The 2014 Nissan Versa Note is an all-new model that replaces the outgoing Versa hatchback. A five-door hatch that seats five, the Versa Note is a roomy, practical subcompact that offers some of the best cargo and passenger space around.
In past years the Versa hatchback and sedan were lumped together as different variants of the same model, but Nissan marketing execs now say they consider the Versa Note its own standalone model, with different attributes aimed at different buyers (although in nearly the same breath, they will tout the Versa as the best-selling entry-level car based on combined sales figures for both body styles).
Practicality is the Versa Note's strong suit. Compared with other subcompact hatches, the Versa Note boasts the most front headroom, rear legroom and cargo space. It doesn't pretend to be something it's not. Its styling doesn't scream for attention, yet it's not boring, either. It does just what it's supposed to do: carry lots of stuff at a reasonable price while achieving good gas mileage.
When measured against the outgoing Versa hatchback, the Versa Note is about six inches shorter, although the length of the wheelbase stays the same. The difference is in the overhangs, where Nissan chopped both front and rear to improve handling while maintaining, and in some cases even increasing, interior space.
Powering the Versa Note is the same engine found in the sedan: a 1.6-liter four-cylinder good for a modest but effective 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on the base model, while an all-new continuously variable transmission (CVT) comes on higher trim levels. Significantly, this revised CVT uses a secondary set of gears on the low end to help reduce the sluggish, rubber-band feel from which most CVTs suffer. As a result, the Versa Note has adequate oomph at lower speeds, and most people won't even notice they're not driving a regular automatic transmission.
Fuel economy is another major selling point for for the Nissan Versa Note, and is improved by 17 percent over the outgoing hatch thanks in part to a weight reduction of nearly 300 pounds, plus added technology such as dual fuel injection. Additional aerodynamic enhancements also help to make the Versa Note more slippery. The result is an impressive EPA-estimated 31/40 mpg City/Highway with the CVT. The base manual doesn't fare as well, earning 27/36 mpg City/Highway.
Rear cargo space is an impressive 21.4 cubic feet, the most of any small hatch currently on the market. Rear seats fold down 60/40, and an optional folding cargo floor on upper trim levels adjusts to create a completely flat load surface.
Although its low starting price will attract many to the Nissan Note, there are also plenty of new features and options for anyone looking to soup up their hatch. Fully loaded, the 2014 Versa Note surpasses the $19k mark including destination for the top-of-the-line model with navigation and a 360-degree parking monitor (the latter of which is a first in a Nissan vehicle). But Nissan expects their $16,000 SV model to be the most popular choice, equipped with the CVT and a few tech features like Bluetooth. For the truly budget-conscious, it's important to note that maximum fuel economy comes only with the CVT, which starts at $1,200 more than the base price.
Entry-level hatchbacks such as the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris compete with the 2014 Nissan Versa Note. Of all these, the Note offers the most rear cargo space and rear legroom, making it ideal for those who want maximum roominess for the money.
The Nissan Versa Note isn't a bad looking hatch. It's less wedgy than some, but isn't boxy, either. Designers say its shape is based on a squash line, referring to the path a squash ball takes when a player hits it against the wall and it ricochets back. Overhangs have been reduced by six inches compared to the outgoing hatch to give the Note a tauter look, which also helps with improve handling.
Like any car designed to maximize fuel economy, aerodynamics play a key role in the Versa Note's styling. The front end is still pointed, but with softer curves rather than sharp angles. A steeply raked windshield rises up to a tall roof that arcs slightly. A V-shaped groove on the roof helps to channel air more efficiently over the top of the car. Tail lights have small vents on the corners to also help channel air.
From the side, the Versa Note has deep, arcing character lines that add personality and further help with aero. Large headlamps and tail lamps wrap around to the quarter panels. The rear keeps a bit of its boxy shape from before, but corners are softer and more rounded. The rear window opening is relatively small and sits high up, which is presumably safer in a rear-end collision, but affects rearward visibility.
On every model except the base, the Versa Note uses an active grille shutter, which automatically closes at highway speeds to channel air around the car, or can open to more effectively cool the engine.
It's all about convenience with the 2014 Nissan Versa Note. The interior design is simple, perfunctory and well laid-out. The cabin is filled with lots of hard plastic, but designers did a decent job with different finishes and textures to give variety without looking cheap.
Controls are easy to use and well placed. On the center stack, three large, conventional knobs operate the climate control system. Above, base S models have a basic digital display for radio stations. SV models with the Convenience package and SL trims get a larger, 4.3-inch display that shows artist and song titles as well as station information. Top-of-the-line SL models with the Tech package get a touch screen with navigation. While nothing is fancy, everything is readily visible and within easy reach.
