I seem to be the only car guy with a soft spot for the Versa. My peers at Car and Driver, Consumer Reports and Autoblog (among others) came off less than impressed by the least expensive car in America when we were all invited to its launch. That left me scratching my head. So I borrowed another one and came to the same conclusion: “Versa delivers a totally unobjectionable experience at a very compelling price.” This apparent disconnect bothered me for a while but I wrote it off as a “lack of perspective” suffered by my peers in the biz. Seriously guys, what do you expect out of the cheapest car in America? The new 2014 Versa Note however isn’t the cheapest car in America, nor is it the cheapest hatch in America. How does it stack up? Nissan flew me to San Diego to find out.
The last Versa Hatchback we had on our shores wasn’t the least expensive hatch in America either and that was a big problem. I can forgive anything for the right price, but the old hatch sold along side its redesigned sedan namesake which had a much lower price tag. Before we dive too far into the Versa Note, let’s talk price. Why? Because Nissan didn’t just completely redesign their smallest hatch for 2014, they slashed the price tag as well. At $13,990 the Note misses the title of “cheapest five-door hatchback” by $190 to the 2013 Kia Rio 5-Door. Admittedly that’s not the best way to start a conversation about a Versa which usually sells on “least expensive” taglines. Still, the Versa isn’t terribly expensive and undercutts the Accent by $585, Fiesta by $610, Mazda 2 by $730, Yaris by $1,405 and the Fit by $1,435.
About that Note. Nissan’s Versa hatch has been sold in other markets as the Nissan Note for a while and they decided to globalize things. Instead of renaming the car, they just tacked Note to the end since “Versa” seems to be a well-known model. That’s why this hatch is singing this tune.
On the outside, the Note wears completely different sheetmetal than the Versa sedan thanks to being 13-inches shorter overall (163 inches long). That’s six inches shorter than the 2012 model (There was no 2013 Versa) and about three inches shorter than a Rio. Nissan left the Versa’s 102.4 inch wheelbase intact so all those inches were removed from the front and rear overhangs. The result is a profile that is more attractive than the last generation hatch to say the least. Nissan finished off the transformation with new doors and a new horizontal grille with large headlamps. Why not graft a hatch onto the existing Versa? Nissan’s PR folks told us that even as ancient as the 2012 model was, it accounted for nearly half of the Versa volume. Apparently nobody told Versa shoppers that Americans hate hatchbacks.
Inside the cabin we get the same dashboard as the Versa sedan with a few tweaks. 2014 brings Nissan’s new Nissan Connect radios to the low-cost platform and Note engineers snagged the Sentra’s more attractive steering wheel to help justify the $2,000 price bump from the sedan. By all appearances the headliner and seat fabrics seemed to be a notch above the base Versa sedan I last sampled but you’ll still find plenty of hard plastics on the dash and doors. Jumping up to higher trim does buy you nicer fabric, so keep that in mind.
Seat comfort proved good for me during my 6 hours in the Versa, but I would like to see at least optional adjustable lumbar support offered on the driver’s seat. Cushioning is firm but comfortable and the range of motion offered in the 6-way manual seats is average for this segment. Sadly Nissan doesn’t offer a telescoping steering wheel in the Versa Note like many of the competitors do.
Base shoppers will find standard air conditioning, 60/40 folding rear seats and sun-visors that extend, but notably missing from the starting price are power windows, power door locks, vanity mirrors and rear cup holders. This is where I say “what did you expect?” No, the Rio doesn’t offer these goodies for the same price, or even for $190 less. If you want a basic hatchback, this is your ride.
No matter, Nissan claims that less than 10% of Versas are the low-rent model, so what of the $15,990 SV? The price bump buys you a car with a fabric headliner (instead of trunk-liner material), Nissan’s 2-speed CVT, cruise control, center armrest for the driver, leather wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and some Bluetooth love. This 16-grand SV and the oddly named “SV with SL” ($17,690) and “SV with SL Tech Package” ($18,490) Versa Notes will be the bulk of sales. These models push Nissan’s “value” message more believably than the bargain model with better fabric, nicer headliners, USB/iPod interfaces and an optional nav system that is one of the best on the market. Nissan’s new Connect system builds on their old “low-cost navigation” unit by adding streaming media, smartphone and Google data services to the mix. Nissan even tosses in their all-around camera system from the Infiniti product line on that high end “SV with SL Tech Package” model. Can’t we just call that an SL? Please? If you want to know more about that snazzy camera system, check out the video.
