What It Is
The second generation of Nissan's best-selling subcompact hatchback.
Massive space and excellent fuel economy for not much money.
Still feels like a basic car even when you load it up.
Hardly the most exciting car in its class, but it's still most everything it needs to be.
Name almost any band. Undoubtedly, you'll think of said band's first album as a masterpiece, a collection of perfection that went under the radar when no one knew who that band was--you were one of the first people to realize the members' genius in your mind--but then shot up to fame, fortune, and never-ending contracts to re-release its work on vinyl and iTunes. You've been there the whole time, growing with that band. It's been a part of your life.
For Nissan, that's what the Versa has been since its 2006 introduction. It debuted at a time when subcompact cars were still harsh-riding penalty boxes with no sound deadening and trivial back seats. But the Versa wasn't. It had vast space coupled with a cheap-as-cheap-could-be starting price. The Nissan Versa quickly shot up to become the best-selling car in its class as a result.
For its sophomore album, Nissan has to brave alienating the loyal audience that's grown to love the Versa's space and efficiency as it introduces its all-new hatchback model that ditches the stodgy, yet functional, looks of its predecessor, debuting two years after the redesigned sedan. Called the Nissan Versa Note, it shares its basic underpinnings with the sedan, along with the engine and dashboard, but nearly everything else is straight from the overseas Nissan Note, a standalone model in most markets. Starting at $14,780, including $790 for destination and handling, the new car aims to continue its showroom success. But can this slightly smaller, less powerful car keep on rocking, like Nirvana's Nevermind? Or is it an epic, Guns n' Roses Use Your Illusion disaster? We aimed to see for ourselves.
I once said of the previous-generation Nissan Versa that it looked like its designers all suffered from nearsightedness. Hardly the most exciting car to look at, the Versa compensated with its sheer utility. The 2014 Nissan Versa Note is much easier on the eyes, adding soft curves and a side scallop in its side that Nissan calls a "squash line," named to describe the arm motion of a competitor volleying a ball in that tennis-like sport that no one plays here.
Inside, the 2014 Nissan Versa Note's dashboard is awash with hard, cheap-feeling gray plastics molded in a modern design. Sitting in it never carries an air of richness, even when fully optioned with the SL Tech package that includes a 5.8-inch nav display. It's basic and intuitive, best described as functional with a capital F. But compared to the Ford Fiesta's squishy, raked dashboard, the Chevrolet Sonic's adventurous design, and the colors and ergonomics used throughout the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, the Versa's simplistic ambience comes off as a tad disappointing.
That its armrests aren't at the same height on either side of the driver, it's not available with a sunroof, there's no telescoping steering wheel available, and most competitors offer leather--real or synthetic--doesn't make the situation any better.
Fortunately, the Versa Note makes up some of the ground with the rest of its interior, namely its massive 38 inches of rear leg room--more comfortable than a good number of midsize sedans, much less the small cars it competes against--its clever flush-folding parcel shelf, standard seatback pockets for both sides in the rear, available heated front seats, airy cabin feel, and considerable 21.4 cubic feet of cargo space. We found its front seats were fine, and didn't induce any fatigue over a day's worth of sitting inside the car. But we do wish the seats had the same "zero gravity" foam as the Altima.
Nissan makes no promises about the Versa being a sporty car. Instead, the Versa Note provides a quiet, comfortable, and refined ride relative to its class, complete with a decent, light steering weight that's easy to maneuver. It's as no-frills as a car can get these days, which is actually refreshing in a class of sometimes obnoxiously bright-colored toy cars; it's hardly insufferable. The Versa Note comes standard with a five-speed manual in the base model, whose vague shift throws remind you that you should have opted for the automatic transmission in this car every time you drive it.
Nissan has taken great strides to perfect its continuously variable automatic transmission, which comes standard on all but the base model, as it works achieve a smooth experience while maximizing fuel economy. During our stint with the manual Versa Note, we saw 34.8 mpg, while the CVT-equipped hatch eked out an impressive 37.7 mpg on our driving loop. That's right in line with the automatic's 31 city/40 highway rating, making good use of the Versa's low rolling resistance tires and active grille shutters for better aerodynamics, a feature not available on the base model.
Nissan also pared 300 pounds from the Versa Note compared to the outgoing hatchback, as it dropped 13 horsepower in switching from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine to an impressively efficient 1.6-liter unit with 109 horsepower. The net effect is that it's a still a slow car, but even with less power, its aloofness is on par with the outgoing model. And it achieves the best fuel economy in its class.
Nissan made much ado about the availability of its nifty Around View monitor during our drive with the Versa, a 360-degree camera system that's still rare in luxury cars, much less an under-$20,000 subcompact. It's not really worth fussing over in a car as small and nimble as the Versa Note, but we're sure some buyers will love it in this car as much as others do in their bulky $80,000 Infiniti QX56s.
The Versa Note's real story is with its value proposition. You get a lot of car for not much money, as long as you can be responsible with the options boxes. We'd love to see Nissan improve some of the interior materials, add a few more options, maybe even introduce the Nissan Juke's 188-horsepower, turbocharged version of the 1.6-liter engine for a Nismo model. But as it stands, this car is an honest-to-goodness basic transportation device, and a likeable one at that. Whether that's good enough in the face of subcompacts that are more fun to drive--but perhaps lacking in the utility department--like the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 is yet to be seen. And then there's the Chevrolet Sonic, which is also fuel efficient and spacious--but also fun--and an updated Honda Fit waiting in the wings that will surely follow same formula. Even with this all-new model, Nissan is going to have a fight on its hands to retain its subcompact sales leadership.
1.6-liter inline-4, 5-speed manual transmission or CVT, front-wheel drive, 109-hp, $14,780, 27 mpg city/36 mpg hwy (5-speed), 31 mpg city/40 mpg hwy (CVT)