Front seats have a very upright seating position, and are comfortable enough for short and medium-length trips. But we're not sure they'd offer enough support for very long hauls. Fabric upholstery is basic and attractive, and side arm rests are easily within reach. Headroom is more than ample up front, and at 40.8 inches, bests other hatches of its size. Front legroom is plentiful too, although it comes up slightly short against most competitors. This is, presumably, because Nissan designers placed the front seat track farther forward to make more room in the rear.
Storage space up front is minimal; the center console has a tiny pocket next to the emergency brake level that's only large enough for a mobile phone. The rear of the center console has an area with two cupholders on base models and a large deep pocket on upper trims, but it's hard to reach from the front seats, making it better suited for back seat passengers. On the plus side, the dual-glove box design adds extra room in front of the passenger, and door pockets are wide enough for a coffee mug or larger water bottle.
In the rear, headroom is about on par with others at 38.0 inches, though the Honda Fit offers about an inch more. Rear legroom in the Versa Note can't be beat, however, measuring an impressive 38.3 inches, substantially more than the Ford Fiesta's 31.2 inches and the Honda Fit's 34.5 inches. There's also plenty of tow room under the front seats, so even a six-foot-tall passenger shouldn't feel cramped.
Unlike some cars that have a raised area in the middle of the backseat, the middle seat in the Versa Note is relatively flush, but the center console inhibits legroom and the seat width is relatively narrow. For this reason, we'd save the middle seat for children or smaller adults. On SV models with the Convenience Package and LS trims, a folding center armrest with cupholders comes standard. One small omission we noticed was that the rear handles in the back seat do not have hanger hooks.
The Versa Note boasts an enormous trunk, with 21.4 cubic feet of space with the rear seats in place. With the rear seats down, space opens up to a cavernous 38.3 cubes. Rear seats are easy to put up and down, and release with a lever located on the top of the seatback.
One of the shortcomings of the outgoing Versa hatch was is that it did not have a perfectly flat load floor. While this is still true for the base S and SV models, the SV Convenience Package and the SL trim add a new folding cargo floor, which can be raised via a sliding track. This makes the cargo floor flush with the folded rear seats, and also creates a hidden storage compartment beneath that's about four inches tall. The system is easy to use and takes only a few seconds.
The Nissan Versa Note is a lot of car for the money, with impressive gas mileage with the CVT. All models are powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder good for a modest but effective 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque.
Although the car won't win any drag races, acceleration is smooth and power is adequate for driving around town and on flat highways. The Versa Note uses Nissan's so-called smart alternator, which only draws power from the battery when it won't affect vehicle performance, such as when the car is traveling downhill. But we still longed for more power in certain circumstances, such as when winding up a steep grade, and when trying to pass a slow-moving truck on a two-lane road.
Ride and handling on the Nissan Versa Note is quite good. The suspension eats up bumps and ruts easily, yet isn't overly floaty. Around corners, the Versa Note feels surprisingly planted. There's still some body roll, but it's minimal. Steering is responsive and achieves a nice balance; it's not too light, nor is it artificially heavy like some cars that try too hard to feel sporty. Braking is just fine, with discs in front and drums in rear. ABS and brake assist come standard.
Unless you like rowing through the gears on a manual, we recommend the CVT. Although it's not a traditional automatic transmission, it uses a new design with a secondary set of gears for more torque off the line and at lower rpm. This makes for a better driving experience than with most cars equipped with a CVT. It's smooth and efficient, and is the best choice for maximum fuel economy, with an EPA-estimated 31/40 mpg City/Highway. Most drivers probably won't notice they're not driving a regular automatic. The manual transmission, on the other hand, earns only 27/36 mpg City/Highway.
Visibility is fine out front and sides. In the rear, the high belt line of the hatch prevents drivers from seeing shorter objects that may be directly behind the car. For those who might be concerned by this, we recommend opting for the rear parking monitor, or the new 360-degree view camera, which gives the driver a bird's-eye view of the car and its surroundings.
Noise is minimal on the Nissan Versa note. At high freeway speeds, wind noise was barely imperceptible. We did notice moderate road and tire noise, however.
The 2014 Nissan Versa Note is a lot of car for the money, with great cargo space and impressive gas mileage. If you can spend the extra money, spring for the CVT.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Laura Burstein filed this report after her test drive of the 2014 Nissan Versa Note around San Diego, California.