2014 Nissan Versa Note First Drive

SAN DIEGO – In Nissan’s eyes, the 2014 Nissan Versa Note hatchback cannot go on sale soon enough. According to John Brancheau, vice president of marketing for Nissan, production of the Note’s predecessor – the 2012 Nissan Versa hatchback – ended in December 2012, and American dealers have since sold most of their small hatchback stock.

So far this year, Nissan has been able to maintain a 20-percent share of the subcompact segment in the U.S. with the 2013 Versa sedan alone. Given that hatchbacks previously accounted for a little more than half of Versa sales volumes, it’s easy to see why Nissan is chomping at the bit to bring the Versa Note to market. In fact, that’s why the automaker pulled the U.S. launch forward, sending cars to dealers this week as we journeyed to California for our first stint behind the wheel.

V Is The New B

Note is more than a funny marketing suffix; since 2004 the Note has actually been a stand-alone model in Nissan’s global portfolio. The second-generation Note, which launched in Japan last summer, is the first iteration to come stateside.

Why bring the Note here when the Tiida hatchback – on which the Versa was previously based– was just overhauled? Two reasons, says Nissan: First, the latest Tiida has grown larger and is dimensionally closer to a C-segment Sentra than before. Second, the Tiida still rides on Nissan’s older B-platform, whereas the Note – like the new Versa sedan introduced last year – makes use of the new V platform. That commonality means the Versa Note can be built alongside the Versa sedan at Nissan’s plant in Aguascalientes, Mexico, helping whittle overhead cost from the North American model.

Despite the platform switch, the Versa Note isn’t drastically smaller than the car it replaces. Short front and rear overhangs bring overall length down by half a foot, but the Versa Note’s 102.4-inch wheelbase, 66.4-inch width, and 60.5-inch overall height are virtually unchanged. Nissan also managed to cut nearly 302 pounds from the architecture; a mid-grade Versa Note tips the scales at 2491 pounds.

Shared Smaller Powertrain

That drop in weight allowed Nissan to downsize the engine. Like the current Versa sedan, the 2014 Versa Note is powered by a 1.6-liter, double-overhead cam four-cylinder engine rated at 109 hp and 107 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is standard and only available on the base S trim level, but Nissan expects that 90 percent of all Versa Notes will be equipped with the company’s latest continuously variable transmission. The gearbox, which is shared with both the 2013 Versa sedan and 2013 Sentra, uses a fixed planetary gear ratio during launch before switching to infinitely variable ratios.

The manual-transmission Versa Note earns a 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway rating from the EPA, while vehicles equipped with the CVT are rated at 31/40 mpg. That makes the Versa Note the only model in its class to hit the vaunted 40-mpg highway mark, and its combined EPA rating of 35 mpg is also best in class.

Dressing Up

Tall, subcompact hot hatches rarely look beautiful, but the 2014 Versa Note looks handsome, especially when compared to its squat four-door sibling. Long, tapering headlamps lend the front fascia a European vibe, while a notched roofline and a deep C-shaped character line help add visual interest to the car’s profile. The kinked taillamps tie the Note to the sporty Juke and help improve aerodynamics – but not as much as a dozen other aero features, including wheel spats, underbody panels, and, on certain trim levels, active grille shutters.

Compared with its exterior, the Versa Note’s interior is a little more tame. The instrument panel is pulled straight from the 2013 Versa sedan, save for the addition of a covered storage bin located above the glove box. As in the sedan, the Versa Note’s dash and door panels are made from nicely grained but rock-hard plastic materials. There’s plenty of head, shoulder, and legroom for front-seat occupants, but the space afforded rear-seat passengers is truly admirable. With 38.3 inches of rear seat legroom, the Versa Note bests the Chevrolet Sonic and the Honda Fit by 3.4 inches and is actually a half-inch better than Nissan’s larger Sentra sedan. Better yet, rear doors open perfectly perpendicular to the body, providing easy entry and egress.

