In the not too distant past, buying a cheap car meant getting something with crank windows, manual steering, and often with no radio. Air conditioning was a luxury feature which, when equipped, would often cut the available engine power from little to none. Even safety features such as ABS required a jump to model that was no longer cheap. Having grown up with the cheapest of the cheap, ‘80’s and early ‘90s Hyundai Excels, I have come to despise cheap cars. The question is, are today’s inexpensive cars still cheap?
One of the least expensive cars currently on the market is the Nissan Versa sedan and its hatchback sibling the Versa Note. While the entry level S models still come with manual windows and door locks, they all come with power steering, power mirrors, radio, air conditioning, airbags and ABS. But the really surprising part is the list of features available on the higher trim levels: keyless entry, push button start, heated seats, steering wheel controls, and an Infiniti-like top-view parking assistant. That’s amazing!
To be fair, the model in question here is the top of line Versa Note SV with SL Tech Package. While a base Versa Note S starts at $13,990, and is available with three in-between models, this fully loaded test car has the MSRP of $18,490. The extra $4,500 buys an upgraded cloth interior and trim, power windows and door locks, 5.8” infotainment with the fancy parking assistant, Bluetooth, heated front seats, alloy wheels, and all the previously mentioned stuff . While all Versas have the same 1.6-liter 109hp engine, higher level models have Continuously Variable Transmissions while the base S has five-speed manual transmission. The S therefore takes a penalty in fuel economy: 27mpg city and 36mpg highway versus 31mpg city and 40mpg highway for the CVT cars.
Gone are the days when the cheapest of cheap were identified by unpainted bumper covers, door handles, or mirror housings. The two differences between all models are hub cabs covering black steel wheels versus alloy wheels and the addition of fog lights. This may be due to the fact that people don’t want to look like they are driving a stripper. Otherwise, all Versa Notes look like cute shrunken down minivans. The design is inoffensive yet not too bland, and overall it does not look like a car that was made intentionally small: see Chevy Spark.
Things are not that bad inside either, at least not in the upgraded SV test car. The manual seats are well padded, won’t make you uncomfortable on longer drives, and the fabric does not feel cheap. The headroom and legroom for all occupants is surprisingly good, but the rear bench is best for two people. Those loading toddlers into the car seats will immediately notice that all of Versa Note’s side doors open to almost ninety degrees, making getting in and out easy. Note’s biggest shortcoming is in the trunk, which is more vertical than horizontal and has two movable shelves. The rear seat folds down almost flat and is split 60:40.
In casual driving the Versa Note has just enough power. Highway passing or ascending mountains will force the CVT to keep the engine at its peak operating speed at which point the car barks loudly but doesn’t quite bite. That engine power is really one of very few things that remind the driver that this is an entry-level vehicle. It handles well given its power, tires, and torsion beam rear suspension. The ride but can be harsh on the worst of winter beaten roads but overall there is not much to complain, just as there is not much to praise.
When Nissan delivered this vehicle to me other autojournos said, off the record of course, that they felt bad for me. “It’s the worst car in the fleets,” was the general consensus. After spending a few days with this car I absolutely disagree with them. Yes, any critic could rip it apart especially since it is a good car to wobble on, but one needs to keep in mind that even when fully loaded, this is still an inexpensive car. Furthermore, it is a good inexpensive car, if such things as bad cars still exist. Where the Versa Note shines is that it is inexpensive but it does not feel cheap, which cannot always be said for all inexpensive cars.