Unfortunately, Nissan only brought a couple of examples to the event and they were gone each time I attempted to chase down the keys.
From a standstill, the Note takes off with a spirited gait. However, it quickly loses steam by 30 mph.
But there is an upside to sluggish performance and an engine that refuses to spin to redline, as its behaviors allow Nissan to boast a best-in-class 35 combined miles per gallon for the subcompact, highlighted by 40-mpg highway cruising consumption. Cruise with a light foot, and Note owners will leave Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Honda Fit and Chevrolet Sonic behind at the pump.
On a positive note (pun intended), the cabin of the newest Nissan is particularly quiet on the open road. To keep unwanted noises out of the passenger compartment, Nissan has put lots of acoustic materials in the fenders, B-pillars, doors and wheel housings, plus sound-deadening material under the carpet and the windshield has an inner layer of acoustic film. Everything adds up, and with the exception of some tire noise that permeates on coarse road surfaces and a bit of four-cylinder drone under acceleration, the cabin is almost serene.
Saving the best for last, it is important to mention the Note's steering. Despite being electrically assisted, it is nicely weighted across its full range of movement and gives the hatchback a nice stable feel at speed – I was surprised and impressed. Yet don't assume that good steering feel equates to strong handling, as the suspension is too softly sprung for spirited driving and the low rolling resistance tires don't want to play.
Pricing, styling, rear seat room, fuel economy and steering feel are its best attributes.
The all-new 2014 Nissan Versa Note looks very impressive on paper, but a lack of comfort behind the wheel and its dull driving behavior left me feeling unsatisfied. Even though many consumers will be drawn to the small five-door for its low sticker price and economics of operation, my personal tastes would argue that there are better choices in the segment.
If a potential buyer asked me to sum up the Versa Note in two concise sentences, I'd mention its pricing, styling, rear seat room, fuel economy and steering feel as its best attributes, and front seat comfort, driving position, interior materials, lackluster acceleration and the CVT gearbox as its most obvious shortcomings.
Then I'd ask them what they consider most important.