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2014 Nissan Versa Note Launch Report - First Drive By Steve Purdy

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2014 Nissan Versa Note

The little hatch that could

By Steve Purdy
Michigan Bureau

The pace at which cars and light trucks are being redesigned and updated is amazing. With most of the industry back squarely on its feet and technology advancing at an exponential rate, no company can rest on its laurels and hope to compete.

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Now the subcompact economy Nissan Versa, dominant in its class since 2008, has undergone a full redesign with the sedan coming out last year and the fully updated Versa Note hatchback just getting to dealers now (June of 2013). We’ve come to San Diego to give the Note a good once-over and see if we think it stands up to the competition. Like every other redesigned car these days, large or small, it must offer more content, better fuel economy, and great value or sales will quickly wane.

It looks like the new Versa Note is on the right side of that equation.

Starting at just under $14,000 ($680 below the outgoing model) and topping out loaded at less than $20,000, the Versa Note is priced a tad below its compatriots like the Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Chevy Sonic, Kia Rio and Honda Fit. At the bottom end you get a manual transmission and no cruise control or Bluetooth and with each of five steps up the content gets a bit more generous adding things like active grille shutter, chrome interior accents, leather wrapped steering wheel, 16-inch alloy wheels, a slick storage system for the cargo area, rear view monitors, heated mirrors, navigation, heated front seats and other useful stuff.

Exterior design and styling stand out. The designers have done an admirable job of giving the car some character and personality while meeting the practical goals of capacity and practicality. They refer to the character lines along the side of the car being a “squash line.” We thought that might mean wrinkles that might appear if a tall object were squashed. Not so. Rather, we’re told the swoopy lines reflect the ricochet path of a squash ball struck briskly by a racquet. OK – I guess I can see that. In any event, those lines integrate nicely with the bold, angular, high-mounted taillights and front fascia to bring the Note’s style fully into modern trends, like steeper rake to the windshield and exaggeratedly short overhangs. The Note shares no body parts with sibling Versa sedan.

Powering the entire Versa range is a revised 1.6-liter DOHC engine with a new dual-spray port injection system, variable valve timing and smart alternator making just 109 horsepower. The Nissan engineers decided that they could manage with fewer ponies since they took a substantial 300 pounds out of this already light little car and vastly improved aerodynamics. Mated to the second generation (lighter, less friction and wider ratio) CVT and using the active grille shutter, undercarriage smoothing and other serious aerodynamic improvements they claim “best-in-class” fuel economy numbers at 40-mpg highway, 31 city and 35-mpg combined.

That dual-nozzle injector system, a less costly alternative to going with direct injection like most of the competition, is unique to Nissan and makes for a finer fuel mist that is directed at each individual intake valve.

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As a big guy I found ingress and egress was exceptionally good. I barely had to duck getting in or out and felt entirely comfortable in both the driver and passenger position. Seat bolsters are good but not restrictive and we’re told that the designers included firmer foam inside the seats for more comfort. While we didn’t spend more than a couple hours behind the wheel I would not hesitate to go for a long drive in those seats.

Controls and gauges are well designed and easily managed though rather plain and inexpensive looking. HVAC controls consist of three simple knobs at the base of the dash. A glaring exception to an otherwise decent design is the positioning of the electrical outlet, USB and accessory port that are at the back of the center console where you must nearly be a contortionist to reach. Then, when your radar detector or other dash-mounted accessories are plugged in the cord is stretched awkwardly between driver and passenger.

While I did not climb into the back seat the Nissan folks boast that it continues to have the most rear seat legroom of anything in the segment. The rear seatback folds 60/40 with easily operated latches and an armrest with two cup holders folds out of the 60 side. Both cargo capacity (with rear seat backs folded) and interior volume are best in class at 21.4 cubic-feet and 94.1 cubic-feet respectively. On all but the bottom-end models we get a slick false-floor storage system in the rear cargo area. The spare tire is mounted beneath the car.

Bluetooth connectivity, voice-activated technology, hands-free text messaging, Pandora capability, display-controlled audio, navigation and broad-view rear cameras come in the better-equipped models.

Driving around San Diego and the surrounding countryside we experienced about 31.5-mpg, but remember that's with a couple of spirited journalists at the wheel. It is likely that most drivers will get the listed mileage, or darn close to it, if they don’t have their foot on the floor too much like we do. While some of our colleagues thought it was “damn slow,” we found it adequate acknowledging most drivers of this car will not be expecting substantial acceleration. We speculate that if loaded with four people and lots of cargo the performance might be considerably less satisfying, and mountain driving could be troublesome, but we must trade off something to get that high mileage, we suppose.

The Note is a comfortable little thing to drive, handles well and is admirably quiet inside, though slight tire noise intrudes on coarse pavement. With thoughtful use of space for passengers and cargo we can certainly recommend you put this on your shopping list if you’re in the market for a subcompact entry-level hatch with good value.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved.