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.
Also missing are the NissanConnect app and smartphone integration that are present on the new 2014 Altima. App integration seems like a good fit for the Versa Note's younger demographic, so it's disappointing to not see it at least offered as an option. In its place, the Versa Note's NissanConnect system features clunky Google Send-To-Car and Google POI search that appears to use a dial-up data connection over your Bluetooth paired phone.
Nissan might have missed an opportunity to capitalize on the "Note" moniker with a great-sounding stereo option for this hatchback. As is, the single-option four-speaker rig sounds pretty bad. Even at low volumes, the bass rattles the door panels, distorting the sound of pop, electronic, and hip-hop tracks. At moderate volumes, more balanced rock and jazz tracks don't sound terrible, but at higher volumes, the bass distortion bleeds over into the mid- and high ranges, causing vocals to sound warbly and uneven.
Adding insult to injury, the receiver's volume knob sometimes didn't work properly. When quickly twisted to increase or decrease the volume, the level would randomly bounce around -- sometimes landing on mute, sometimes overshooting and jumping to max, and sometimes behaving perfectly. Turning the knob slowly would result in more consistent behavior, but I was left wondering how Nissan managed to mess up the simplest, oldest element of any infotainment interface.
Unless you really need the Around View camera, I'd recommend that you skip all of the SL tech and have an aftermarket receiver installed to keep the Versa's price as low as possible. That or just buy a suction cup mount for your phone or tablet and plug it into the standard 3.5mm analog auxiliary input to keep the price as low as possible. The nav on your phone is better than the Nissan's anyway and the handful of useful features don't redeem the Versa's many tech shortcomings.
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Continuously variable efficiency
Under the hood, you'll find a 109-horsepower, 107-pound-feet-of-torque-producing 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that is mated to a Nissan Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). Operating under Nissan's Puredrive flag, the power train's fuel economy is estimated at 31 city, 40 highway, and 35 combined miles per gallon. During my testing, the trip computer didn't budge from 35 mpg, which I confirmed with a quick empty tank fill-up calculation. Say what you will about the interior quality, but the Versa Note is a thrifty little hatch.
The Note achieves its fuel economy thanks in part to an active grille shutter that partially closes the forward intakes at highway speeds to give the hatchback a slightly more aerodynamic face. Direct-injection technology and a CVT that fights hard to keep revs down also do their part to keep efficiency up.
Performance is nothing to write home about, but is adequate and competent. Acceleration can be a bit rubber-bandy, as the CVT and the engine negotiate the cruising rpm, but the power train is quiet and smooth under normal driving conditions with none of the jerkiness of that comes with shifting gears. The CVT's power delivery takes some getting used to, but it only feels weird when you're thinking about it. Let it do its thing and the Versa Note's around-town performance is actually pretty good. I also like the Nissan has allowed the transmission to just be a CVT with no fake gears or sport modes which would ultimately just end up disappointing.
It takes a heavy foot to wake the power train up and raise the revs to the 5K-to-6K range, where the Versa's meager power can be found. Once there, however, I wasn't too disappointed with the passing power. I did find the noise the engine makes at full bore a bit obnoxious.
Handling is also not great, but not bad. The steering isn't as sharp as I'd like and going from lock to lock takes a lot of wheel turning, but the electronic power-steering effort is light and the turning radius is pretty good. The optional 16-inch SL package wheels are shod in low-rolling-resistance tires -- the aim is to look sporty without ruining that claim of 40 highway mpg -- so grip is nothing to write home about. I'd also suspect that the hard tires are partially to blame for some of the Versa Note's high level of road noise at highway speeds.
It's not bad, but you could do better
Nissan will advertise that the Versa Note starts as low as $13,990, but that's for the base S model that doesn't have the CVT, the active grille shutter, the 40 mpg estimate. Our $15,990 SV model has the transmission and aerodynamic upgrades, as well as a few more creature comforts. We've also got the $1,700 SL package that adds, among other features, the larger wheels, the push-button starter, USB/iPod connectivity, the rear camera, and the clever Divide-N-Hide floor. There's also the $800 Technology package, which adds navigation, Bluetooth audio streaming, text-message reading, the Around View Monitor, and the limited NissanConnect features. Add a few bucks for floor and cargo mats and a rear cargo cover as well as $790 in destination charges to reach our as-tested price of $19,545.
Even with its flaws, the Versa Note isn't so bad that I wouldn't mind living with it if I had to, but for just under $20K there are much better cars in the class. The Ford Fiesta, for example, may cost a bit more trim level for trim level, but it's also a much better built car with a much nicer interior. The Honda Fit, though aging, is also a better buy for drivers looking for a quality compact with loads of space for people and cargo. The upcoming 2015 Fit model looks to further increase its advantage over the rest of the class.
Let's also not forget the Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, and Chevrolet Sonic RS, all of which are about as inexpensive as Note, but are much better buys for young drivers looking for a tech car on a budget.
|Model||2014 Nissan Versa|
|Trim||SV with SL Tech Pkg.|
|Power train||1.6-liter 4-cylinder, direct injection, Nissan Xtronic CVT, FWD|
|EPA fuel economy||31 city, 40 highway, 35 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||35 mpg|
|Navigation||optional NissanConnect navigation, SD-card based with traffic and weather|
|Bluetooth phone support||standard hands-free calling|
|Disc player||single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, optional USB/iPod connection, optional Bluetooth audio streaming|
|Other digital audio||optional SiriusXM satellite radio, optional Pandora app control (iOS only)|
|Audio system||4-speaker stereo|
|Driver aids||optional Around View Monitor|
|Price as tested||$19,545|