Versatile, compact, and efficient: the small hatchback is an awesomely practical class of vehicle. Why, just look at the Honda Fit...Nissan certainly did. That's probably why the totally redesigned 2014 Versa Note looks almost exactly like a second-generation Honda Fit with a Nissan grille. That's not a bad thing; the Fit's a good-looking car and, to be fair, there's only so much that you can do when designing within this body style.
On the other hand, the Ford Fiesta and Chevy Sonic have managed to somehow not look exactly like Fits, so I don't see why Nissan couldn't manage a more distinctive aesthetic. Nissan is, you'll remember, the brand that brought us the funky styling of the Juke and the Murano CrossCabriolet; I'd expect its design team to take more chances.
Moving past comparisons to Honda (for now), the Versa Note hatchback is certainly more functional than the previously reviewed Versa sedan and better-looking than the doughy four-door. The new hatch prints smaller than the outgoing Versa hatchback model, despite actually being a slightly larger vehicle, both outside and in. And for a compact vehicle at this price, which will likely serve as the "do-everything" car for a younger buyer, being bigger on the inside is probably one of the most important improvements that the Versa Note can claim.
Spacious, but cheap
While slightly taller than the outgoing model, the Versa Note is still quite narrow, when you look at it. That's helpful when squeezing through traffic, but it does mean that shoulder room can be an issue in the third row. That center seating position is useless for anyone but a small child, but there is plenty of room for two adults. Those adults will have a surprising amount of legroom and headroom. This legroom doesn't come at the expense of cargo area. There's still a good amount of space for backpacks, groceries, and the like with the rear seats up.
Fold the second row flat and gobs of space are opened up. With the optional "Divide-N-Hide" floor of the SL package, you get the choice between a flat floor for loading long objects, a little underfloor storage nook for hiding camera bags or laptop cases, or a bit of extra vertical space for tall items. It's no Honda Magic Seat level of flexibility, but it is a cleverly simple feature.
While Nissan has done a good job of giving the Versa Note a lot of interior space, the automaker cheaped out considerably on the cabin materials. The door panels and dashboard are covered with a hard plastic that feels of similar quality to the 2007 Chevrolet Aveo that collects dust in the CNET garage when it's not being used for car stereo reviews. This is NOT a good thing. It's one thing to feel "inexpensive" -- no one's expecting luxury in a car that starts under $15K -- but the Note's cabin feels "cheap." You may not be spending a lot for this car, but it'd be nice to feel like you're getting your money's worth.
And I don't feel I'm just being superficial in my criticism of the Versa Note's interior; the door panels rattled when the stereo was cranked and the rear bench squeaked over bumps when unloaded. At highway speeds, there was a noticeably high amount of road noise coming from below and there was a deep boom when passing over expansion joints, cracks, and uneven bits of pavement.
At lower city speeds, the noise is less prominent, thanks in part to the remarkably quiet power train.
As you'll learn in a bit, Nissan offers lots of nice bullet points in its list of features, but didn't bother building a great interior around them. Additionally, the Note is missing a lot of the small features that get taken for granted on paper, but become annoying when omitted from daily driving. Sure, optional push-button start looks good on paper, but I'd like some ambient cabin lighting so I can actually see the door-lock and window buttons at night. I'd want a standard telescoping steering wheel to fix the awkward driving position before bothering with optional heated seats.
High-tech on paper, economy in practice
Speaking of tech and features, the Versa Note's standard list of cabin tech is pretty sparse. Bluetooth hands-free calling is a standard feature, but if you want tech better than the ancient-looking AM/FM/CD/Aux radio, you'll want to at least step up to the SL package.
The SL package, available only at the SV trim level, adds Intelligent keyless entry and push-button start, heated seats for the front buckets, which are also upholstered in a slightly higher-quality fabric, fog lights, and a 4.3-inch display with USB/iPod connectivity. Why USB/iPod connectivity isn't standard on a freshly redesigned model is frankly confusing. Does Nissan really think that the young buyers at whom this car is aimed are carrying their music around on CDs?
Perhaps the most compelling reason to opt for the SL package is that it unlocks the SL Technology package. At $800, you may as well go ahead and check this last option box.
Once you do, the color screen is replaced with a larger 5.8-inch NissanConnect touch display, bringing with it SD card-based navigation with voice recognition, traffic, and weather. The tech package also adds the very cool Around View Monitor -- oddly high-tech for this class -- which makes parking this already compact hatch even easier by displaying a bird's-eye view of the area around the vehicle created by stitching together feeds from four cameras mounted on the front and rear bumpers and the side mirrors.
Bluetooth audio streaming with A2DP controls and song info display gets added with the SL Tech package, which is great for Android and Windows Phone users. Incoming text messages can be intercepted by the NissanConnect receiver via Bluetooth MAP and, with the touch of a steering-wheel button, can be read aloud to the driver.You can also set the system to automatically respond to incoming messages with custom, canned responses.
The new receiver also can control the Pandora app, but only when connected to an iOS device over USB. The common capability of controlling Pandora for Android over Bluetooth is, oddly, missing.