For a long time, buying a small hatchback was like eating 39-cent ramen noodles: it's all you can afford and it gets the job done, but you'd really rather have something else. That's been changing over the last decade. Small is cool again, and today's subcompacts don't give up much compared with their compact big brothers. The original Honda Fit helped kick-start this transformation, and it remains one of the only subcompacts to ever win an Automobile Magazine All-Star award, in 2009.

To show how far the subcompact class has come, we selected top-of-the-line versions of two of the major players in this surprisingly hot segment, the 2015 Honda Fit EX-L and the 2014 Nissan Versa Note SL. While the Versa is the class best-seller by a significant margin, the perennial favorite Honda Fit is fresh off a redesign to prove that it's still got the mojo to compete in the class it helped revive.

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Both of these five-doors give strong first impressions with their perky exterior styling, high levels of equipment, and roomy interiors. To find out which one best breaks the mold of the bargain-bin hatchback, we took a trip to Lansing, Michigan, to see which car we'd settle for, and which one we might actually want.

MPG Mavens

Let's start with the mechanical bits. Beneath their relatively flashy exteriors, neither of these two cars aims to be anything other than an economy car. Both have small, direct-injection four-cylinder engines and efficient continuously variable transmissions that make for impressive fuel economy. The Versa Note hits the vaunted 40-mpg mark in the EPA ratings, and although the Fit's 38-mpg highway number is slightly lower, the Honda still matches the Nissan's 35-mpg combined figure and does slightly better than the Nissan in the city at 32 mpg compared with the Versa's 31 mpg.

Despite the similar specs, you can tell the difference between these two engines from the moment you press their respective starter buttons. The Nissan Versa Note's 1.6-liter four-cylinder buzzes to life and immediately starts to transmit small vibrations through the pedals and steering wheel, even at idle. The Honda Fit's 1.5-liter four-cylinder, on the other hand, immediately settles into an extremely quiet, smooth idle and continues to be vibration-free and relatively pleasant-sounding as it revs to its 6800-rpm redline.

On the Road

While the Honda's engine has a better sense of refinement, transmission tuning really defines how these two cars feel from behind the wheel. The Versa wins here with its effective -- but obtrusive -- CVT. The Versa Note's transmission always keeps the four-cylinder on the boil, making for some unpleasant sounds when accelerating. The payoff for this obnoxious racket is a much better use of the engine's power band. The 2015 Honda Fit's CVT may keep things quieter inside with its insistence on keeping the engine below 3000 rpm, but this makes the Fit feel lethargic and unresponsive, belying its 21 hp advantage over the Versa.

Of course, this sluggishness could be remedied with a different transmission choice -- we'll take our 2015 Fit with the standard six-speed manual, thank you very much.

While driving the Fit and Versa on a variety of Michigan back roads, city streets, and freeways, we quickly found that there aren't many other high points to the Versa's driving experience. The Nissan's overly light steering and soft suspension make this 2500-lb hatchback feel like it's tuned to mimic a big Buick from the 1990s. Sure, it's slightly quieter than the Fit and has a smoother freeway ride, but it also has the disconcerting floatiness of, well, a big Buick from the 1990s.

Around town, where these cars would likely be driven most often, the Versa is ungainly and doesn't engender confidence the way the Honda Fit does, with its nimble handling. The new, more mainstream Fit isn't the fun, tossable, little car that it used to be, but with its tight, composed ride and accurate steering, the Honda is still in a different league from the Nissan.

Apartment Outside, Mansion Inside

The cavernous interiors of the 2015 Honda Fit and 2014 Nissan Versa Note make us wonder why so many people are buying compact crossovers these days. There is a huge amount of space inside both of these cars, so much so that both the Fit and Versa actually offer more rear-seat legroom than the corresponding Honda Accord and Nissan Altima family sedans. The Versa Note's back seat is especially limo-like. Even with the driver's seat moved all the way back, we had plenty of space in back to stretch out and even cross our legs. The Fit's back seat doesn't look quite as impressive to the naked eye, but it actually offers an inch more legroom overall and features much more supportive cushioning -- not to mention its nifty ability to recline by a few degrees.

The Fit also blows away the Versa Note -- and pretty much any other car -- when it comes to cargo versatility. This has always been the Fit's strong suit, and the redesigned 2015 version retains the brilliant center-mounted fuel tank that makes for an impossibly low load floor in the back. It also has Honda's so-called "Magic Seats" that live up to their name thanks to their ease of use and countless flipping and folding possibilities.

The Versa's "Divide & Hide" system doesn't quite match up. It uses a movable cargo floor that can provide either more vertical space or a flat cargo floor, but it's clunky to operate and can't hide the fact that the rear seats don't fold flat into the floor like they do in the Fit. The Versa's maximum cargo capacity of 38.3 cu ft with the seats down also pales in comparison with the Fit's enormous 52.7 cu ft.

Trickle-down Tech

Both the 2015 Honda Fit and the 2014 Nissan Versa Note can be optioned up with a level of technology you'd be hard-pressed to find in a luxury car from just 10 years ago. Standout features include the Nissan's 360-degree AroundView camera system, the Honda's large 8-inch LCD display screen, and both cars' Pandora radio integration systems.

This high level of equipment does come at a price, and the $19,545 Versa Note and $21,590 Fit can't really be considered cheap. While they cost significantly less than comparatively equipped cars one size up, it's still hard for us -- and for many buyers, we thinkā€”to adjust to the idea of paying $20,000 for a subcompact. True bargain hunters can get the same cars (with much less equipment) for a lot less--$16,315 for the base Fit LX and $14,800 for the stripped Versa Note S.

You might be wondering about the not-insignificant $2045 cost difference between our test Fit EX-L and Versa SL -- after all, that's about a 10 percent price premium. This isn't just attributable to the Fit's extra options, because the only equipment differences are its leather seats and sunroof. The real reason for the higher price is the Fit's vastly superior interior, which conveys a much more high-quality feel than the low-rent, plasticky Versa cabin.

The Honda's materials are much nicer throughout, its LCD screen is larger and better integrated, and the Fit's dashboard has an actual design as opposed to the Nissan's haphazardly placed and ill-fitting plastic panels. The Versa may cost less, but sitting inside it constantly reminds you of the money you saved, while the Fit's upscale digs make you feel like you can see where your money went.

Choosing a Winner

Both the 2015 Honda Fit and the 2014 Nissan Versa Note have tons of room inside, get great fuel economy, and can be equipped with a full suite of technology features, all for relatively little money. From a practical standpoint, it's hard to come up with two more logical car purchases on the market today. Most people don't need any more car than this.

But people don't buy cars just because of need, logic, and practicality, and the Nissan Versa Note hasn't quite gotten the memo about small hatchbacks being desirable again. It gets the basics right and offers good value for money, but it feels cheap in all the wrong ways. It's still got ramen-noodle syndrome, whereas Honda managed to make an inexpensive hatchback feel special.

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