The Kia still puts up a fight in this 16-19-grand space with a nicer dashboard, more modern design and a few more gadgets. Hwoever, the Kia doesn’t manage to be any more comfortable or quieter on the road, especially if you’re often carrying rear passengers. Like Nissan’s new Sentra, the Note puts an emphasis on rear accommodations. You’ll find 7 inches more rear legroom than the Rio making it possible, and relatively comfortable, for a quartet of six-foot-five guys on a road trip. Try that in any other compact hatch, none of the competitors even come close.
Under the hood beats the same 1.6L four-cylinder engine as the Versa sedan. The new mill uses dual variable valve timing and two injectors per cylinder to pump out 109HP at 6,000 RPM and 107 lb-ft of twist at 4,400 RPM. While I wouldn’t say no to the turbocharged version you find in the Juke, acceleration is liveable thanks to a light 2,460lb curb weight. Although I didn’t get a chance to test it, I expect 60 to happen in the same 11.5 seconds as the Versa sedan since the hatch weighs a scant 25lbs more. Thanks to a 300lb reduction over the 2012 model and Nissan’s new “CVT with sub planetary gerarset,” the loss of 13HP vs the old 1.8L engine goes largely unnoticed. What you will notice is the 31/40/35 MPG (city/highway/combined) in every model of Versa Note with the CVT. If you’re paying attention to fine print on the Fiesta and Rio, you know that the respective 30/41 and 30/36 numbers only happen in the special “economy” trim models.
I’m not sure how Car and Driver (and a few other publications) got this one wrong, but contrary to reviews that imply the Versa “starts off in a fixed gear” and then “switches to the CVT at a predetermined speed,” Nissan’s technical documentation on the CVT is clear. The two-speed planetary gearset sits AFTER the CVT belt/cone unit inside the transaxle, not in parallel with it. The transaxle uses the high/low range planetary gearset to extend the ratios of the CVT design beyond what you’d find in a traditional 7-speed automatic. When starting out the CVT is at its lowest ratio and the planetary is in “low.” Once the CVT reaches a high ratio, the planetary gearset switches to high allowing the CVT to reset to a lower ratio as you continue to accelerate. At certain speeds this also allows the Versa to “downshift” faster than you’d think a CVT could because the planetary gearset drops to low rapidly compared to a traditional CVT ratio change.
The Note manages 40MPG highway thanks to a combination of engine down-sizing, new CVT, electric power steering, aero improvements, low rolling resistance tires and that crash curb-weight-diet. The 35MPG combined score is perhaps more important because it shows the true impact of curb weight savings on your pocket-book. Over 156 miles of driving we scored an admirable 34.9 MPG during our day with the Note, a “notable” improvement over the competition. Keep in mind we spent plenty of time idling, at wide-open-throttle and generally abusing the car around town.
So it gets great mileage and is inexpensive to own, how does it drive? Like I said, it gets great mileage and is inexpensive to own. The low rolling resistance rubber puts the Versa towards the bottom of the pack when it comes to road holding if you compare it to the regular editions of the competition and middle of the pack with the “special economy versions” of the same. The electric power steering is accurate but as numb as anything on the road and you shouldn’t expect much from 109HP. Acceleration is lazy, but then again so is a Prius. Thanks to along wheelbase, the Note’s ride is well composed, and Nissan spend considerable time injecting more sound insulating foam in every nook and cranny making this the quietest Versa ever. Nothing here is objectionable and every dynamic metric of the Note met or exceeded my expectations. Expectations which (I think) were set reasonably with the $15,990-18,490 price tag in mind. Again, don’t expect Savoy Grille experiences at Taco Bell prices. Now I’m hungry, and guess where I drive-thru. (Hint: it’s not the Savoy.)
The Versa sedan is the easy sale in my mind. As the cheapest car in America I can forgive anything. Seriously. But the Note is a trickier ball of wax. The “I can forgive anything” title goes to the Rio 5-door which is the cheapest hatch. Except I find less to forgive in the Rio than in the base Note. That being said, the Note delivers better fuel economy, more rear seat legroom than many luxury cars and if it follows in the Versa sedan’s footsteps it is likely to be very inexpensive to own. That leaves me with a split decision. If you want sporty, buy the new Fiesta. If you want the biggest little hatch with the best real-world fuel economy, the Versa Note is likely the option for you. Where the Rio and the Note lock horns is in the value argument. The top-end SL (I’m going to call it that since its easier) has almost all the goodies I need in a car at an impressive price. The Rio on the other hand offers a similar value but trades improved thrust for lower MPGs. With the 2014 Versa Note Nissan has really stepped up their game and it’s still a car I would buy, but keep an eye on that Kia, the Koreans aren’t resting on their laurels either.
Nissan flew me to San Diego and stuffed me full of Italian food for this review.
Observed fuel economy over 156 miles: 34.9 MPG