With the rear seats up, the 2014 Versa Note leads the competition in cargo capacity, offering 21.4 cubic feet of space. Fold the rear seat, however, and the 38.3 cubic feet cargo area places the Versa Note mid-pack. Don’t look for a novel, multi-folding rear seat. Mid- and high-grade trim levels do, however, include a fun feature Nissan calls Divide-N-Hide. With a quick fold and pull of the load floor, the Versa Note can offer both a flat load surface and a concealed cubby, sized perfectly for laptop bags and backpacks.

That the 2014 Versa Note S comes in at $14,780 including destination -- some $680 less than a comparable 2013 Versa hatch and the second-least-expensive model in its class -- is commendable, but that doesn’t mean it is desirable. Unless you’re living on a shoestring budget, buying for a rental fleet, or absolutely must have a manual transmission, skip the plebeian appointments offered by the base S and S Plus models. For only $700 more than the S Plus, the $16,780 Versa Note SV offers the same CVT, active grille shutters, and cruise control as the S Plus but also lumps in upgraded fabric patterns, rear seat armrests, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a few other extras. Another $600 nets the convenience package, which adds a rear-view camera, SiriusXM radio, a USB audio input, power windows and locks, and the Divide-N-Hide floor.

Predictably, the true high-tech goodies are restricted to SV models ordered with one of two SL packages, which almost serve as individual trim grades. The basic SL package, which drives the Versa Note’s base price to $18,480 adds 16-inch aluminum wheels, heated front seats, and a tire-pressure monitoring system, while the SL Tech package includes heated mirrors, navigation, NissanConnect cloud-based infotainment system, Nissan’s 360-degree AroundView camera system, and a price of $19,280.

How Does It Drive?

Like the redesigned Versa sedan, the Versa Note improves on the solid attributes of its predecessor. Ride quality is a little less harsh than before, and the Versa Note feels slightly steadier on its feet than prior Versa hatch models, although large bumps do occasionally unsettle the rear beam axle. The Versa Note isn’t necessarily the most engaging subcompact we’ve driven, but its steering is both sharp and decently weighted at speed. Body roll is moderate, but understeer is mild.

Predictably, acceleration from the 109-hp I-4 is best described as adequate. We didn’t have a chance to drive a Versa Note S with the five-speed manual, but our SV and SL test cars with the CVT were well matched for duty on both the streets and freeways of San Diego. However, the powertrain labored on the large hills of the Pacific Coast Highway.

The 2014 Nissan Versa Note hardly revolutionizes the segment, but it is a solid, satisfying evolution of this B-segment competitor. Are there more entertaining or versatile subcompact hatchbacks on the market? Certainly, but the 2014 Versa Note’s combination of poise, price, and packaging will undoubtedly resonate with buyers.

2014 Nissan Versa Note

Base Price: $14,780
On Sale: Now
Powertrain
Engine: 1.6-liter DOHC I-4
Horsepower: 109 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 107 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual; CVT
Drive: Front -wheel
Measurements
L x W x H: 163.7 x 66.7 x 60.5 in
Curb weight: 2412-2460 lbs
Fuel Economy: 27/36 mpg (manual), 31/40 (CVT)

Kevin Bryla
I have one that I purchased recently.  It is roomy and comfortable for a hatchback.  It gets great gas mileage in the era of $3.55-$3.77 per gallon of fuel, 40MPG HWY.  I zip around city streets, highways and byways with no trouble with handling or acceleration.  Lets face it, it's not practical to have a large SUV or gas guzzler anymore during these still troublesome economic times.  This purchase was practical and Nissan's are noted for their reliability.  I do not regret purchasing my note.  Anyone who is looking for a dependable, practical, roomy little care would do well buying a Versa Note.
freetome
I saw one at a dealership Saturday.  With the tall height, very little tumblehome, and two box configuration, it really looks like a microvan.  Not a good thing, IMHO.  It looked agressively, soul-suckingly, achingly cheap.  I get that there's a contingent of people who want space and a new car on the cheap.  This looked like one would regret buying it, day after day, every time they saw a plastic wheel cover, sat on a front seat cushion that is too short and has aggressively radiused corners, and touched a door panel.

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