ROAD TEST EDITOR JONATHAN WONG: I've had some not-so-great experiences with Nissan Versas. The first-generation models that landed here in the U.S. were odd-looking things with interiors that looked hobbled together with numerous panel seams that would inevitably creak. They were simple Point A-to-Point B transportation that Nissan made even more affordable when they brought out an even more basic model that got a smaller four-cylinder engine, manual windows and door locks, skinnier tires, steel wheels and didn't come standard with air conditioning or a radio. They promoted it as the most affordable new car available at the time, coming in at $10K. Funny thing was that about two weeks later, Hyundai dropped the price of its entry-level Accent to reclaim the cheapest new car available title. But to this day, that $10,000 Versa sedan remains one of the most memorable automotive experiences that I've had to date, and not for good reasons.
The second-generation Versa to come to the U.S. improved some, but still looked weirdly proportioned. Cabin surroundings were nicer, but nothing stuck out about the car. It was just sort of there and one of the options that got lost in the small car field. I guess that's better than being remembered for how awful it was.
The 2014 Nissan Versa Note SV we have is a bit more memorable, with some evidence of styling intent on the sides, including a character line that plunges down from the rear quarter across the doors. It helps that this test car is a top-of-the-line SV model that gets 16-inch aluminum wheels and fog lights. It also has a radio, unlike that $10K Versa that still haunts me. In fact, it has satellite radio, along with a CD player, auxiliary inputs, Bluetooth streaming audio, Pandora, and Apple iPod controlling capabilities through the 5.8-inch color touchscreen display.
So you can't call this Versa Note SV a stripper when it comes to features. In addition to the entertainment items above, there are other niceties like a push-button starter, heated front seats, rearview camera, around view monitor, voice recognition and heated exterior side mirrors. All of this stuff does come at a cost, of course – there's a $19,545 sticker price, which is a far cry from $10,000.
When it comes to driving the Versa Note, it's underwhelming. It's not sporty, but instead just a leisurely driving small hatchback. It's not terribly slow, and has an acceleration rate that's adequate. When you need to get going and pin the right pedal, it will be accompanied by the CVT drone. Brakes easily get the little guy stopped with a firm pedal feel.
Steering is light with some play on center. The suspension is softer, which is fine, to help take the edge off impacts from the common road imperfections we have around here in Michigan. But the chassis setup on this Versa Note is ideal for 90 percent of the people shopping for a car in this segment. It's among the more comfortable entries that's just plain easy to drive. If you're looking for something that feels zippier and responds well to be tossed around, then you'll want to be looking at the Ford Fiesta and Mazda 2. After driving the new Honda Fit for a night last week, I'll have to add that to the list now, too.
The Versa Note's front seats are cushy, and the rest of the interior materials are OK, with decent-looking finishes throughout. It's simple in there, with large knobs to control climate functions, and the touchscreen is intuitive to work through to control entertainment features.
All in all, the Nissan Versa Note SV should attract its fair share of people with its slightly more interesting looks and no-nonsense drive quality. It's still a forgettable car, but that's usually the ticket to sell well to the masses.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: Despite having the 2014 Nissan Versa Note SV parked in my driveway for an entire weekend, I don't think I managed to quite kill a quarter tank of gas. Part of that is the 35 mpg estimated combined fuel economy -- a credible figure that will certainly help sell these hatches to budget-conscious drivers.
But the other part is that nearly any other type of ride is more compelling than this utilitarian transportation appliance. I got my Jeep up and running. I rode around on my motorcycle in the cold; though I'm still sore from the experience as I type this, I regret nothing.
The Versa Note SV doesn't have go-kart handling, it's not really flingable and it lacks that puppy-like cuteness that some of its segment companions have. It's really quite boring, and its mix of features (a driver's-side window with an automatic “down” function but no automatic “up” function?) somehow make less sense than the bare-bones manual-equipped Versa S we saw last year.
Nissan has generally done well with CVT tech, but this combo felt fairly clunky. There was a noticeable amount of lag on takeoff, a few momentary dead spaces when accelerating (hard to pin down where in the rev range these happened), plus some shuddering on the “downshifts” when nearing a stop. Having driven the manual-equipped version, I can say that opting to select your own gears doesn't really transform the drive.
That said, it'll probably meet the needs of an undemanding driver who really doesn't care about cars but doesn't have (or prefers not to use) mass transit. And in this respect, it's a lot like the Yaris.
Unfortunately, I feel like -- as with the Toyota Yaris -- the package isn't good enough to justify the price tag. $20,000 is a lot to ask, especially for what you're getting. Still, this car is, as-tested, more representative of the sort of Versa that will be sitting on your local dealer's lot than the previously mentioned, stripped-down Versa Note S.
There are definitely cars in this class that are more fun on the road, nearly as practical and priced more competitively. We often bring up the Mazda 2 and the Ford Fiesta, to start. I haven't had much experience with the outgoing Honda Fit, much less the new one, but by all accounts it's a better compromise than the Versa Note SV.
EDITORIAL INTERN BRAD WILEY: The 2014 Nissan Versa Note SV is a utilitarian show stopper. All $19K worth! Keep in mind that our tester was loaded down with all of the creature comforts of a fully loaded Cushman golf cart. And as Graham noted, while the windows did include a power-down option, the power-up option was not included -- the costs of the system required would have further tipped the scales into the base Ford Fiesta ST price range.
Driving around in this little guy was surprising. I actually found the car to not be as repulsive as initially perceived. It serves a purpose: A-to-B transportation. What more could you want?
Rumbling under the hood is a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four-pot that cranks out a respectable 109 hp winding up an Xtronic CVT that it is coupled with, and wind up it does. If I was in the market to purchase a Note, my money would go towards the manual transmission (a matter of preference and additional control). The single downside being that it only comes on the base models, so getting what you want will result in a game of give and take.
Handling was not a challenge; it did remarkably well around town, but getting onto the highway proved to be a bit more of a workout. Stomping on the accelerator was realistically the only way to get the Note up past 50 -- and I'm sure the fuel economy suffered in doing so. At posted highway speeds, the car does get tossed around a bit by crosswinds.
The little econo-kart is a decent contender in a segment where the competition is fierce. If I truly had to plop down my hard-earned money, my choice is more aligned with my fellow colleagues: a Honda Fit or a Ford Fiesta. But I wouldn't rule this one out entirely.
2014 Nissan Versa Note SV
Base Price: $16,780
As-Tested Price: $19,545
Drivetrain: 1.5-liter I4; FWD, continuously variable transmission
Output: 109 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 107 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,482 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 31/40/35 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 29.3 mpg
Options: SL package including 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels and eight-spoke design, Nissan intelligent key including push-button ignition, easy fill tire alert, heated front seats, front fog lamps, variable intermittent windshield wiper blades, AM/FM/CD/USB/aux-in audio system, 4.3-inch color display, iPod control, Sirius XM, rear view monitor, rear seat armrest with cupholder, divide-n-hide adjustable floor ($1,700); technology package including Nissan connect with navigation, 5.8-inch touchscreen display, Nissan voice recognition, NavTraffic, NavWeather, Google send-to-car compatibility, Pandora radio, Bluetooth streaming audio, hands-free text messaging assistance, around view monitoring ($800); carpeted floor mats and cargo mat ($175); rear cargo cover ($90)
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